What’s New

By Conrad Richter

"New" herbs ought to come with a disclaimer. What is "new" here in North American is probably old hat somewhere else.

Richters has "discovered" and introduced dozens of ethnic herbs over the years, herbs which have long traditions of use in other cultures. Such immigrants as garlic chives (from Japan), Vietnamese coriander, epazote (Mexico), and gotu kola (Sri Lanka), are verging on mainstream status, and there are hundreds of others that herb growers are just starting to experiment with. At Richters we are indebted to our many friends from Canada’s lively ethnic communities who helped us to understand, grow, and use these herbs.

Ethnic herbs are still the biggest contingent of the "new" herbs. Of 38 new herbs added to the Richters catalogue this year [1998], 21 are from traditional cultures of Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia. But, as I often say, just about every plant known to man has potential uses for culinary or medicinal purposes, so there are 200,000 more herbs yet to be "discovered!"

My favourite of the ‘new" ethnic herbs this year is licorice flag (Acorus gramineus) from Thailand. The stunning licorice scent of the leaves when squeezed is something to behold. Sensuous, easy to grow, hardy... it is hard not to fall in love with this plant! Traditionally used in Thai cooking and in Chinese medicine for the treatment lack of appetite, gastritis and depression. Its grass-like foliage reaches 8-12 inches, and like its North American relative, the sweet flag, it likes wet feet and full or partial shade. This plant is already a best seller.

Another gem from Thailand is lime basil. This is what is called in botanical circles a "chemotype", a strain whose main distinguishing characteristic is its chemical makeup. It has the typical small leaves of lemon basil (Ocimum americanum), but the lime flavour and scent are the new twist. As with most basils, it is an annual, suited for sunny areas.

Increasingly, the new herbs are coming from breeders who are coming up with improvements on old standards. Recent notables include new cultivars of St. Johnswort, garden sage, summer savory, valerian and many commonly grown herbs. With the big upsurge in commercial herb growing, varieties with enhanced active constituent levels or aromatic oil content or enhanced ornamental features are in demand.

Leading breeders have taken note of the burgeoning interest and four times this decade, herbs have won All America Selection awards as outstanding new varieties with redeeming ornamental value. The diminutive ‘Fernleaf’ dill (1992), the showy ‘Lady’ lavender (1994) and ‘Siam Queen’ basil (1997), and this year’s winner, ‘Sweet Dani’ lemon basil, have all become huge sellers. Herb enthusiasts are no longer content to grow ordinary sweet basil or lavender or dill, it seems.

’Sweet Dani’ lemon basil is an outstanding cultivar developed by Jim Simon of Purdue University. Simon set out to develop new basils by looking at the essential oil composition. He soon found a strain that is very high one of the key aromatic components, citral, which is responsible for the variety’s clean lemon flavour and scent. Simon named it after his daughter, Dani, who, no doubt, provided an apt inspiration for this terrific newborn variety.

Canada is contributing to the breeding effort too. Campbell Davidson and his colleagues at the Morden Research Station have come up with another outstanding dwarf bergamot (Monarda), modelled after their ground-breaking 1996 introduction, ‘Petite Delight’. The new variety, dubbed ‘Petite Wonder’, is a paler pink version of the original ‘Petite’, but otherwise has the same compact size (10-12 inches). The difficulty with the ‘Petites’ is their reluctance to procreate -- they don’t grow from seeds, and cuttings are hard to root -- so growers are having difficulty producing enough plants to meet the swelling demand.

With the explosion of interest in the "herbal Prozac", St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum), commercial growers everywhere are clamouring for seeds to grow it by the acre. Because it has rocketed from shunned weed to goldmine status, the race is on to produce cultivars with superior yields, disease resistance, and higher active constituent levels. New this year is ‘Anthos’ from Europe which now gives growers four varieties to experiment with. St Johnswort is so new to large scale cultivation there is a dire need for varieties that can perform in different regions of North America.

With the all the new varieties, these are fun times to be growing herbs. Look for many more in the coming years.

Conrad Richter is Vice-President of Richters Herbs of Goodwood, Ontario, L0C 1A0, and a director of the Canadian Herb Society.

Originally published in The Herbal Times, 1998.

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