Helpful, healing herbs

posted in: Wildlife gardening | 0

Herbs have grown in wild places for millennia, often thriving where other plants struggle to get a foothold. There is surely a herb for every home in Cornwall (windowsills and doorsteps included). Where herbs flower, wildlife thrives.

This blog was commissioned by Cornwall Wildlife Trust for their website, where there is so much more to discover about wildlife and wild places in Cornwall. Visit cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk

Bumblebee on chive
Chive flowers attract bumblebees

This blog showcases a few staple herbs that enhance my own Cornish garden. They are a tonic and a joy, whether you are self-isolating during the coronavirus pandemic, returning home from a tough day’s work or (for queen bumblebees too) bringing up a young family. And what more calming way to spend your time at home than sowing seeds, watching green tips emerging from your compost or soil and discovering how to nurture fragrant plants that benefit people and wildlife.

What exactly is a herb?

The botanists among us consider a herbaceous plant to be one that grows stems and foliage, flowers and seeds, and then dies back to the ground each year. What a joyous moment when new clumps of vibrant, fresh leaves emerge from the warming earth to herald a new growing season!

More widely, we think of herbs as scented, flavoured plants (some of which do have woody stems) for use in medicine, flavouring food and drink, dyeing cloth, freshening the air, repelling certain troublesome insects … the list goes on. Today, garden herbs play a major role in saving wildlife. 

How to grow herbs

Many herbs grow better on poor, stony ground rather than waterlogged soil (see mints below for exceptions), so increase drainage and aeration in your garden soil, pot or container (any container will do – even cut-out food or drink cartons with drainage holes in the bottom). Break up clay clumps and add whatever you have to hand – horticultural sand, grit, compost – to avoid sogginess. Sift the soil as if you are making a fruit cake. Good news: herbs grow better without expensive artificial fertilizers.

A sunny place for herbs beside the greenhouse
A sunny place for herbs beside the greenhouse

Mints prefer a richer, wetter soil than thymes, sages and lavenders, which thrive in a Mediterranean-type situation (think of the warm, dry temperate zone at the Eden Project). However, you might want to grow them in a container anyway, unless you are happy with them wandering and spreading across the garden.

My standby herbs

One of the best is marjoram (Oreganum spp.). Wild marjoram is an edible, bee-attracting native herb with clusters of small flowers and tasty little leaves, great for adding to casseroles, pizzas … in fact almost everything. Ours attracts small copper butterflies, which are a mini delight in the summer garden.

A small copper (centre) and gatekeeper butterflies on marjoram flowers
A small copper (centre) and gatekeeper butterflies on marjoram flowers

Be patient while waiting for the seeds to germinate, or divide an existing clump for an instant new plant. Mine keeps some leaves all year round in a cold greenhouse.

Oregano is described by some as spicier, with a larger calyx (the bump behind the petals), but is said by others to be the same plant.

Marjoram and oregano grown in a pot
Marjoram and oregano grown in a pot

Wild thyme (Thymus spp.) is another UK (especially south-east) native, although we usually grow Mediterranean varieties in gardens. I grow thyme in pots or in gravelly, sunny places, and keep the pots in the cool greenhouse over winter. Thyme grows easily from cuttings or cheap bought plants and is useful in cooking and as a tonic. With low-growing thyme, you can attract all varieties of bees, and butterflies too, to the smallest of sunny spots. Bees also enjoy the blue flowers of sage (Salvia officinalis).

If you have space for taller herbs, fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is one of our oldest cultivated plants and grows high and wild in sunny Cornwall. Every part is edible and the wide panicles attract a host of beneficial insects like hoverflies, lacewings and bees, while repelling aphids. Sow seeds the first year, and it will self-seed later. The flavour goes well with local sustainably caught fish and some lemon (https://www.cornwallgoodseafoodguide.org.uk/). Florence fennel is the sort with the chunky edible bulb.

The mint (Mentha) family comes in a wonderful variety of flavours, from spearmint, peppermint and apple mint to lemon and eau de Cologne mints. A favourite of mine is the native water mint (Mentha aquatic), which produces fluffy, pale pink flowers and – hooray – actually prefers damp places and looks lovely by a pond. The fluffy, pale pink flowerheads attract bees and also butterflies like the small tortoiseshell and comma … and you can eat the leaves. It’s easiest to buy or divide existing plants rather than planting seeds.

Lemon balm
Lemon balm’s leaves give off a soothing lemon fragrance

Another mint-like plant is the lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), which has nectar and pollen-rich flowers too. It too enjoys moist soil, and I wouldn’t be without it, especially when a refreshing tea is needed to relieve cold and flu-like symptoms.

(Also grow borage, comfrey and clover for bumblebees – they grow readily from seeds.)

Herbs growing in a bed and pots outside the back door
Herbs growing in a bed and pots outside the back door

If you pick and use the tips, your plants will thank you by growing strong new shoots and becoming bushier. Remember to leave some stems to flower for wildlife. Try and stay healthy with these and a host of other healing herbs, and enjoy keeping your local environment healthy and buzzing this spring and summer.

Further information

Native herbs can be found by name at https://www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/wildlife-explorer/wildflowers

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