Herbs are definitely multi-purpose plants.
Traditional uses include culinary, medicinal*, fragrance, and dye. We have written records of medicinal uses of herbs in 5000 B.C.E. in the Middle East, and archaeological evidence of medicinal use back to 8,000 years ago in China. One has to wonder: who was the first brave person to test some of the more potent herbs?
Herbs are multitasking plants. They have been called weedy. But most are beautiful, especially if you consider that every herb is a multi-purpose powerhouse. They offer food to pollinators. Many herbs accumulate minerals from deeper soils and bring essential nutrients to the soil surface to be used by other plants. They act as aromatic deterrents to deer and rabbits who are looking for their next meal. But best of all, from the human perspective, so many make our food taste good and support our health.
The world of multi-purpose herbs is huge.
It is essential that, if you decide to use an herb, you understand its attributes and cautions. One herb can be quite benign while another can be deadly. Also, an herb may not cause a reaction for you but may cause a reaction in someone else. Chamomile is a gentle herb often recommended for alleviating migraines, but if you are sensitive to it, you may experience a headache. GRAS—generally regarded as safe—is a label that can guide you as you explore herbs.
Echinacea—Herb and Perennial
Some herbs have dual lives. Consider echinacea (Echinacea species), aka coneflower. Is it a perennial or an herb? The answer is yes to both. If we use it ornamentally, it is classified as a perennial. If we use the roots and leaves in tea, it is an herb. Echinacea has a long history of use by American native peoples for a variety of medicinal and spiritual uses and it was considered to be a symbol of strength and health.
Echinacea is the perfect example of an imperfect understanding of an herb’s use. As a tea, it has immune-boosting actions, but it is meant to be used for short periods of time, not as a daily drink.
As a perennial, echinacea feeds a variety of wildlife. Nectar and pollen for bees, butterflies, skippers, and moths, and seed for several bird species. This is one plant you do not want to deadhead. Along with feeding the birds, this lovely native is a short-lived perennial. Letting seeds fall to the ground ensures that your coneflower patch will be present for years and years.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare ssp. hirtum) is one of my favorite groundcovers and one of my favorite multi-purpose herbs to use in the kitchen. From a garden perspective, oregano covers the ground with its many seedlings. This offers several benefits. The plants shade the ground and act as a green mulch that prevents evaporation of moisture from the soil on hot days. And oregano outcompetes weeds for sunlight and nutrients, so your weeding time is reduced.
Oregano offers a lot of vitamins and minerals along with its sharp herbal flavor to our food. I harvest it when I need it for a recipe, but there are two times when I harvest a larger amount. Early in the season—before oregano blooms and the oregano flavor is milder—I make oregano salt. Later in the season, I use it as a part of my Mediterranean pesto—a combination of parsley, basil, thyme, rosemary, winter or summer savory, and oregano—that I freeze for that taste of summer when snow is on the ground.
In the Language of Flowers, oregano symbolizes joy and happiness. And that is what I feel when I use this pesto in a soup, stew, or spaghetti sauce.
- 1 c. parsley
- 1 c. basil
- 2 c. mixed herbs: thyme, rosemary, oregano, winter or summer savory
- 2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
- ¼ c. pine nuts or walnuts (optional)
- ½ c. extra virgin olive oil
- salt and freshly milled pepper to taste
- Combine the first five ingredients in a food processor. While the machine is running slowly add the olive oil and process to the desired consistency. You may need more olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Freeze the pesto in 2-ounce plastic cups; seal with a thin layer of olive oil before putting the lid on. Another option is to freeze the pesto in ice cube trays. Silicon trays work beautifully for freezing pesto.
Ginger—For gardens, flavor, and medicinal purposes
My love affair with ginger began when I learned how to stir-fry food. Ginger (Zingiber officinale) gives food a spicy bite and subtle heat that has become one of my favorite flavors. Soon ginger showed up in muffins, mandelbrot, and meatloaf. Then I learned that ginger is a multi-purpose herb for digestive purposes and combats nausea. Carrying ginger essential oil has become a part of my traveling routine.
Ginger is a subtropical to tropical plant. Unless you live in cold hardy zone 9 or warmer, you either grow ginger in pots or you start your ginger in the winter to plant out when the soil is warm: 70–75 °F (21–24°C). Ginger does not like to dry out when growing. But it must also be planted in well-drained soil or the rhizomes can rot. Harvest time is before a hard frost or anytime you want young fresh ginger which has a lovely mild flavor and bite.
I plant ginger every other or every third year. So, what do you do with 36 hands of ginger? Preserve chunks or slices in a good sherry to grate into a stir-fry or other dish. Make ginger pesto that is two ingredients, ginger and olive oil, and freeze. Pickled ginger is a must for sushi and when you have an upset stomach.
One growing and preserving note for ginger: in colder zones, the rhizomes do not have time to develop the outer covering that you see on supermarket ginger. This means that young ginger will dry out faster. Do not wait too long to preserve your extra ginger.
I have yet to have ginger bloom for me in the garden. The season is too short in Ohio. But this year I planted a few ginger rhizomes in pots. I am hoping for some joyful red blooms in the middle of winter.
Z. mioga is hardy in USDA zone 5 (AgCan zone 6) and comes up every year. But it takes a lot of work to get the soil out of the flower in order to eat it.
Ginger Mandelbrot (Almond Bread)
- 3 eggs
- 1 c. sugar-scant
- ½ c. avocado or sunflower oil
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- 3 c. flour—(½ whole wheat and ½ white flour)
- 1 TBL. flaxseed meal (optional)
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 2 tsp. dried ginger
- 3 tsp. grated fresh ginger
- ½ c. candied ginger coarsely chopped
- 1 c. slivered almonds
- Beat eggs until thick and light in color. Add sugar gradually as you continue to beat. Then oil and mix well. Last add vanilla. Mix together dry ingredients with nuts and three gingers. Add to wet ingredients and mix well.
- (At this point you can put it in the refrigerator for 1–4 hours or leave it in overnight but bring it close to room temperature before forming dough strips.)
- Divide dough, and form into three long strips, about 2–3 in (5 to 7 cm) wide, 1 in (2.5 cm) thick, and 8–9 in (20 to 23 cm) long.
- Place on a greased cookie sheet. Bake in a 350 °F (177 °C) oven for ~30 minutes. Remove from oven and cut into ½ inch (1.25 cm) slices with a serrated knife, place on cookie sheet cut side up and return to the oven for 5–10 minutes (depends on how crisp you want them), turn them over and bake another 5–8 minutes.
- Cool completely before storing in a tightly covered container.
- Mandelbrot keeps well (up to 4 weeks).
So, do you grow any multi-purpose herbs?
*The National Garden Bureau does not wish to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. The information here is intended for inspirational and educational purposes only. Please consult a health care professional before considering any herbal treatments.
The above article and most of the photos are offered by the National Garden Bureau, a non-profit organization that, as the marketing arm of the gardening industry, exists to educate, inspire, and motivate people to increase the use of plants in homes, gardens, and workplaces. Their members are experts in the field of horticulture and their information comes directly from these sources.