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Desirable Herb Varieties, By Herb

[There are separate pages for Vegetable Types and Fruit and Berry Types.]

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Individual Herbs

About This List

We living today have privileges that once were beyond the proverbial dreams of avarice. The mightiest potentate of old could not dine on a variety of foods one quarter, perhaps one tenth, so broad as what anyone can now find on the shelves of most any supermarket—foods from Japan cheek by jowl on those shelves with things from Mexico, the whole world in a neighborhood store. In consequence, even the most conventional and unadventurous American nowadays cooks dishes from a broad spectrum of cultures and strikingly distinct cuisines. And what distinguishes those cuisines as much as and perhaps more than anything is the condiments—herbs, spices, flavorings—they commonly use in their cooking. (It has been remarked, accurately we think, that the folk of India are the master symphonists of flavorings.)

We ourselves enjoy cooking and eating dishes from everywhere, so it is quite important to us to grow a correspondingly broad spectrum of spices and herbs. Some, owing to tropical climatic requirements, are virtually impossible for us (“virtually” impossible means that one could probably grow anything anywhere given enough dedication, money, space, and time, but in some cases—from allspice to zedoary—it is simply not reasonably practical to do so). Some have flavors only trivially different from others. Some have more historical than practical culinary interest: as the world has shrunk, many once-popular herbs and spices have disappeared from the kitchen, replaced by better-tasting alternatives from elsewhere (who today grows or uses Alexanders?).

Our discussions of herbs and spices on this site will be restricted to cultivars and growing information, for there are many sites that give wide and detailed general information on the backgrounds, biology, and uses of most flavorings. A particularly outstanding one is Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages [archived copy], which is fun to just browse, being both pleasant reading and quite informative. Another good herb-information site was the Saskatchewan Herb and Spice Association’s “Herbs for the Prairies” [archived copy] pages. A succinct list of “essential” herbs and spices [archived copy]—which we think no cook would subtract from, though some might add to it—makes interesting reading too. And there is the well-known Henriette’s Herbal site, home of the continually updated Culinary Herb FAQ.

For anyone with even a shred of interest in food flavorings, the essential book is Tom Stobart’s wonderful Herbs, Spices, and Flavorings, also a delight to simply browse through. Stobart’s book is all about the culinary qualities and uses of more flavorings from around the world than most people have ever heard of; but Stobart’s book includes no information on growing, for which the chief resource is the aptly named Big Book of Herbs by professional herb grower Tom DeBaggio in collaboration with famed herb botanist Dr. Arthur Tucker.

The distinctions between herbs, spices, and other food flavorings is to some extent artificial, and different sources have somewhat differing definitions of “spice” and ”herb”. We here will take a “spice” to be a grown flavoring intended for use in a preserved (usually dried) condition, and an “herb” to be a grown flavoring preferably used fresh. Those are not universal uses, but neither are they freakish. (A few things could be said to fall into both categories—as we define them—such as bay leaves, which can be used fresh when available, but which, unlike most herbs, when dried retain good usefulness for a few months.)

Note the word “preferably”: any supermarket will show you seemingly countless jars and tins of “herbs” that are dried, often powdered—but that is not the “preferable” way to use those herbs. Indeed, many are so much weakened or flat-out useless in such a state as to be a joke (any who buy dried chervil would be better off putting the money in some charity-donation jar and sprinkling green confetti over their food, and the same for most ground paprika, save that you would use brick dust instead of confetti). There are a few herbs that can be dried or, better, frozen without too much loss of quality—but even for those it is always best to use them as they historically were used: fresh-picked.


With one notable exception, saffron, the spices of culinary significance that we could grow in our climes are all dried seeds. But (leaving aside saffron for later discussion) does it make sense for us to grow any of these? We think not. Let us consider the main reasons we grow things in our own gardens, and see how they apply to spices:

  1. We want the best-tasting varieties: but most spice seeds are sold generically to the home gardener, and even those few with named cultivars are usually distinguished only by growth habit (such as “slow-bolting”); we simply do not have access to the spectrum of varieties from which one might make a selection based on flavor.

  2. We want to pick at the optimum moment for eating quality: but for dried seeds, there is no “optimum moment”—the plant dies down, dries out, and the seed is harvested and threshed.

  3. We want the satisfaction of having grown our own: this is always valid, but with seed spices we need to balance that urge against the more-than-ordinary pains and efforts (protecting against shattering seed heads, threshing and winnowing the seeds, and so on) needed to grow something of which we only use a little and which is no better, and possibly worse, than what we can buy at retail.

  4. We want to save money: but the seed spices we can grow are not expensive at retail, as we will see in a moment.

On that last point, let’s take a closer look. Without here examining how we identify “culinary significance” (save to again mention Tom Stobart’s superb herb and spice book), the list of culinarily significant spices we feel could be grown hereabouts includes the following; for each—except saffron—we show the January 2022 price for 1 ounce (a representative supermarket-jar quantity) of that spice, bought from a premium (which is to say, far from the least expensive) mail-order spice and herb company (Penzey’s):

(Prices per ounce below calculated by pro-rating the price of the offering nearest in size, such as 1.1 oz or 0.9 oz., to an exact ounce; all are whole seed save as noted.)