Mixed Greens Blog

Mixed Greens Blog
Living Sustainably in the Pacific Northwest

25
March
2009

Herbs, the Garden’s Green Tonic

An herb garden is a place for growing seriously healthy food that isn’t merely adornment and flavor. Yes, herbs are attractive and flavorful, but that stereotype limits our recognizing their most respectable characteristic – that they carry a huge nutritional wallop.

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It isn’t a precious garden – some attention is required in the spring, cleaning up and rearranging, after that not much of anything. That’s the way with herbs, they like to rough it. They’d be good on a camping trip – hike for miles without water and then bed down for the night without any fuss. The Mediterranean landscape is in their genes and rocky scruffy soil and dry conditions make them feel right at home. Sure, they respond to a little TLC, but the point is they don’t want or need a lot of attention. Not at all like roses who will throw a temper tantrum on a whim, herbs are the least spoiled child in the garden. Leave them alone, they’re happy campers.

Their ability to survive poor conditions and even neglect may be the reason they’re packed with antioxidants. A hair-brained theory perhaps, but the best wine grapes, some say, are the ones that struggle the most.

Take parsley, for example, the most trivialized herb of all. Talk about a tough nut. Parsley didn’t blink an eye at this year’s harsh winter, standing tall and bright through all of it. Parsley contains more vitamin C than any other culinary vegetable, three times as much as oranges.  Their iron content, manganese, calcium and potassium are noteworthy. Thyme explodes with antioxidants, as do many culinary herbs. Two teaspoons provide a load of vitamin K, iron, calcium, and more. The point is, these guys deserve recognition as serious food.

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Nutrients elevate their status, they’re easy gardening and we should consider planting lots of them. The benefits of subtlety notwithstanding, we could occasionally put down our pinky fingers and use herbs with wild abandon – now and then recharge conventional salad with a bunch of parsley plus other herbs, embellished with a flourish of lettuce and dressed. Add herbs by the handful to any mix of greens, a pot of cooked rice, or to a piece of chicken, instead of the piddling pinch for good looks.

Our family’s favorite quick potato salad involves potatoes, scallions, fresh dill, tarragon and sliced dill pickles with a dressing of mayo, tarragon vinegar, more dill and tarragon.  Thinking about it, I could easily add more of the vitamin-packed tarragon. I’d already decided to add more of almost everything to the herb garden this year.  Not a big fuss, I’ll put them in the ground, they’ll take off as herbs are inclined to do,  and many will overwinter. Thyme, sage, rosemary, fennel, parsley and bay are available year-round. Get wild with herbs – they’re much more than a pretty face atop a pile of food.

More about planting them next week.

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An herb-related excerpt from Michael Pollan’s NY Times article on nutritionism, Unhappy Meals:

“Indeed, to look at the chemical composition of any common food plant is to realize just how much complexity lurks within it. Here’s a list of just the antioxidants that have been identified in garden-variety thyme:

4-Terpineol, alanine, anethole, apigenin, ascorbic acid, beta carotene, caffeic acid, camphene, carvacrol, chlorogenic acid, chrysoeriol, eriodictyol, eugenol, ferulic acid, gallic acid, gamma-terpinene isochlorogenic acid, isoeugenol, isothymonin, kaempferol, labiatic acid, lauric acid, linalyl acetate, luteolin, methionine, myrcene, myristic acid, naringenin, oleanolic acid, p-coumoric acid, p-hydroxy-benzoic acid, palmitic acid, rosmarinic acid, selenium, tannin, thymol, tryptophan, ursolic acid, vanillic acid.

This is what you’re ingesting when you eat food flavored with thyme. Some of these chemicals are broken down by your digestion, but others are going on to do undetermined things to your body: turning some gene’s expression on or off, perhaps, or heading off a free radical before it disturbs a strand of DNA deep in some cell. It would be great to know how this all works, but in the meantime we can enjoy thyme in the knowledge that it probably doesn’t do any harm (since people have been eating it forever) and that it may actually do some good (since people have been eating it forever) and that even if it does nothing, we like the way it tastes.


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7 Responses »

  1. I will definitely be passing along this info – I never knew how valuable/nutritious herbs are. Yes, I use turmeric, fennel, anise, peppermint, etc. explicitly when I am ill for their healing purposes, but I didn’t know about the nutritional punch. Thanks for this post! All the more reason to eat all that fragrant, tasty bounty this year!
    OH! You’re my new favorite blogger fyi

  2. looking forward to the planting info next week — I have never had much luck growing any herbs besides lavender and mint, though I try it almost every year.

  3. Now that I’m an Ellensburg resident, I miss having the year round herb garden. Rosemary can’t survive the winters, except on my window sill as is true of most herbs. It’s amazing how in a relatively short distance the climate changes call for learning a whole new way to garden. After 40+ years of life in my hometown of Seattle, I’m finding so many things that need change in my mental garden. I miss my rosemary, sage, and other herbs that were always at the ready. Time for some creativity in my contadina.

  4. I forgot to mention that nearly 15% of the population of Ellensburg works in Seattle, so since we are less than 100 miles away, I still think of us as being in the scope of eating locally in the PNW.

  5. Jeanette, that 100 miles is dramatic climatically speaking isn’t it? And as you mentioned, our communities overlap in spite of the distance. We mixedgreen bloggers should venture out and expand our repertoire in an easterly direction. We’re not imposing a hundred mile limit here, though we do try to stay as seasonal/local as possible.
    Andrea, I’d love to hear about your success in the herb garden a few months from now.
    Mangochild, well stated – the fragrant bounty – a perfect description for herbs.

  6. Great articles & Nice a site?.

  7. Herbs are really useful in getting nutrients naturally, some of them have medicinal properties too.-“,