Herbs were the first group of plants that grabbed my attention as a youngster, and they quickly became a passion in my later teens, when I started gardening obsessively. Eventually I moved on to ornamental perennials, but lately, I’m finding myself drawn to herbs again, and I’m excited about planning an herb-themed planting for a new space I have to fill. In the process of sorting through plants that I already have here to see what might be suitable, I found a number of neat plants are both ornamental and – at least tangentially – herbal.
First up is one that’s most readily recognizable by its flowers: tansy (Tanacetum vulgare). This selection, though, is worth growing more for its lovely, lacy leaves. From sprouting in spring all the way through fall, ‘Isla Gold’ tansy’s bright yellow to chartreusy foliage complements all kinds of combinations. It’s subtle but pretty with the sweetly scented, creamy plumes of another herb, variegated meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria ‘Variegata’).
It’s even better with bright, spiky-flowered partners, such as ‘Taurus’ mountain fleeceflower (Persicaria amplexicaulis)…
…and cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis).
‘Isla Gold’ also does an excellent job covering the stems of summer-blooming bulbs, such as drumstick chives (Allium sphaerocephalon).
It’s a great color and textural accent for foliage-based combinations, too. Red orach (Atriplex hortensis ‘Rubra’) is just one wonderful companion.
By bloom time, ‘Isla Gold’ is usually about 2 feet tall. I normally cut off the summer flowers to prevent self-sowing – they don’t add much to the show anyway – but I sometimes leave the late-season blooms for a bit of extra fall color. Beneficial insects love them, too.
Common tansy is one of those herbs you plant only once, because it can be quite a spreader. I’ve heard other gardeners say that ‘Isla Gold’ spreads too, but it’s been very well behaved here.
I’ve had my original clump in one spot for six years and finally gave up on waiting for it to expand enough for some good-sized divisions, so I bought another clump last spring.
‘Isla Gold’ grows best in full sun to partial shade and can adapt to a range of soil conditions. It’s reportedly hardy in Zones 3 to 9. On-line sources include Digging Dog, Forestfarm, and Plant Delights.
For me, succeeding with angelicas has been as challenging as tansy is easy. Starting with fresh seed seems to be very important for good germination, though sometimes I still have trouble getting them to sprout. (Then sometimes, too many of them sprout.)
Common angelica (Angelica archangelica) is excellent for height and form, reaching about 6 feet tall in bloom, with rounded umbels in early summer. (Below, it’s to the right of Stachys officinalis ‘Rosea’.) It takes 2 or 3 years to reach flowering size, however, and the broad, leafy green clumps hog a lot of space without adding much to the garden during that time. After bloom, it self-sowed abundantly for me but in all the wrong places, and the seedlings were touchy about being moved.
‘Ebony’ angelica (A. ‘Ebony’) is gorgeous even when not in bloom…
…and then in bloom too.
But sadly, it didn’t self-sow at all.
I got seeds of what was labeled as ashitaba (A. keiskei) started one year…
…but forgot that that the seed packet said it was a tender perennial. That may explain why it didn’t return to flower the next year.
My most recent experiment brings us to this post’s neat plant: A. archangelica ‘Corinne Tremaine’. Its special trait is variegated foliage, which is evident even at the seedling stage as a white stippling that alarmingly resembles spider mite damage.
The new foliage emerges creamy yellow…
…then the variegation becomes more evident as the leaves age.
Overall, ‘Corinne Tremaine’ was about half the size of the species, reaching about 18 inches wide and to 3 feet tall in bloom.
‘Corinne Tremaine’ grew well in both full sun and morning-only sun with rich, moist but well-drained soil. The flowers are nice, but from now on, I plan to cut off the bloom stalks to maintain the lush clumps of brightly variegated leaves.
Seeds of ‘Corinne Tremaine’ are available from Plant World Seeds (you can get ‘Ebony’ there too). A few U.S. nurseries that don’t do mail-order offer plants for sale, so you may want to try a Google search to see if you can find a local source. I haven’t found any specific zone ratings for this strain, but the species is usually rated for Zones 4 to 9.
Herb gardeners typically grow germanders (Teucrium) in the form of wall germander (T. chamaedrys), with small, glossy, deep green leaves, or bush or shrubby germander (T. fruticans), with silver-haired foliage. Both of these also have tiny pink or light blue flowers, but the plants are often clipped into small hedges or into geometric shapes, removing the flower buds in the process.
Caucasian germander (T. hircanicum, also sold as T. hyrcanicum) has nice foliage too: it’s a soft-furry green, deeply veined, and aromatic on dusky purple stems. And like other germanders, the plants respond to regular trimming by becoming very dense and busy. But that’s beside the point, because the best part of this plant is the rich purple flower spikes.
They usually color up by the end of May here and continue flowering through the summer months into early fall, at least. Above is an early June shot; below is the same grouping in late July. The overall height is about 2 feet, with an equal width, and the general effect is like that of a salvia or a veronica.
As the main spikes elongate, shorter side spikes appear. I’ve tried shearing the plants in late July to get a fresh show in fall, but the resulting very short spikes aren’t very showy. I’ve also tried snipping off the main spikes as they finish to get a fresher look from the side spikes, but they are so abundant that the process is very tedious. I’ve decided that the mix of old and new bloom spikes isn’t bad, and the overall very spiky look gives the plants a lot of personality into fall – and into winter, too.
The one disadvantage of leaving the mature spikes is that, like most perennials that are easy to grow from seed, Caucasian germander also self-sows freely. I often find seedlings in my bark-mulched paths and in the loose gravel areas too, and they look rather weedy when they’re young: very much like purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum), another mint-family member that’s a real pest around here. So anymore, I cut the plants back to 2 or 3 inches in late October, which eliminates the winter presence but minimizes self-sowing.
Caucasian germander has grown all right here with morning sun only but is denser and much more free-flowering in full sun. It puts up with my often-damp soil but is supposed to be very drought-tolerant, and heat-tolerant as well.
Caucasian germander is reportedly hardy in Zones 5 or 6 to 9. Companion Plants sells plants of the species, as does Lazy S’s Farm; Plant World Seeds and Gardens North have seeds. Plants of a seed strain called ‘Purple Tails’ are available from Digging Dog and Forestfarm; Hazzard’s Wholesale Seeds lists the seeds. Not having grown them side by side, I can’t say how – or if – ‘Purple Tails’ differs from the species.