Herbs are great plants to have in the garden – choose the right one and you have a plant that’s easy to grow, brilliant for cooking with, and can either look good year round or give you a burst of seasonal interest.
A lot of garden herbs are grow for their leaves. Parsley, mint and basil all produce handfuls of flavourful leaves for the kitchen. But there are some herbs that are worth growing just for their flowers. They look good in the garden, attract bees and other pollinators, some make good cut flowers and most are edible too. I’ve come up with a ‘top 5’ – herbs which I would have in the garden even if I didn’t use the leaves (in fact, borage is a herb I only really grow for flowers).
The narrow green leaves of chives appear early in the year. They have a gentle, oniony flavour, and go well in omelettes, salads, and cheese dishes. In early spring the plants are topped off with small, pale purple flowers. These flowers are not just pretty. They are nectar rich, providing food for bees, and they’re edible too. Pull the flower balls apart and scatter them over spring salads or pizzas. They can also be used to make chive vinegar for salad dressings.
When the plants have finished flowering, you have two choices. You can cut them back and give them a good watering. Within a few weeks there will be fresh young chive leaves for the kitchen again, and you may get a second flowering later in the year. Or you can leave the spent flower heads to form seeds, which can be collected for sowing next spring or left to disperse naturally – either way, more chive plants.
Fennel is a large herb, with ferny foliage, which is great for adding to home grown cut flower bouquets. The leaves and seeds have an aniseed flavour. Fennel seed makes a great addition to breads and biscuits.
The large yellow flower heads of fennel are held high over the late summer garden. Like chives, they attract pollinators. For a while, fennel pollen was a must-have ingredient in top restaurants. Fiddly and time consuming to collect, but with a fine flavour, it commanded high prices. Grow your own fennel flowers and you too can savour this gourmet ingredient! The flowers also make good cut flowers.
If the conditions suit it, fennel is a vigorous self-seeder. So it might be worth cutting the spent flower heads off the plant to save yourself the chore of weeding out hundreds of seedlings the following spring. On the other hand, if you don’t mind more fennel, leave some seeds to ripen, then collect them on a dry day and store for using in your baking through the winter.
Borage is a bit of a thug really. It’s a big, fast-growing plant with coarse, hairy leaves which can cause an allergic reaction in some people. That said, it also produces the most beautiful blue, star-shaped flowers, and is worth growing for these alone. The flowers are edible, and can be scattered over salads to add a touch of glamour. Another popular way to use borage flowers is frozen into ice cubes. Add these to a tall glass of Pimms (or other cooling drink of your choice…) on a hot, summer day.
Borage flowers are also really valuable in a wildlife garden. The flowers are rich in nectar, providing bees with lots of food. And they produce their nectar quickly, so there is an almost continuous supply available for foraging insects.
Borage is an annual – it germinates, flowers and sets seed all in one year. If it’s planted in the right place, it will self-seed happily, and chances are you’ll only ever have to sow it once.
As the name suggests, sweet cicely is the herb to grow if you have a sweet tooth. The leaves, flowers and seeds all bring a gentle sweetness to a dish, along with a hint of aniseed. You can use them to sweeten fruit pies – especially good with rhubarb and gooseberry, and in jams.
Sweet cicely will tolerate some shade, and likes a dampish soil. The frothy white spring flowers are lovely – and can bring a touch of light to a shady area. Collect the seeds and use them, either green or once they have ripened, for cooking. Leave seeds on the plant to ripen if you want to collect them for sowing (they’re large and easy to collect). Sweet cicely seeds need a period of cold weather before they will germinate, so the easiest thing to do is sow them as soon as they are ripe and leave the pot outdoors over winter.
I wouldn’t be without rosemary in the garden – I regularly pick handfuls of the leaves for using as a topping for home baked focaccia. Rosemary is a Mediterranean herb, loving sunny conditions and sharp drainage. The leaves bring a wonderful flavour to so many dishes, and the stems can be used as skewers for summer barbeques.
Rosemary flowers are relatively small. Usually blue, although you can get pink and white flowered varieties too, they are rich in nectar – try one and you’ll see just how sugary they are. Flowering early in spring, they are a great source of food for early bees, especially bumblebees as they emerge from hibernation.
So that’s my top five herbs to grow for flowers. Which herbs would make it into your list of favourites?