Culinary herbs are enjoying a revival thanks to new varieties, stronger flavors, health concerns and more discerning palates. Their low cost, attractiveness and easy-to-grow attributes are making them popular, too.
"Herbs can add a lot of flavor to cooked dishes and lead to reductions in fat, salt and cholesterol," said Gary Gao, a horticulturist with Ohio State University Extension. These days, he said, "people tend to spend more time at home and less time traveling. Cooking meals at home also saves a lot of money."
Food safety concerns are another reason that many people plant herbs, he said. "Gardeners feel much better about their garden-fresh herbs than what they buy."
New varieties have been introduced for use with ethnic cooking, said George Ball, chairman of W. Atlee Burpee & Co. Sales have jumped 15 percent per year since Burpee and its Cook's Garden subsidiary launched their Pinnacle Herbs Collection in 2012, he said.
"Home cooks are experimenting with recipes outside the standard or customary menu," Ball said. "There is an unbelievable number of more subtle variations of taste of single herbs and, particularly, combos of herbs."
The Pinnacle Herbs line is made up of 50-plus varieties planted in the porous "compost pile" soils of mountainous western Pennsylvania.
"Free of air pollution, unfiltered light shining down on the herbs induces, fairly quickly, higher oil content production," Ball said in an email. "Even during pre-shipping, the smells are drifting off the plants. Really unique."
The difference between a good cook and a great cook often comes down to the use of culinary herbs — how much to use and how to pick them for optimal flavor, Ball said.
"Herb flavor declines and changes once plants begin and continue flowering," he said. "The best way to extend the harvest is by pinching (back) the plants often to keep them from flowering and, worse yet for flavor, from growing seed stalks."
Culinary herbs make a good alternative cash crop for small-scale growers, Gao said. Their market ranges from home gourmet cooks to restaurant chefs, health food and grocery stores, farmer's markets and food processing companies.
Basil, cilantro, parsley, rosemary, tarragon, sage and mint are the most commonly grown herbs for commercial use, Gao said.
Herbs are inexpensive, whether sold as seeds or plants. Try a taste test if undecided about which herb to buy, suggests Rose Marie Nichols-McGee, president of Nichols Garden Nursery in Albany, Ore.
"Go to a nursery and taste a little (leaf) sample from one of the plants," she said. "If it doesn't have the flavor you like, then it's obviously not a plant you want to buy."
Many herbs are attractive, too. Plate them up as a garnish or make some into fragrant centerpiece arrangements for the table. Lemon thyme, lavender, mint, some long-blooming oregano and the seed heads from garlic chives are frequently used for decorating.
"I think of them as the 'vegetable flowers'," Ball said. "They're very lovely plants to grow as well as to taste."