There are some herbs, which in years gone by were seen as essential for culinary and medicinal purposes. Over the years they seem to have lost favour, but here are some really good reasons to grow sorrel, lovage, summer savory and angelica.
Sorrel is a herb with a bad name for two reasons: one, it’s often thought to be invasive (and some of the wild varieties definitely are) and it’s also often considered to be ‘sour’ although this is usually because people are growing the wrong varieties. Rumex acetosa is the seed variety you want to buy, or even better, obtain a section from a divided plant in a garden you know uses the herb for eating (otherwise you’ll probably end up with wild sorrel which is definitely both invasive and sour). If you can obtain French sorrel, Rumex sucatus, it is often considered preferable but the seeds can be difficult to get hold of.
It’s a hardy perennial so once established it’ll probably stick around unless you have a really cold garden.
Sorrel likes full sun and a rich moist soil. If you sow direct, set your seed around 3cm deep and 30 cm apart for acetosa, or 15 cm apart for sucatus, around April. For the first year, water it well and each spring thereafter, give it a granular fertiliser and/or a compost mulch. The leaves you want will grow straight out of the ground and you just cut and come again forever. If the plant starts to shoot up a flower spike, cut it off at ground level. If you want the seed, pop a little brown paper bag over the drying flower head and tie it with twine to stop the seed falling and germinating.
Cooking with Sorrel
The leaves develop flavour as the year goes on, becoming more acidic. Like spinach, they cook down to nothing, so you need a lot, but unlike spinach, the underlying flavour is lemony rather than earthy. Early leaves can be used raw in salads, while high season leaves are good added to soup and made into sauces where they are particularly good when served with oily fish and chicken. Finely chop and stir crème fraîche for a quick refreshing dip or sauce. Minced sorrel can be added to stuffings served with pork.
This amazing old-fashioned herb has been largely overtaken by basil and fennel in the average British garden, but its unusual flavour, a blend of celery and aniseed, is worth trying. It’s also said to be an aphrodisiac! You can buy an alcoholic liqueur called Lovage, which was said to settle the stomach and encourage women to love their husbands …
Lovage is a bit of a bruiser – it will grow to two metres in five years and spread similarly so give it space and be prepared to cut it down regularly. It likes partial shade (given a choice, let it have shaded roots and head in the sun, like clematis) and will prefer a moist soil. You can grow it from seed or buy a seedling and grow it on. You will only need one plant in a lifetime! Once it’s established, cut the outer stems as you wish to use them, leaving the heart of the plant intact. Every five years, dig up the whole plant and divide, replanting about a third of the root ball. It dies back in winter, but don’t worry, it reappears in spring.
Cooking with Lovage
Chop stems and leaves and use much as you would parsley – minced lovage is great added to soups in the last ten minutes of cooking, or add a couple of tablespoons to a cottage pie. If you have let your plant produce flowers, you can use the seeds whole in cakes or mixed in with other spices when making chutney or grind them up and add them to biscuits.
Summer savory is not the easiest herb to grow, which is probably why it fell out of favour, but if you can meet its conditions: loamy soil with good moisture and drainage in full sun, you will have an annual herb that really perks up the flavour of beans and pulses.
Summer Savory Cultivation
This herb must be grown annually from seed. About seven weeks before your last frost date, start the seeds off indoors. Sow them on the surface of compost and let them germinate, planting out when the last frost date is past. Never liquid feed summer savory as it will simply fall over – and pick the leaves often or the plant will become straggly. It is ready to harvest, as needed, within six weeks.
Cooking with Summer Savory
The peppery, thyme-like leaves are sweet and tender and traditionally get cooked along with broad beans (it’s called bean herb in Germany) and pulses, where it’s said to both enhance flavour and reduce flatulence. It can also be used to flavour cheese and egg dishes.
If you can only grow one forgotten herb, make it angelica for the sheer beauty of the plant. It’s a monster in size but also in its demands which have made it less common than it was. In the 1800s, most cottage gardens had an angelica plant that was used medicinally to treat colds and stomach upsets.
Angelica seed has to be sown fresh, and given a period of extreme cold to grow at all, so try and get seed into the ground before the first frost. It doesn’t like to be transplanted, and prefers some shade as well as needing a lot of space – a metre between plants at least – which you’ll want to do anyway, so people can admire the tall airy spires with massive light green flower umbels. It is a short-lived perennial that usually self-seeds if you let it, so you may need to remove seedlings ruthlessly.
Cooking with Angelica
Best known as a super-sweet cake decoration, this herb has multiple uses including for those dieting – it cuts through the acidity of other fruits so that less sugar is needed when cooking rhubarb and gooseberries, for example. You can use the small young leaves fresh in a salad where they give an aniseed flavour, and the flowers have many uses in fruit salad, beaten into soft cheese to serve with sweet scones or added to ice-creams and sorbets. In the second year the stems can be candied or added to jams to contribute a distinctive liquorice flavour.