by Peggy Riccio
As a Virginia home gardener and herb enthusiast, I grow many of my culinary herbs from seed at the beginning of the summer and I purchase a few tropicals. I have my staples, simple names such as pineapple sage, lemongrass, lemon verbena, basil, dill, cilantro, and parsley. Of course, the garden is littered with the perennials: sage, lavender, rosemary, oregano, knot marjoram, thyme, germander, yarrow, chives, and lovage. All of them have stories; their useful properties have been known for generations.
Some of them also have stories that speak about a better trait, be it flavor, cold hardiness, or fragrance, but more specifically, the story is about the person who discovered that trait and introduced it to the market. Serendipity often played a major role but so did the craft of vegetative propagation (i.e., stem cuttings). In time, these “better” plants themselves became stories about the people who discovered them.
Some of the well-known stories involve better rosemary plants. The cold-hardy ‘Arp’ cultivar was discovered by Madalene Hill, who managed Hilltop Herb Farm in Texas. While visiting family in Arp, Texas, she noticed a robust rosemary plant blooming in January and took cuttings. Years later, Cyrus Hyde, owner of New Jersey herb nursery Well-Sweep Herb Farm, noticed a sport, a naturally occurring mutation, on one of his ‘Arp’ plants. He propagated the sport, which was more compact with greener foliage, and named it ‘Madelene Hill’. Today, ‘Arp’ and ‘Madelene Hill’, also known as ‘Hill Hardy’, are some of the most cold hardy rosemary plants on the market.
Theresa Mieseler, owner of Shady Acres Herb Farm in Minnesota, introduced ‘Shady Acres’ rosemary, known for its outstanding culinary properties. Of the plants she was growing, she noticed one that stood out with dark green leaves, an upright growth, and excellent fragrance. She propagated the plant via stem cuttings and sent a sample to a laboratory. The chemical analysis proved ‘Shady Acres’ to be exceptional for cooking because the foliage had a low percentage of camphor essential oil but high percentages of pine, rose, and rosemary notes.
Jim Westerfield, owner of an Illinois bed and breakfast, was an amateur breeder who loved mints. By cross pollinating mint varieties, he produced more than 50 hybrids with interesting names and flavors such as ‘Iced Hazelnut’,‘Jessie’s Sweet Pear’,‘Marshmallow Mint’, and ‘Cotton Candy’. It took Jim seven years to produce one of the only patented mints, ‘Hillary’s Sweet Lemon Mint’, named after Hillary Rodham Clinton. His mints live on through trademarks and patents and are only available at Richters in Canada and Fragrant Fields in Missouri.
Lately, others are seeing the value in herbs, especially fresh herbs. The pandemic caused an increase in gardening, a reason to cook from home, plus more time to watch cooking shows. With that came an increased interest in herbs. Baby boomers like me grew up with dried herbs in jars, but now millennials and Generation Z expect potted fresh herbs in the produce section.
Now, instead of serendipity playing a role, companies are intentionally breeding for “better” traits. Driving this is consumer demand of course, but in the world of culinary herbs, consumers can be just about anyone from field growers, hydroponic growers, grocery stores, nurseries, seed companies, gardeners, and non-gardeners who just want to buy a fresh basil plant for the kitchen counter. I talked with many seed companies, university researchers, and growers to learn what traits they were interested in and why. I learned who was focusing on certain herbs, which herbs have a lot of possibilities for our market, and new herb cultivars that will be available to the public. Join me in this behind-the-scenes look at efforts to improve your herb garden as well as expand your staples of plants.
Join Peggy Tuesday, June 21 at 1pm Eastern for her webinar: Breeding Better Herbs. Our webinars are free to The Herb Society of America members and $7.50 for guests. Become a member today, and enjoy all of our webinars for free along with access to the webinar library with over fifty program titles. To register, visit https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-education/hsa-webinars/
Photo Credits: 1) There are many types of dill now since it is a very versatile herb that is also used in floral arrangements (Peggy Riccio); 2) Rosemary collection at the National Herb Garden (Christine Moore); 3) ‘Jim’s Candy Lime’ mint hybrid (Piper Zettel); 4) Basil is the top selling, most commercially important herb crop in this country that has been hard hit by downy mildew (Peggy Riccio)
Peggy Riccio is the owner of pegplant.com, an online resource for gardening in the Washington, DC, metro area; president of the Potomac Unit, Herb Society of America; regional director of GardenComm, a professional association of garden communicators; and is the blog administrator for the National Garden Clubs, Inc.