Empire of the herbs

I have been empire-building.

What started with a need to rehabilitate raised bed 2, and therefore move a rather lovely rosemary and a struggling sage, mutated over the winter into a case of near-herbal overreach.

After digging out the two plants with as near tender loving care as I could manage, in contrast to the usual approach among Egypt’s gardeners (i.e. smash and grab), I placed them in an ill-prepared spot in full sun at the side of the house. And waited.

Not content with the two plants, I removed a bit of lawn and added an oregano seedling and a touch of chives. And waited a bit more.

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Next came a small and straggly thyme from the raised bed dedicated to herbs (last photo above); I had thought it was a seedling, but, as I went to dig it out, found it was a layered branch of the mother plant. It didn’t seem to mind the dis/re-location.

You may wonder why the new bed. What’s so special about herbs that I’d risk another battle with rampant rosemary, woody sage infested with mealy bugs, leggy thyme and seedy oregano? Not to mention chives that develop the prettiest of flower heads and then seed themselves absolutely all over.

The answer is, I cherish them for their extraordinary qualities. Herbs fill in gaps in the lower hedge where other plants fear to root (rosemary, basil). They add interest to borders (basil, dill, fennel, dianthus). They give food for our bees and other pollinators (rosemary, lavender, thyme, borage). They are food for us too, whether in our cooking, our salads or our honey. Their flowers may be technically insignificant, but they range from pretty white (thyme) to unusual blue (borage) and stunning purple (lavender); and you have only to brush against the leaves on a hot day to release a whole cloud of amazing scent that rises on the currents of air, filling the atmosphere with the heady perfume of essential oils filled with beneficial compounds. What’s not to like?

So through the winter I have worked with the gardener to dig up turf – expertly turned with the fas or adze, a tool used since ancient times. It can be wielded with as much refined precision as brute strength, depending on the need of the moment. We expanded the bed outwards, and then found it taking on a life of its own as it crept northwards along the side of the house.

Out went the bees’ water jar, for the duration, and in went more plants: zaatar or Lebanese thyme, dianthus, a baby sage. I managed (somehow!) to leave space between them: Close planting has been a bit of a problem in other parts of the garden, and I’ve learned my lesson, I hope.

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I’ve struck a deal with the lavender. She stays in her pot so long as she is flowering, since to be full of blooms is a generous and unusual gesture among the lavenders I’ve grown in Egypt. I’ll only transplant her into the bed when she is ready. Nearby, there’s now another, smaller lavender (L. spica, grown from seed brought from Italy); fingers crossed that she will thrive. And a gift from nature, a self-seeded plant that may be a rock rose – I am not sure – undoubtedly the descendant of plants popped into the border last year.

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The bees have their water pot back in situ. This was timely: as the temperatures has risen recently, their need for water has become more urgent.

What is needed now is to add more variety to the existing space, rather than dig out more of the lawn. Attempts to grow melissa (lemon balm) have failed – sigh! I wish I could grow this lovely herb, “the elixir of life” according to Paracelsus, a wonderful aid to work on the anahata (heart) chakra. Hyssop also refused to germinate, and the Thai basil is shrivelling up in the sun. Worst of all, I forgot to make sure we have sweet basil, a terrible omission that must never be repeated: For now, we are senza basilico, the ultimate horror for a family of pasta-lovers!

 

Symbols of love

Just now, our pinks and carnations (Dianthus spp.) are flowering well – quite an achievement considering that the midday temperature is hovering around 40C these days.

They were grown from seeds brought from London a few years ago and have thrived both in the borders and in pots. The potted ones are a great addition to the garden – I move them around every so often to create a new feel to a tired spot and they cheer me no end.

The flowers bring an eye-catching splash of colour to the edge of our beds, from soft pink through salmon-red to deep crimson. Some varieties have red flecks; others are pure white. All share a sweet scent, pretty rather than luxuriant, often with overtones of cloves, especially Dianthus caryophyllus. The Arabic name is qaranful – a word that means both carnation and clove.

Dianthus have been cultivated and treasured for millennia. The Greek dianthos means “flower of God” and in ancient Greece the blooms were woven into garlands for festive occasions. For two thousand years, the properties of carnations – especially D. chinensis – have been tapped in Chinese medicine to treat a whole range of conditions from high blood pressure to urinary tract infections. Used externally, this species can help in the treatment of eczema and skin inflammations.

And there’s another aspect to these multi-faceted plants: art. As a symbol of love, both divine and earthly,  the “flower of God” was often associated with the Virgin and child in the European tradition of painting; it also appeared in betrothal and marriage portraits. Further east, carnations were made to arc gracefully around Ottoman Iznik ceramics and to bloom gloriously in their textiles. Dianthus has been part of the fabric of our lives for centuries.

In the Jasmine garden we have a white flowering variety in the new herb bed (more on the expanding empire next post). This is a nod to Dianthus’ role in herbal medicine – although it isn’t the right variety – as well as a way to add interest to the bed.

Moving the white carnation

It may be somewhat wide of the mark, but I tend to think of Dianthus as a particularly English flower. Partial to alkaline soil, and thus happy in the chalk-lands of southeastern England, pinks and carnations seem to cope well with unpredictable weather, producing copious flowers for weeks on end and scenting the air on hot sunny days.

I’m never quite sure if I should cut them, however. As each new flower unfurls from a tight, grey-blue bud, full of youthful life and purity, I think it better to leave it be: too precious to cut.