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Let’s not forget that special group of plants that we affectionately call “herbs,” a number of which are featured in holiday traditions. Some like Rosemary and Bay Laurel can be used as delightfully-fragranced decorative live plants; others, such as Lavender provide scented oils that are crafted into special gift items. Still others are cherished for their dried foliage, which is chopped or crushed and made into sachets or preserved for culinary purposes—like savory sage for preparing grandma’s multi-generation “dressing” recipe.
One of our favorite herbal holiday traditions dates back to the very first Christmas, when Mary and Joseph were on their way to the inn stable where Jesus was born. According to this legend, Mary was quite taken with the beauty of a nearby flowering Rosemary shrub, so much so that she cast her blue shawl over it. As a result, so the legend goes, God was so touched by the Rosemary that He promised that its bright blue flowers would always be on display against the dark evergreen foliage at Christmas time, that it would never get taller than six feet (approximate height of Jesus) and that it would not live longer than 30 years (approximate age of Jesus when he was crucified). Potted Rosemary and Bay Laurel plants are often currently sheared to shape and used as miniature live Christmas trees or their aromatically scented branches are arrayed in natural wreaths and centerpieces.
Some gardeners grow herbs to obtain their scented oils and then use these oils to scent decorative items, such as candles, sachets, soaps, potpourris and body lotions. Lavender and Peppermint are two of the most popular choices for this purpose, but others like Lemon Balm and Spearmint are also favorites. A few drops of Peppermint oil on a cotton ball, which is then made into a sachet with a piece of old pantyhose is reported to be very effective in keeping mice and other pesky rodents away.
But some of the most important herbs this time of year are the culinary ones, grown to grace many of the traditional holiday recipes, especially ones like Basil, Oregano, Marjoram, Tarragon, Mints, Fennel, Dill, Cilantro, Chives and, of course, the “big four”—Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. Sage is certainly one of the most prominent on the holiday table, as it is the basic seasoning for the “dressing” to be served with all the featured meats like poultry, but is also a key ingredient in all types of meat sausages, which are often prepared during this time of year.
Although Rosemary is generally recommended for use in poultry recipes, we love it to flavor beef and pork dishes just as well, so we always have several plants growing outside the kitchen for easy access. Fennel is excellent for seasoning fish—in fact, we know of a chef who cuts 3-4-foot stalks, lays them across to cover the bounty of fresh fillets on his large grill to make certain they absorb all of that fantastic flavor. Basil, as we all know, loves tomatoes, so it is most often used in the preparation of tomato sauces for salsa, spaghetti, pizza, etc., along with others like Cilantro, Oregano and Thyme.
Storage of herbs for winter use most often is accomplished by drying and chopping or crushing of the foliage that is then placed in glass or plastic sealed containers. Others say they get better fresh-like flavor if they take the dried powders, placed the desired recipe amount in each ice tray cell, fill cells halfway with water and freeze, then fill with water and freeze again. The frozen herbal cubes are then dumped into labeled freezer bags in the freezer for individual cube use as needed. For Basil, use fresh chopped leaves instead of dried for best-preserved flavor.
Be sure and check out our full listing of 22 different herb seeds, featuring 7 different kinds of Basil. We have most of the herbs described above, including the big four of Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.