Friday, October 9, 2009

Scratch and sniff

The internet might be a wonderful thing that can convey so much information – I love it – but I'm glad that it hasn't got a chance of conveying a sense of smell. Let's keep that one for the real world. I was thinking about this issue the other day while pulling out a few weeds from my succulents, and as I did so I brushed up against my rosemary bush and immediately the air was filled with that wonderful scent. Rosemary, mmmmm.

Here's the scene of the inspiration: Succulent City in the foreground, and the rosemary bush hugging in close.

Sometimes you just get lucky at the garden centre and you buy a plant that, for some reason that really doesn't have anything to do with your gardening skills, turns out to be a belter, a wonder plant that not only thrives but has magical qualities. My rosemary bush is one of those special plants. It just drips oiliness, it is such a fragrant thing to be near. The only trick in the kitchen with it is not to use too much – it's strong stuff! I've given it away as cuttings to friends, and one of these days we plan to aromatically conquer the world.

Basil is another plant that's lovely to be near. And that's what I've noticed about aromatic foliage – you tend to come across its delights while working – when you're weeding, harvesting or pruning. Aromatic foliage is a working gardener's secret, ongoing pleasure.

Coriander foliage rivals basil for scented foliage, and as basil is happiest in summer and coriander does best here in Sydney in winter, they complement each other nicely with a similar, but very different role at opposite ends of the year.

As an aside, this year's coriander crop has been the best in several years (and for Australian readers, it came from the ordinary packet of Hortico seeds I bought for hardly anything at my local Mitre 10 store – so much for gourmet seed suppliers.) So, I am letting a few of my coriander plants flower and set seed, and I'm going to harvest those seeds and keep them until April next year, when I'll start up the next cool-season crop of coriander. This stuff isn't worth growing here in summer, as it becomes seedy in weeks, but it stays nicely leafy for months in winter here.

Mint never fails to be a pleasure to be around. It has a lovely scent that you can even smell when you water it in the morning.

While I never hand-water my sage plants – they thrive on our natural rainfall and need little help at all, apart from hacking back in late winter – these smell delicious when I bump into them while doing a spot of weeding.

Until now this blog post seems to have been all about aromatic herbs, but these plants, my lemon-scented pelargoniums, aren't of any use in the kitchen. I planted them for two reasons: they have strongly scented foliage and they thrive in this semi-shaded spot under my olive tree. These plants have proved to be very easy-care. Each is in a pot but you'd never know it by looking at this wide 'bush'. They were horribly bashed up by an autumn storm and lost half their foliage back then, but if anything that made them grow even more vigorously. Just by standing around like an innocent bystander, I learned that these are one of those 'treat em mean, keep em keen' type of garden plants.

Right now, they're flowering, but not exactly spectacularly. Small pinky-white blooms appear in spring, but at all times it's the foliage which is the star here. While I tend to 'accidentally' come across my other foliage plants in the course of gardening work, I deliberately brush up against this scented royalty just to enjoy what it has to offer. The lightest touch fills the air with the spicy, lemony scent.

The last of my scented-leaf plants is a slightly different story. Work close to this plant and you smell nothing. It's the taller one here in the background – cardamom. (The upright-leafed thing in the foreground is a pineapple lily putting on its burst of new spring growth.) I've had this cardamom plant here for at least 15 years, and it's as tough as old boots. Mind you, it has never flowered once, but it has always been leafy and green.

The secret with the beautifully aromatic foliage of cardamom is that you have to either crush it or cook it to release that spicy scent that is such a familiar part of so many Indian and Sri Lankan dishes. (It doesn't flower here because it's not consisently hot enough, by the way, but the plant itself loves Sydney). An Indian-born friend of mine, Rema, now grows her own cardamom here in Sydney, but for several years when she visited my place she used to take home a small harvest of cardamom leaves. She'd then make up a batch of milk-based sweet dessert balls, wrap each in a cardamom leaf, them steam them, with the leaf flavouring them as they cooked. The result – wow!

With aromatic foliage you just have to be there. It's much, much nicer to enjoy it by accident, than by deliberate design. Going outside and deliberately sticking your hooter into a plant just doesn't have the same pleasure as accidental discovery offers.

My suggestion to gardeners is simply to add some aromatic plants to your garden then go about the normal business of weeding, pruning and harvesting, and as a special treat for the hard-working gardener, you'll get to experience that sensual thrill of a delicious scent wafting around. Think of it as a pleasure that is your reward for being a gardener. I do.


prue said...

Herbs and scented foliage are just so lovely. I am impressed by your basil too, I just had to dig up the winter stuff I grew inside and now am waiting for the spring ones to germinate. And that rosemary, wow, huge! This week I used lemon thyme and coriander flowers in my inside posy, smells and looks lovely. Enjoy the herbs!

Julie said...

This post was writtn with such love, and from the heart! Interesting to me to see a cardemom plant. I have been cooking with this spice for the last year...I may need to see if I can grow one here! I love how you appreciate the accidental brush with your lushous smelling plants! It kinda makes me want to get cooking something right now!!!

Evelyn Howard said...

Hi Jamie
I bought some vegie to add to my collection today, and when I was planting them, I smelt my herbs. I thought of your post! I just want to say thanks for highlighting what we sometimes take for granted :) - Evelyn

degarfs said...

Hi Jamie,
Does all Rosemary flower? or only specific Rosemary can flower?

Jamie said...

Degarfs: all rosemary varieties flower, but the time of year can vary depending on the variety: spring is the most common time. If your rosemary isn't flowering it probably isn't getting enough sunshine.

degarfs said...

Thanks Jamie for the rosemary tips :)