Ornamental Herbs for Iowa

Although herbs are commonly used for their medicinal and culinary uses, they can also be very ornamental. Ornamental perennial and annual herbs offer the added benefits of varying leaf color, texture, fragrance, and flowers. These multifunctional plants make wonderful additions to any garden from spring to fall.

Herbs, such as common thyme (Thymus vulgaris), can be a wonderful perennial ground cover. The small, delicate looking leaves are deceptive because of the overall hardiness of the plant. It grows in full sun and in most soils. With its early blooming flowers, thyme is a wonderful initiation into spring. Thyme can be found with variegated leaves and a variety of different colored blooms. 'Argenteus' has silver-edged leaves, while 'Silver Posie' has mauve flowers and silver variegated foliage.

Another hardy perennial herb is chives (Allium schoenoprasum). At the top of its smooth, narrow stem is a globe-shaped cluster of flowers. The chives' colorful blossoms range from pink to pinkish purple. There are many other ornamental Alliums (onions) besides chives, and they range from 2 to 3 inches tall, up to four feet. The flowers of ornamental onions may be white, pink, yellow or purple.

An annual herb with incredible foliage color is the Tricolor sage (Salvia officinalis 'Tricolor'). It has purple, green, and white colors mottled throughout the leaves. This sage is a bit slower growing than the standard sage, but is easy to grow in full sun. Although it is grown primarily for its foliage color, it does produce light blue flowers characteristic of the sages. Purple or green and gold foliage varieties are also available. The variegated forms of common sage are a feast for the eyes in a flowerbed of green.

An herb that comes to us from southern Europe is curry plant (Helichrysum italicum). This herb has spectacular silver foliage. The short needle shaped leaves are a great attraction in the garden. It slowly grows to a height of around two feet. In the summer, bright yellow "button shaped" flowers form and bring even more appeal to the plant. The strong fragrance of the curry plant is yet another asset to this dramatic, exotic plant. The curry plant is a perennial that is treated as an annual in Iowa because of its lack of cold hardiness.

Another unforgettable herb is borage (Borago officinalis). This herb is not only treasured for its delicately-shaped silver foliage, but for its hairy texture. The prickly pubescence that covers the plant is its most distinguishing feature. However, the bright blue star-shaped flowers are not easily overlooked. The cerulean blue flowers along with the silvery foliage make a striking combination. There is also a white flowering borage.

One of Shakespeare's favorite herbs was calendula (Calendula officinalis). This is an annual herb that flowers throughout the summer with shades of yellow and orange daisy-style flowers. The colorful flowers are on dark green stems that may reach up to 18 inches tall. It maintains a bushy appearance, yet it was the brightly colored, simplistic flowers that won Shakespeare's admiration.

These ornamental herbs create a colorful, textured and fragrant garden environment. By exploring the possibilities of herbs in your landscape garden, you expand your horizon and open your senses up to new experiences, and your eyes to unique beauty. Enjoy their versatility and all of their different varieties.

This article originally appeared in the June 18, 1999 issue, pp. 80-81.


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