Window sill herbal plants seem to be a perfect antidote to the visual and culinary blandness of winter, except that such plants rarely do as well as billed.
The ideal herb in the window sill thrives despite dry air and relatively low light conditions to offer intense aroma and flavor. And it should be a beautiful plant in winter.
These criteria exclude mint, which is too clumsy; basil, which decreases in total less than the heat and light of summer; and chives, which are too mild, where only one pick decimates the plant.
Two Mediterranean herbs
Two herbs fit the bill for intense aroma and taste and beauty. They are … (drum roll) … rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus) and laurel (Laurus nobilis).
Both are Mediterranean plants that thrive where winters are cool but never cold. A sunny window in a cool room is ideal, but both will do just fine in less than ideal conditions.
For rosemary, it means keeping the plant happy and alive, above all, maintaining a moist soil. Check the soil regularly because the stiff leaves of rosemary do not wither to show their thirst. Of course, you also do not want to drown the plant, a condition that is best avoided with a potting mix that contains a quarter or more, by volume, of perlite, vermiculite or sand.
The white, floury coating on the rosemary leaves gives the plant a greyish cast, as if it were covered with dew. Perhaps this dew-fresh appearance and the proximity of the wild plants to the sea is what caused the ancient Romans to call the plant Ros Marinus (“sea dew”), the origin of rosemary’s older generic name, Rosemarinus.
Although rosemary was a native plant, it would be worth cultivating because of its fragrance, which it is eager to release from the resin glands on its stems and young leaves. Place a potted plant near a doorway or rocking chair where you can easily touch a cloud of balsamic aroma into the air with your hand.
The taste of rosemary is potent, so only a small amount is needed for the flavoring. When I need some, I just cut off a few twigs, which also keeps my plant neat and well-shaped.
Laurels, on the other hand, have broad, dark, evergreen leaves, and a freshly picked leaf needs more enticing time than rosemary to give up its scent. But what a wonderful scent it is – much richer than what you can sniff from dried leaves out of a jar.
Cooked, its flavor easily adds soups, tomato sauce, stews and other dishes. Freshly picked, you really need to crush a leaf to release its aroma.
Regular but minimal care
Rosemary or laurel are attractive whether they are grown as informal shrubs or trained in the form of small trees. Pruning all growth except a single, vertical stem, and repeatedly pinching the tip of the stem and any branches that develop, creates a small tree out of both plants.
Such “standards,” as miniature trees are called, can range from 2 feet high and up, depending on the height at which you pinch out the first vertical stem. Over time, that stem will thicken and become a woody stem. (Uncut, laurel can grow into a 50-foot-tall tree!)
With care and regular pruning, a laurel or rosemary plant in a pot can live for decades. Refresh the soil every few years by repotting the plant into a larger pot or cutting the root ball into slices to reduce its size, and then putting it back in the same pot with new potting soil in the open space.
For a treat (for your rosemary or laurel plant), move it outdoors in the spring to bask in the sunlight and fresh air for the summer. Your plants will appreciate it and you will appreciate the plants for their beauty and the taste and aroma they offer, especially when you move them indoors again in the late fall.
Lee Reich writes regularly about gardening for The Associated Press. He has authored a number of books, including “Growing Figs in Cold Climates” and “The Pruning Book.” He blogs at http://www.leereich.com/blog. He can be contacted at email@example.com.