For most of us, a basic Italian herb garden includes some 8 or 9 of the most popular herbs, but did you know that Italian cuisine consistently uses over 50 herbs and spices. It is this broad use of herbs and spices from around the world that really makes Italian cuisine stand out so significantly. Some, like nutmeg and mace, are from evergreen trees that take up to 9 years before you can harvest the seed, making it rather inconvenient for most home gardens. However, for the most part, these herbs and spices can easily be grown and incorporated into our endeavor to create our favorite Italian dishes.
Of course a discussion must start with the essential Italian herbs – basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme, parsley and sage. With over 40 varieties of basil, “sweet basil” is most used in Italian dishes. It has a broad waxy leaf and grows to several feet high. It will seed in several months of growth allowing for a uninterrupted supply of this tender herb throughout the season.
Oregano, sometimes called wild marjoram, like basil is a member of the mint family grows perennially. It is the Mediterranean variety that has a sweeter more delicate flavor.
The intense aromatic essential oil of rosemary makes it a favorite for adding flavor to meats. It is a perennial evergreen that is somewhat sensitive to frost. Their stems make a flavorful skewer for kabobs!
Thyme is a hearty perennial herb that grows to about 8” in high bush. Continual harvesting keeps it full. When harvesting thyme, remember that dried thyme is a more flavorful herb than fresh, and dried ground is stronger than chopped.
Italian Parsley is sweeter and tenderer than its curly leafed cousin and it universally used to blend with other herbs, enhancing their flavor. It is a biennial, if you can keep it that long, that is sensitive to too much sun or water. Planting it in a semi-shaded spot in soil that drains well but stays damp will keep you in parsley all season long.
Adding sage to this list makes me feel as if I’m going to the Scarborough Fair. But sage very appropriately belongs in the list of the most commonly used Italian herbs. It also belongs to the mint family and is used with meats sauces, as a tea, for medicine, for its aroma and as a beautiful plant.
Here are another 40+ herbs used extensively in Italian recipes from appetizers to desserts. Many are used just as extensively and must be considered for an Italian herb garden:
- anise seed;
- arrow root;
- bay leaves;
- caraway seed;
- celery seed;
- dill seed;
- fennel seed;
- juniper berries;
- lemon balm;
- lemon verbena;
- mustard leaves;
- mustard seed;
- poppy seeds;
- red pepper;
- sesame seed;
- summer savory;