Sweet herbs for flavouring fruit punches, refreshing teas and desserts, as well as teatime favourites like cakes, biscuits and scones.
Except for Stevia rebaudiana that can be used as a substitute for sugar, herbs with a sweet, fruity, or aromatic flavour are not overpowering. Their presence is subtle, adding a hint of pineapple in the case of pineapple sage or pineapple mint or lemony-rose in the case of rose geranium.
Herbs that fall into this category include cinnamon basil, the various mints like apple mint, pineapple mint, and peppermint, pineapple sage, lavender (if used very sparingly), Stevia and rose-scented geranium. Although they are not regarded as sweet herbs, the anise flavour of dill, fennel and liquorice mint leaves adds sweetness to food, cold drinks and teas. Rosemary too can be used for flavouring biscuits, cakes and drinks. Like lavender it needs to be used in very small quantities otherwise the end result can be bitter.
Unlike their savoury counterparts, most sweet herbs do not have strong medicinal properties but are more useful as beauty and household herbs. They are a lovely addition to the herb and flower garden because of their attractive leaves or flowers.
Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) is known as Natures natural sweetener, said to be 300 times sweeter than table sugar. With practically no calories and cholesterol free it is an alternative for dieters and diabetics. For those with a sweet tooth, chewing a fresh leaf of Stevia will curb a craving for something sweet, instead of chocolates, rich cakes and other fattening foods. It also reduces the desire for tobacco and alcohol.
Stevia is a compact bushy perennial that is evergreen, growing 80cm high and about 60cm wide. It is frost sensitive so needs protection in winter. It does best if grown in full sun, in well drained soil that has been enriched with compost.
Stevia leaves are sweetest when the plant it forming its flower buds so this is the peak harvesting time. The leaves can also be picked while the plant is flowering. The degree of sweetness will vary according to the growing conditions and timing of harvesting,
Dry the leaves in cool place and once properly dry they can be ground to form a powder which is then used in cooking or to sweeten tea and coffee. Unlike sugar it does not trigger a rise in blood sugar so there is no sudden burst of energy.
Rose Scented Geranium is an attractive, mediums sized bushy shrub that has small mauve flowers in summer. It is evergreen and frost tolerant. The leaves have a strong rose fragrance.
It grows best in full sun but tolerates light shade. It grows easily in any soil that drains well and compost should be added before planting. It also performs well in a container.
Pick fresh leaves and flowers throughout the year and use them to flavour sorbet, water ices, punch and other summer drinks as well as syrups and jams. Flavour sauces, custards, and jellies with a strong infusion of the leaves. When baking a cake line the baking tin with leaves and the flavour will infuse into the cake. The leaves can also be chopped finely and added to the dough of scones, biscuits and cakes.
Besides their culinary properties, the leaves can be added to bath water, infused as a mild astringent and included in potpourri and pillows for a relaxing and soothing lemon-rose fragrance.
Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) is a very showy, bushy perennial that produces spikes of red flowers throughout summer.
With a height and spread of 1,5m and lime green leaves it makes a strong statement in the garden. It can be used as an individual specimen, planted as a hedge or used with other shrubs in a flowering border.
It grows easily and quickly in sunny areas that are sheltered from frost in winter. It requires well drained and fertile composted soil. Prune in spring or after flowering but do not cut into old wood.
The leaves have a pineapple scent that delicately flavours iced tea, punches, and fruit salads. When used with pork it adds a sage like aroma.
Mints (Mentha) in any form should find their way into the garden because of their culinary diversity as a flavouring in salads, as a sauce for roast meat, in hot and cold drinks, and with vegetables.
Traditionally planted under a dripping tap, all varieties of mint like moist, rich soil and grow best in a partially shaded spot. They should be fed regularly with an organic fertiliser. The plant dies down in winter but will come up again in spring.
Because mint grows and spreads so quickly, it is a good idea to grow plants in pots which can be sunk into the ground. This makes it easier to lift the pots and trim off the runners.
Garden mint (Mentha spicata) and Spearmint (Mentha spicata aquatica) are used for mint sauce, jellies, and in cakes. Apple mint (Mentha suaveolens) is good for mint sauce, jellies, cooked vegetables and salad.
Basil mint (Mentha x piperita f.citrata ‘Basil) which has a basil mint aroma flavours melon, tomatoes and fruit salad. The chocolate peppermint flavour of chocolate mint (Mentha piperita spp) makes it a good addition to puddings, ice cream and drinks.
Ginger mint (Mentha Gracilis) is delicious in salads, teas, and drinks, as is Mint julep (Mentha spicata ‘Julep’) which has a striking fresh flavour. Pineapple mint (Mentha suaveolens variegata) leaves and flowers can be added salads, fruit salads, and used as a garnish.
Lavender Lavandula spp (perennial) needs no introduction and the variety that is regarded as the best lavender for use in cooking is Lavandula intermedia. The leaves and flowers can be added in small quantities to recipes for shortbread, biscuits, jellies, ice cream, and custard.
All lavenders like to grow in a sunny position, in well drained soil and once established do not need a lot of water; preferring deep watering once a week. Lavender planted in pots does best in morning sun. Trim them after flowering but don’t cut into the wood. Even so, bushes should be replaced every three or four years as they tend to become straggly and woody.