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Herbal Sensations

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These culinary herbs thrive in the warm climate of the Southwest. Here’s what to grow now and cook later

By Ellen Ranta Olson

culinary herbs
Give your dishes a little herbal pick-me-up, like this baked brie topped with rosemary and a drizzle of honey. Photo by Constance Higley.
Lavender

A member of the mint family, lavender plants can do double duty as both an ornamental shrub and a culinary herb. They can be grown both indoors and out, but they thrive best in full sunlight and well-drained soil. Most varieties can be used in cooking — to dry lavender, snip the stems off the plant just after the flowers have opened and hang the stems upside down or lay them flat to dry. Wash the buds well, then dry-roast them to remove some of the floral taste.

Try it in: The flowers lend a subtly sweet, citrus flavor to your favorite baked goods, such as lavender scones.

Mexican Oregano

Typically relegated to those little packets that come with your pizza, oregano actually comes in two varieties — Mediterranean and Mexican — each with its own flavor profile. The Mexican variety is a bit more citrusy, with hints of lime that enhance the flavor of chiles and paprika, and it couldn’t be easier to cultivate. Full sun, heat and fertile, well-drained soil are all the plant requires.

Try it in: The herb’s citrus notes pair perfectly with traditional Mexican dishes like carne adovada.

Rosemary

Stroll through any neighborhood in Phoenix or Tucson and you’re likely to be struck by the delightful smell of a rosemary bush — it grows so well in the desert that it’s become a mainstay as both a decorative shrub and a culinary herb. Rosemary thrives with six to eight hours of sun daily, even in the low desert, but it prefers the morning to early afternoon sunlight, with protection from the hot afternoon sun.

Try it in: When it comes to cooking, rosemary is surprisingly versatile — especially in beverages like lemonade spiked with the herb (and maybe a bit of vodka).

Desert Purple Sage

All varieties of sage thrive in warm, dry locations, but you’re likely to be most successful planting desert purple sage, which is native to the deserts of the western United States.

Try it in: Sage’s earthy leaves have long been staples in hearty poultry stuffing and meat recipes, but it also pairs well with lighter items, like pasta and fruit. Our favorite snackable showstopper: caramelized pear and sage crostini.

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