Thursday, November 19, 2009

Essential Herbs

You know you're talking to a plant person when you ask to take her photo and tells you she wants to do a little grooming first--not herself, mind you, just the plants.

Snipping some wispy brown leaves off a couple chives, Shirley Kerins, manager of plant production and plant sales for the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens, told me it was more important that the plants look good.

I went to talk to Kerins for a recent piece on alliums I wrote for the LA Times. It's a huge genus--some 500 species--and, alas, I only had room to discuss the ornamental kinds.

But they have plenty in common with their culinary brethren. Kerins searched among a vast field of flats for some of the long, slender leaved onions, chives and garlic that make up this group of plants. "It’s a monocot," she explained. "You can tell a monocot because the [leaf] veins run parallel, as opposed to a dicot where the veins are netted."

Among Kerins' favorites are chives. "Every one who cooks should have chives in their garden. Because it is so easy to run out and snip off the leaves," she says. She recommends snipping the leaves down at the base, taking an entire strand, rather than just trimming the top of the plant. New leaves will sprout up and the plant will look better.

Kerins introduced me to a new variety of garlic chives (Allium Tuberosum) called Nira. Like other varieties it has an oniony taste with a tinge of garlic. But it's flattened blades fan out like a palm frond.

Kerins says the poofs of white or purple-pink flowers chives produce are a pretty addition to a kitchen garden or the front of flower bed.

Plus, she advises, "you can pull those flowers apart and sprinkle them on your salad, and you get a crunch you don’t get from the leaves, but you get the same flavor."

To learn a bit about ornamental alliums, including the native species, click here.

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