THE SAVORY LIFE
Every time I do a talk about the basic culinary herbs everyone should have in their garden I include savory (Satureja sp), either the summer or winter species. I tell the class I can’t retire until at least half of the class raise their hands when I ask whether they grow it in their gardens, or at least they rush up after the talk to buy the plants. Sadly, they remain the forgotten culinary herbs. That’s too bad, because who doesn’t want to have more savory in their lives? I think right now is the time, and there are some delicious and fragrant choices.
The two main species of savory used for cooking are the annual summer savory, Satureja hortensis, and the perennial evergreen winter savory, Satureja montana. During the reign of Caesar, the Romans introduced savory to England, and both species quickly became popular as both culinary and medicine. The Saxons named it savory for its spicy, pungent flavor. For hundreds of years, both species were believed to regulate sex drive. Winter savory was thought to decrease sex drive, while summer savory was an aphrodisiac. Of course, summer savory became the more popular.
Summer savory is an annual that only grows from late spring until early fall, to about 2 ft, with fine leaves and an open growing habit. It has small white flowers that are spicy sweet. The flavor of the leaves is like a peppery thyme and blends well with other savory herbs. It is classic with green vegetables and legumes. It pairs well in herb butters and vinegars, meat soups and stews. It is believed to be an antiflatulent.
Winter savory is a hardy perennial subshrub that grows to one foot tall and wide and can be harvested from year round. The flavor is stronger, with a heavy pepper flavor, and the leaves are small and harder and must be cooked to be eaten. The whitish pink flowers in the summer attract honey bees and and have a strong pepper flavor.
Both savories are grown from seed or from plant starts, and prefer full sun and good drainage. Neither are fussy plants, needing only a minimum of attention and care to thrive. Summer savory will be a happier, more compact plant if it is pruned frequently (read: cook with it all the time! Anywhere you use pepper! Scrambled eggs! Pesto! BBQ sauce!). Fertilize it once a month if you are growing it in a raised bed or pot, and maybe just once or twice during the growing season if you are growing in ground. Winter savory is even less fussy, requiring fertilizing every two to three months in a pot or raised bed, and once a year during the growing season in the ground. Winter savory is also an easy herb to add anywhere you would add pepper, and is especially good in any dish that is heavier, oily, or would benefit from the addition of herbs for digestion, such as game meat or cheese.
Closely related to the winter savory is the creeping winter savory, Satureja montana var ‘IIIyrica’. It’s a super tough fragrant edible groundcover with beautiful white flowers. Long lived and indestructible, creeping winter savory is a top rated groundcover for a dry sunny area of your garden.
Satureja biflora is lemon savory, and is my favorite summer herb for cooking and bbq. It’s like having that little container of lemon pepper in your cabinet when you are grilling salmon, chicken and vegetables. It has a wonderful tartness of lemon, with all the spiciness of pepper, in a cute little one foot tall plant! Chopped into salad dressings and marinades, sprinkled on potatoes, mixed in with roasted vegetables, this herb adds some additional depth that the little bottle of dried out lemon and pepper just never could achieve. Plus, it’s very pretty in a pot or the front of a border and it’s always such a surprise to smell and taste this herb.
There are other members of the genus Satureja, including one that is native to California! Satureja douglasii, commonly known as Yerba Buena, or the ‘good herb’ in English, is a fragrant groundcover found throughout cooler and moister areas of the San Francisco Bay Area and northern California. It was a medicinal herb, the equivalent of chicken soup, as a cure all. It can be grown inland in California if it is kept in a shady area with average water. It is also a beautiful plant in a shady hanging planter. The flavor and fragrance is super charged with mint. During a California heat wave, it makes an excellent cooling and hydrating tea.
Satureja viminea, also called Jamaican Mint Bush or Kama Sutra mint, can grow to be a large shrub or small tree in its native areas in the Caribbean. In areas where it is not as hardy - most of the U.S., for instance- it will stay smaller and do quite well as a potted plant. Grow outdoors in summer and bring indoors for the cold season. Indoors give it bright light and good drainage. Do not overwater.
The aroma and flavor is minty/savory and very piquant. A traditional use for the leaves is to make a bath and body wash. There is a commercial product called Kama Sutra Luxury Mint Tree Bath Gel and Body Wash. You can make your own body wash from the leaves by making an infusion with 4 cups boiling water and 1 cup of fresh leaves. Let the infusion sit about 24 hours. Strain. Add the juice of 1 lemon and 1 to 2 tablespoons of an unscented bath gel, if desired. Use as a body wash or add to a warm bath.
Grow the savories for the fragrance of their leaves, their delicious culinary uses, the ease of growth in the garden and their ability to attract honeybees into the garden. They may not produce the showiest blooms in the garden, but they will produce a wonderful backbone in your culinary garden.