Our Herb Garden Guide for Desert Dwellers
Herbs have been used for generations for many purposes from medicinal remedies to perfumes and culinary uses. Herbs also provide beauty and variety to our desert landscapes. We invite you to use this guide to learn about the variety of herbs that grow well in our Sonoran Desert and how you can create your own herb garden at home.
The Herb Garden is designed with seven themed gardens. This guide has information about each area with plant recommendations and growing tips about herbs you can grow in your low desert garden.
Sensory Garden Wildlife Garden Tea Garden Mediterranean Garden Picante Garden Culinary Garden Medicinal Garden
DEFINITION: herb: a plant that is useful in some way
Many herbs that thrive in our harsh desert environment are of Mediterranean origin. Soil types, low rainfall and over 300 sunny days a year allow these familiar herbs to grow easily in our low desert gardens. Many of these plants are favorites for cooking, but some have other uses that you may not know about:
Oregano: Oils from crushed leaves are used to polish furniture and leaves hung in closets scent linens and clothes. Oregano is believed to bring good health, longevity, and joy.
Sweet Marjoram: Cultivated in ancient Egypt as a symbol of honor and joy, sweet marjoram is in the same genus as oregano with leaves that have a very spicy aroma.
Sage: Ancient Chinese used sage in spiritual and healing ceremonies. Ancient Greeks used it as a mental stimulant. Sage is in the genus of Salvia and is associated with salvation and good health.
Thyme: There are over 400 varieties of thyme in Asia and Europe. In ancient Rome, thyme was used with garlic for energy. Rosemary: This Mediterranean native has been used for centuries for scenting and medicinal purposes. It is associated with remembrance and fidelity because of its long-lasting piney aroma. Rosemary is the symbol of friendship and loyalty.
Origanum majorana – Sweet Marjoram
Origanum vulgare – Italian (Greek) Oregano
Rosmarinus officinalis – Rosemary
Salvia officinalis – Culinary Sage
Thymus herba-barona – Caraway-thyme
Thymus vulgaris – English Thyme
Thymbra capitata – Conehead-thyme
GROWING TIPS: Most Mediterranean herbs need well-drained soil and a lot of sun. Many of them are quite drought tolerant. These low-maintenance plants allow more time for enjoying your garden and are a nice addition to desert landscapes.
A cornucopia of chile pepper varieties is displayed in this hot spot. Not only do chile fruits vary in size and shape, they also have a broad range of “hotness.” How hot is hot? The Scoville scale measures capsaicin levels (heat/spiciness) in chile peppers. The ‘Habañero’ is very hot while the ‘Jalapeño’ can be termed a mildly hot pepper. The spicy ‘Chiltepin’ is native to southern Arizona in a limited habitat. Chile peppers are colorful ornamentals in a garden.
Did you know that a medium-sized chile contains six times the vitamin C as an orange and two times the vitamin A and beta-carotene as a carrot?
Cooking tip: If you can’t stand the fire of hot peppers but still want the flavor, remove the seeds and white membranes, the parts of the pepper that hold most of the heat in the form of capsaicin.
Capsicum annuum – ‘Chiltepin’ Chile Pepper
Capsicum annuum – ‘Jalapeño’ Chile Pepper
Capsicum annuum – ‘Poblano’/’Ancho’ Chile Pepper
Capsicum annuum – ‘Serrano’ Chile Pepper
Capsicum chinense – ‘Habañero’ Chile Pepper
Capsicum frutescens – ‘Bolivian Rainbow’ Chile Pepper
Capsicum frutescens – ‘Tabasco’ Chile Pepper
GROWING TIPS: Chile peppers can be grown as perennials here in the low desert. They prefer a fairly organic, well-drained soil. Light afternoon shade and frequent watering will keep them more robust and productive through the summer. Chile peppers should be protected from frost through the winter.
This garden showcases that many herbs grown for culinary, medicinal or other uses can also be magnets for attracting wildlife to a garden. Wildlife such as butterflies, birds, ladybugs, and bees adds color, movement, and excitement to your yard. With the loss of so much natural habitat, it is good when we can provide some wildlife with food, shelter or nesting resources.
Special note for wildlife gardens: Many types of wildlife are extremely sensitive to pesticides. Their use will prevent these creatures from visiting your garden.
Achillea millefolium – Yarrow
Chilopsis linearis – Desert-willow
Lavandula multifida – Fern-leaf Lavender
Monarda fistulosa – Bee-balm, Wild Bergamot
Passiflora caerulea – Passion Vine
Salvia leucantha – Mexican Bush Sage
Tanacetum vulgare – Tansy
GROWING TIPS: Wildlife-attracting herbs vary in their sun, soil and water requirements. Many of the non-desert/ non-Mediterranean herbs benefit from an organic soil amended with compost, and midday through afternoon relief from summer’s intense sun. Passion vines, as well as our native desert willow, can help offer summer shade to accommodate these plants. At the same time, they do their part to attract butterflies and hummingbirds and provide color through the warm months.
Throughout human history, many different cultures have relied on plants for healing. Today, plants are the source of a quarter of all medicines, and many cultures still rely on plants as the primary source of medicines. The herbs in the medicinal garden come from around the world and from our own southwest region. To find out more about native Sonoran Desert medicinal plants and traditional uses visit our Plants and People of the Sonoran Desert Trail.
The plants and information in this exhibit are primarily for reference and education. It is not intended to serve as a manual for self-medication or as a substitute for qualified medical advice. The visitor should be aware that any plant substance, whether used as food or medicine, externally or internally, may be harmful to some people.
Medicinal uses past and present:
Aloe Vera: The thick gel inside the aloe vera leaf is used today for burns, wounds and sunburn. Extracts of leaves were once used on children’s fingers to stop nail biting.
Horehound: This herb can be found today in candy and is also used as a cough suppressant.
Purple Coneflower: Native Americans used this herb as a compress to treat snakebite, fevers, and wounds. More recently, it is known for its antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial properties. It has also been used in AIDS therapy.
Aristolochia watsonii – Snakeroot
Aloe barbadensis (Aloe vera) – Aloe Vera
Bursera microphylla – Elephant Tree
Echinacea purpurea – Purple Coneflower
Marrubium vulgare – Horehound
Tanacetum parthenium – Feverfew
Tecoma stans – Yellow Bells
GROWING TIPS: This wide range of plants varies in needs for sun exposure, soil conditions, and water. In the low desert, aloe vera and purple coneflower can both benefit from light shade during midsummer. Other plants such as horehound will endure full sun exposure. Horehound and aloe vera will thrive in our desert soil whereas feverfew and coneflower would prefer a richer, organically amended soil. In the heat of the summer, feverfew will need frequent watering, but aloe vera would prefer the soil to dry some between watering.
A sensory garden offers a place to relax, meditate, and rejuvenate. Many herbs in this garden offer enchantingly fragrant foliage or blossoms, stimulating texture, or scintillating colors that arouse the senses. Other plants create graceful movement and sound as gentle breezes pass by. A sensory garden is meant for lingering.
How many senses can you use in this garden?
Smell… scented geranium, sage, lavender, thyme
See…color, texture, shapes, distant vistas
Hear… gentle breezes, the rustle of grasses, the hum of hummingbirds and bees
Touch… soft leaves of dittany of Crete, the texture of the warm soil
Taste…savory sage, and thyme
Hyptis emoryi – Desert-lavender
Lavandula dentata – French Lavender
Lavandula heterophylla – Sweet Lavender
Pelargonium graveolens – Rose-scented Geranium
Salvia clevelandii – Chaparral Sage
Santolina chamaecyparissus – Grey Santolina, Lavender-cotton
GROWING TIPS: These plants vary in their sunlight, watering, and soil preferences. Scented geraniums thrive with a bit of afternoon shade or filtered the sun, a fairly organic well-drained soil, and moderately frequent watering through the summer. The lavenders, many sages, and Santolina relish full sun exposure and infrequent watering and require excellent soil drainage. A variety of herbs fall between these extremes, with some ability to perform well under a wider range of conditions.
Mint and lemon-flavored herbs are among the most popular for herbal teas. With the variety of these plants that thrive in our area, along with other flavored herbs, you can grow a tea blend to relax or stimulate your mood or simply appeal to your taste buds. Some of the herbs can be harvested year-round while others can be picked at their peak and stored for later brewing. Herbal teas provide a flavorful, healthy and soothing drink. They are caffeine free, may act as a digestive aid, and many have a calming effect, promoting well-being. The part of the plant used to make a herbal tea varies with each plant. The flowers, seeds, leaves, stems, bark or roots can be steeped to make a drink.
Brewing tip: As a general rule, use one teaspoon of dried herbs, or two teaspoons of fresh herbs to each cup of boiled water for tea.
Aloysia triphylla – Lemon-verbena
Cymbopogon citratus – Lemon-grass
Ephedra spp. – Mormon-tea
Mentha spp. – Mints
Nepeta cataria – Catnip
Poliomintha incana – Hoary Rosemary mint
GROWING TIPS: Many of the non-native tea herbs require an organically rich soil and a good amount of water. These are best located in afternoon shade conditions for the summer. Some of the southwest natives are drought tolerant and thrive in full sun locations. Provide these with well-drained soil.
Several of these plants are old familiars to most gardeners. Try some of the less common herbs to experience new flavors to spice up your cuisine. Some culinary herbs are annuals, changing with the seasons. For ease of planting, designate an area for them in your garden.
- Culinary chives can be substituted for scallions to achieve a mild onion flavor.
- For a great salad add basil, garlic chives, black pepper and balsamic vinegar.
- Place French tarragon sprigs in vinegar to preserve the subtlety of the fresh herb.
Allium ampeloprasum – Elephant Garlic
Allium cepa – Shallots
Anethum graveolens – Dill
Anthriscus cerefolium – Chervil
Borago officinalis – Borage
Calendula officinalis – Calendula
Coriandrum sativum – Cilantro/Coriander
Salvia columbariae – Desert Chia
Tropaeolum majus – Nasturtium
Viola tricolor – Johnny Jump-ups
Chenopodium ambrosioides – Epazote
Helianthus tuberosa – Sunchoke, Jerusalem-artichoke
Hyptis suaveolens – Summer-chia, Golden-chia
Porophyllum ruderale – Bolivian Bush-cilantro
Salvia tiliaefolia – Tarahumara Chia
Allium schoenoprasum – Culinary Chives
Crithmum maritimum – Samphire
Foeniculum vulgare v. dulce – Florence Fennel
Petroselinum crispum ‘Italian’ – Italian Flat-leaf Parsley
Sanguisorba minor (Poterium sanguisorba) – Salad Burnet
Tagetes lucida – Mexican-tarragon, Mexican-mint Marigold, Yerba-anis
Tulbaghia violacea – Society-garlic
GROWING TIPS: While many culinary herbs are perennials, some of them are seasonal annuals and must be grown in either the cool season or the warm season here in the low desert. For example, annual cilantro and dill can be planted in the fall to grow through the cool months. Epazote thrives in the heat of summer and dies off with winter’s cold. Some perennials such as culinary chives, French tarragon, and Mexican-tarragon may disappear underground for the winter, re-sprouting with fresh growth the following spring. Parsley, normally a biennial lasting two years, may not endure summer here. Basil, commonly an annual in other regions, can last well past one season here if protected from frost.
GLOSSARY OF HERBAL TERMS
Annual: A plant that grows from seed, flowers, develops seed, and dies within one growing season.
Biennial: A plant that takes two growing seasons to complete its life cycle, flowering, developing seeds and dying in the second year.
Capsaicin: The chemical compound that gives Chile peppers their heat.
Compost: Decomposed organic matter.
Genus: A group of related plant species (one or more species); the first part of the botanical name of a plant.
Herb: A plant that is useful in some way. It may be used in food preparation, or for medicine, tea, cosmetics, aromatherapy, crafting, dyeing, construction, ritual, pest control, or many other things.
Organic matter: Decomposed plant or animal remains.
Perennial: A plant that lives more than two growing seasons, often flowering and producing seed every year.
Species: A group of plants that are alike and can interbreed; the second part of the botanical name of a plant.
The Low Desert Herb Gardening Handbook
Arizona Herb Association
Desert Gardening for Beginners – How to Grow Vegetables, Flowers, and Herbs in an Arid Climate
Cathy Cromell, Linda Guy, Lucy Bradley Arizona Master Gardener Press
The Herb Society of America Encyclopedia Of Herbs and Their Uses
Deni Brown Dorling Kindersley
Growing Herbs from Seed, Cutting, & Root
Thomas DeBaggio Interweave Press
Arizona Herb Association
http://www.azherb.org 602.470.8086, ext. 830