The South, with its hot, humid summers and shorter, cool winters, makes herb growing a popular pastime. Although plenty of herb varieties are cultivated further north, many, particularly those with Mediterranean origins, only flourish as annuals there. Southern growers have more perennial plant options, which explains why so many dishes rely on herbs for flavor, why certain types are used for medicinal purposes and why so many gardeners incorporate them into their landscapes for decoration.
Because of the climate that is so conducive to herb growing, Southerners are more apt to plant perennial herbs as more permanent decorative parts of their landscapes. Varieties with color, striking foliage, and scent--such as lavender, lambs ear and yarrow--are popular additions that are tucked in among traditional ornamental flower, grass, shrub and tree species. In more structured herb gardens, they are often planted in raised beds, which drain well and allow gardeners to more easily amend poor soil. Herbs in southern states are also commonly cultivated in containers, where their growth can be controlled and where diseases and pests, which proliferate in the humid South, can be more easily obliterated.
Southerners have it good in that a wide variety of herbs can be grown, many of them throughout the year as perennials. Frosts and snow that are common farther north do not often penetrate the South, particularly the deep South, making it possible to grow certain varieties such as bay throughout the winter. Popular Southern herbs include the tropical, exotic smelling patchouli; rue, with its late-summer yellow flowers; and scented geranium, grown for its fragrances that range from chocolate to lemon.
Southerners must take extra care to meet the hydration needs of herbs without overdoing it. The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service states that over watering can increase the chances of diseases and “may eventually block necessary oxygen to the roots.” Water retention, however, is key for herbs such as mint and parsley that are not drought-resistant. Frequent humidity in the South helps, but mulching “is a must” in the deep South, the extension service notes, to help retain even moisture and discourage weed growth.
Because herbs grow so quickly in the South, Southern gardeners must keep a constant eye on them for optimal growth and to keep them palatable for consumption. Harvesting should be done when essential oils are most concentrated, usually just before the plants begin to bloom. In the South, herbs are best picked in the late morning, after the dew has dried and before afternoon storms arrive. Drying occurs in a warm, dark and dry place with good air circulation, such as an attic. Herbs can also be dried between paper towels in a microwave set on low on intensely humid days.
Southerners use herbs in ways that those who live in other parts of the country and world do. Aside from their culinary reputation, herbs are used for their fragrances, beauty in dried arrangements and medicinally. According to the North Carolina State University Extension, “more than 25 percent of our modern drugs contain plant extracts as active ingredients, and researchers continue to isolate valuable new medicines from plants and confirm the benefits of those used in traditional folk medicine."