Sometimes overlooked in favor of the more compact basils, mints and chives, old-fashioned tall herbs carry a myriad of uses. Use them as fragrant herbal hedges, to add texture and color to the back of a flower or herb garden, as unusual additions to a potted kitchen garden or as foundation plants. Most tall herbs are hardy perennials, though some, like lemon verbena, need winter protection in northern climates.
Once a favorite of sweet-tooths everywhere for its candied stems, angelica isn’t well known to modern gardeners. The flowering herb towers up to eight feet tall and boasts flat, creamy, lacy flowers resembling Queen Anne’s lace. Crystallize its thick, reddish stems to decorate cakes, or use its seeds to make traditional flavored liqueurs. Angelica grows best in moist soils with light shade.
Also known as bee balm, this flowering herb seems to have sprung straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. Its fuzzy red, purple or pink flowers nod atop three- to five-foot stems and plentiful foliage. Like angelica, bee balm prefers moist soil and partial shade. Its flowers and leaves emit an intoxicating citrus scent and make excellent teas, herbal jellies and potpourri bases. To add fun and interest to a festive luncheon, place a flowering stem in glasses of lemonade or iced tea.
An increasingly familiar name through its use in skin care lines and medicinal supplements, evening primrose has been a garden staple for centuries. Each evening, several cup-shaped yellow blossoms measuring about three inches in diameter slowly open. The fragrant flowers top a plant which can reach six feet in height. Evening primrose likes sun and well-drained soil. The seeds have medicinal properties, but consult a physician before harvesting them for personal use.
Like a taller, darker lavender in appearance, spiky hyssop grows up to four feet tall and prefers full sun and alkaline soil. Gardeners often use it as a companion to cabbages or grape vines. It makes a unique potpourri ingredient, and adventurous cooks use the medicinal-tasting flowers and leaves to flavor liqueurs and jams.
Although many herbs and flowers carry a hint of lemon, lemon verbena’s dark, pointed and leathery foliage seems to perfume the entire garden with each puff of wind. Hardy only in the warmest climates, lemon verbena grows best when planted in a pot and brought in when frosts threaten. Because it can reach at least four feet in height – taller in warmer climates – many gardeners put it at the back of an herb garden, sometimes planting it, pot and all, into the ground and digging it up come autumn. Plant lemon verbena in your sunniest, most wind-protected spot. Use its leaves in potpourris, teas and baking. In late summer, feathery, white or lilac flowers top the plant.
The tallest member of the Artemisia family, southernwood is sometimes called "lad's love," by romantics, or "old man's beard" by fanciful hikers marveling at its silvery, fringe-like foliage. An ethereal presence at the back of an herbal or flower border, southernwood also makes an ideal hedge plant on its own. Its dried leaves are a traditional moth repellent. Although it carries some of the pungent scent of other artemisias like wormwood, fans consider southernwood sweeter in fragrance, with a hint of lemon. Give it sunny and dry growing conditions.
Additional Tall Herbs
Many other herbs grow taller than three feet and make ideal hedges or background plants. Some are culinary, some fragrant, some ornamental--or all three. Consult your local nursery for growing conditions and uses. Among tall-growing herbs worth considering are alexanders, bay, chicory, comfrey, cotton thistle, elecampane, fennel, Joe-Pye weed, lovage, marsh mallow, meliot, myrtle, roses, skirret and tansy.