Unusual Herbs with Extraordinary Qualities

I love herbs. I love the way they smell, how they compliment a dish, and how they make my garden look. Herbs are easy to grow, many are perennial (returning year after year), and they have surprising qualities (and health benefits) when minced and added together. Aromatic and high in a host of minerals, herbs are much more than pretty decorations or garden fillers. Herbs can lift a soup to new heights, elevate meats, and bring salads to life.

Most of us are familiar with the common culinary herbs — thyme, dill, rosemary and sage — but what about lesser known herbs such as lemon grass and lavender?

How about mint, in particular? There are several varieties aside from the classic peppermint and spearmint, with the most delicious aromas and tastes. Try chocolate, apple or ginger mint for example. Add these to a pot of chilled tea, or muddled in your favorite mojito recipe and enjoy an explosion of flavour.

Victoria chef Heidi Fink is no stranger when it comes to herbs. She uses many unusual and highly flavorful herbs in her cooking.

Recently, I saw lime leaves for sale in the herb section at the Root Cellar and, even though it’s not necessarily a herb, I was curious about its use. Fink says:

“I regularly use [Kaffir] Lime Leaves. I use them all the time in my Thai and Vietnamese cooking classes. I use them to flavour soups, dipping sauces, marinades, coconut curries, [and] even minced into my famous Thai shrimp cakes.” The fragrance is wonderful too. The aroma is tangy, pungent, floral and reminiscent of lemon and lime.


Lime (Keffir) Leaves

Lime (Keffir) Leaves

Fink also recommends the following list of unusual herbs (available when in season). She suggests incorporating them into a variety of cuisine’s including Thai, Indian and Mexican.



You A pungent herb used in Mexican cooking, especially for cooking beans. It is delicious, savoury, and helps with the digestion of legumes. A little goes a long way, and can be used dried with good results (Can be found at Market on Yates).


Fresh curry leaves

This herb has amazing flavour, and is definitely one of my favourite herbs! Curry is a word that means ‘sauce’ or ‘gravy’ in Tamil (a language of south India). Curry leaf can then translate to “leaf to make sauce taste great,” which it does! I use it in all my curry sauces, my lentil dahls, and various vegetable dishes. Dried curry leaves are acceptable, but the real flavour comes from the fresh variety.


Fresh fenugreek (methi)

This herb is locally grown and is seriously good. This is a fabulous Indian herb, and is available in the summer at the Root Cellar and various supermarkets. It’s always cooked, often combined with fresh dill, to make a delicious flavouring or sauce on anything from chicken, to potatoes, to flatbreads.

“You can get fresh curry leaves in Chinatown at Fisgard Market, at The Indian Food Market at Quadra & McKenzie, and sometimes at the Root Cellar” says Fink. “Fresh fenugreek is usually only available in the summer, but you may be able to get some at the Indian Food Market. Epazote can be found dried at the Market on Yates (their Mexican food section is over by the freezers) and at the Mexican House of Spices.”

As for other interesting and unusual culinary herbs, the following are not usually grown commercially and so unlikely to be found in your local market. However, I have included them because they are easy to grow and have many wonderful uses in the kitchen.

Sweet Cicley

Sweet Cicely

Sweet Cicely

A delicate, sweet, and aniseed like herb. All parts of the plant (leaves, roots, flowers, and seeds) are edible and can be used in variety of dishes. The leaves can be cooked like spinach and added to soups or eaten fresh in salads, while the stalks can be used as a substitute for celery. Enjoy the roots raw in salads or roasted like parsnips. The seeds have a sweet and nutty taste, and are a nice addition to fruit salads or added to custard. When working with tart fruits like rhubarb, currents or blackberries, try adding sweet cicely seeds. They help to cut the sourness by infusing a natural sweetness. Having zero calories, sweet cicely is a good herb for sugar reduced diets and diabetics.

costmary (seedaholic.com)



Well known in the Mediterranean region, costmary is an intensely aromatic herb with leaves that have a pungent eucalyptus aroma, tasting like mint with hints of balsam. Before the days of hops, costmary was used to flavour and preserve beer and ales. The leaves, flowers, and stems are edible and used for seasoning food, cold teas (like mint in lemonade), and added as essence to flavour cakes and breads. “Costmary pairs well with tuna, egg, and seafood dishes, and can be used with game. Used as a substitute for sage, it is a traditional flavouring for veal and poultry stuffing. It is delicious with vegetables, especially on peas and new potatoes, and can be blended with melted butter as a dressing. Note: Use sparingly, as a little goes a long way — the leaf has a sharp tang and can rapidly be overpowering in any dish.”


Lemon Verbena (wikipedia)

Lemon Verbena

Lemon Verbena

Pungent, fresh and powerful, lemon verbena is an excellent herb to liven cocktails, or anything creamy from yogurt to pudding, or custard. It’s a gorgeous addition to the garden, growing to a height of up to 3 meters, and the scent alone makes it stand out. It’s so potent, in fact, that it can be used in place of lemons. The leaves can be used to flavour fish, poultry, and vegetable marinades.

How to preserve lemon verbena

A simple syrup is an easy way to preserve the lemon verbena flavour. Dissolve 225g sugar in 225ml water over gentle heat. Chop and crush about ½ a tightly packed cup of leaves. Stir into the syrup and remove from the heat. Once cool, put into the fridge overnight to extract maximum flavour. Strain before using in summer drinks and cocktails.


A Borage flower


Bearing small star-shaped blue flowers that are fragrant and edible, Borage has a sweet cucumber like flavour that goes well when minced in salads. I like to toss a few flowers in as well for color and effect. Borage flowers are great in teas and can also be candied for desserts. Try dropping a few borage flowers into your icecube tray for a decorative addition to your favourite iced drinks. Very easy to grow, borage is a great herb to have in the garden, attracting beneficial predetory insects and honeybees.

For an extensive list of rare and unusual herbs take a look at the website Growers Exchange and Seedaholic.

Each herb is listed alphabetically and includes cost per package. Along with “Find” descriptions, you’ll find herb characteristics, recommended growing conditions, zone hardiness, and suggested pairings and culinary uses.

Written By:

Holly Brooke is a true B.C. gal. Having lived on the west coast most of her life, except for several years in the Kootenay's where she canoed and fished and lived in a tipi, she's very much at home outdoors and in the kitchen. ...

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