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Herbal highs

3 May 2022
Photo: itsabreeze photography/Getty Images

While still herbs, the tallest are also attractive trees adding fragrance, shade and shape to any garden. Words MARILYN WIGHTMAN

Herbal trees can be landscaped and placed in a large garden to form a year-round fragrant planting of the larger growing herbs (they may be trees but they are still herbs). Some are evergreen and
suitable for planting as hedgerows; others are deciduous, so provide a seasonally changing landscape, from a skeletal winter form through to blossom, new leaf and a mass of greenery before leaf fall in autumn.

For smaller gardens, choosing a few herbal trees will lend shape and depth to the landscape. They can be strategically sited to stop the prevailing wind and provide shelter and privacy when planted on perimeters.

Good trimming and shaping will contain their size, providing a backdrop to lower-growing herbs. Most of these herbal trees can be grown in large containers and are suitable for smaller sections.

BAY (Laurus Nobilus)
The fragrant foliage is used to flavour soups and casseroles. Bay is a slow-growing, evergreen tree that is happy growing in containers to keep it small. Given space in the garden, it will get big. Long living, there are 100-year-old bay trees in New Zealand getting over 10m high. Bay is a hardy, cold-tolerant tree.
The leaf is tough, leathery, dark-green, oval shaped and shiny on the top surface, and it has a pungent scent when crushed. Creamy clusters of flowers from spring onwards develop into oval-shaped black berries by autumn. As there are both male and female forms, one of each is needed to produce fruit.

TEA PLANT (Camellia sinensis)

Leaves of this camellia produce both green and black tea leaves. Tea camellia has glossy thick leaves and in spring produces tiny creamy-white flowers. It slowly grows into a bushy tree of 4m high and 1m round. It makes an excellent hedge, which is easy to shape and maintain.

JUNIPER (Juniperus communis)

This is another herbal tree that grows well as a hedge. The berries are used in food flavouring and are the main ingredient in gin. The light-grey foliage has needles that grow in soft, swirling patterns rather than the formal, upright shape of pine trees.

MYRTLE (Myrtus communis)

Another evergreen herbal tree, myrtle grows to 3–4m high and can be used for hedging. Shiny, small, oval-shaped leaves have a fragrance used traditionally in lamb dishes. The creamy yellow flowers are scented and will form purple oval berries that are edible.

Myrtle is a long-lived herb. It grows as a bushy shrub and can be trained as a hedgerow, clipped to a topiary bush or allowed to be a handsome garden specimen that will eventually get to 3m high. It is equally at home either in the garden or grown in a container. About the only drawback is the tendency for
the leaf tips to turn brown if the garden site is extremely cold or if the area is exposed to very chilly winds.

OLIVE (Olea europaea)

Known for the production of oil and preserved fruit, the leaves of this tree are also used in herbal remedies for hypertension and to boost immunity. The pale-green, long, ovalshaped leaves have a silvery underside that in windy weather is ruffled up and attractive. If grown for fruit production, the tree is
pruned carefully to shape it for maximum sun exposure for the growing olives. Left as a tree, it grows to 5–6m high.

GINKGO (Ginkgo biloba)

This is a deciduous tree with an unusual-shaped leaf that is replicated in art and fabric design. Much revered in Chinese medicine, ginkgo leaves are regarded as best infused in a herbal tea. Slowgrowing, the tree will survive over a hundred years and gets in excess of 15m tall.

ELDER (Sambucus nigra)

This is a lower-growing deciduous tree. While the shrubby trees can get to over 4m high, trimming them to retain a more uniform shape for the home garden is best. The leaves are pinnate and have toothed leaflets. The foliage and bark both have a distinctive scent. The flowers are flat-topped and cover the tree with their familiar froth of creamy-white flowers. By the end of January, the berries have replaced
these blooms with drooping bunches of juicy, dark-red fruit. Because of the size and girth of elders, they each need at least 2m square in area to grow. Elders do not flourish in dark areas of a garden as they resent shading and crowding out by surrounding trees.

WITCH HAZEL (Hamamelis sp.)

This is a deciduous tree that, like elder, grows bushy in shape. Another slow-growing tree, it eventually reaches about 6m tall. The attractive flowers in late winter are fragrant and an asset at a time of year when little else is in flower. The tree is used in medicinal preparations.

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