Herbs are the unsung heroes of the garden. When we think of gardening to fill our plates, we first think of leafy greens, root crops and fruits! Incorporating herbs into your food forest will open up a whole world of possibilities for preparing and flavoring the food you harvest.
Herbs have many different uses in cuisine and medicine. They prove to be endlessly useful plants that have deep histories and cultural and spiritual significance.
Most herbs are easy to grow once you understand their needs. Within the Food Forest, most herbaceous plants will fill the layer between ground cover and shrubs. Once they take off they can be harvested continuously or even dried and stored for use all through the year.
Living in a tropical climate of course means we have to manage our herb growing differently in terms of soil, placement and choice of variety, so we have compiled a list of herbs that thrive in tropics so you can add some flavor to your food forest!
Brahmi (Water Hyssop)
The origin of this herb lays in its name. Originally from southern India, it is now native in the Americas and throughout Europe.
It is considered an important plant for many traditional medicines, particularly Ayurvedic as it is thought to have restorative properties. It is often used for calming nerves and aiding sleep.
Brahmi is best used medicinally steeped in tea or made into an oil or paste for your cooking but it can also be mixed raw through salads or cooked into stews and soups.
Brahmi does really well in an aquaculture setup or grown somewhere in the landscape that is constantly moist. Once established, they tend to produce prolifically as long as conditions remain moist. They are even tolerant of saline conditions, making them a great plant to grow near the coast.
They take up a lot of minerals and chemicals from water so if you are harvesting this plant from the wild, exercise caution as they take up heavy metal pollutants.
Basil is usually considered an annual herb, dying back every winter. In the warm climate of Hawaii, there are basil varieties that will produce all year round as they are adapted to warm conditions.
Basil is a hero in many dishes but especially in Italian and Asian dishes. Most households will have basil on their spice rack, but nothing beats fresh basil from the garden.
Basil often works in the kitchen with tomatoes to create masterpieces, but these two plants also work well in the garden. Planting your basil near your tomato stakes will help keep insects at bay and improves the flavour of the tomato fruit.
The best time to harvest your basil is first thing in the morning as the oils are strongest at this point so you will get the best flavour and scent.
I like to plant basil somewhere in the garden that is close to home so that I can pick it often. Putting it too far out into the seldom visited corners of your food forest will find it to be underutilized.
No, I have not made a typo here! Culantro is just 1 letter different from cilantro but is a totally different plant. Although it is closely related to cilantro, culantro has a different appearance and produces a stronger oil.
Culantro can be used much the same as cilantro but is better suited for the growing conditions of a tropical climate. Keep the plant moist and in the shade and it will provide you with a consistent supply of leaves.
I have found Culantro to naturalize in my yard, kind of like dandelion does, if I allow it to go to seed.
Full of calcium and iron this herb makes a nutritional and tasty addition to many dishes.
Unfortunately, Oregano is not very easy to grow in the wet tropics, it is a mediterranean plant after all. However, we are in luck. There is a tropical alternative to that oregano flavor that thrives here called Cuban Oregano.
Cuban oregano is truly a succulent that is often grown as a houseplant, but in the tropics it thrives right out in the garden.
The flavor tends to run a little stronger than its mediterranean counterpart, but still tastes remarkably similar. I think it’s pretty wild how many plants out there mimic each other.
Like culantro, Vietnamese coriander offers a similar much-loved flavor profile as traditional cilantro/coriander but does a lot better in the warm tropical climates.
Unlike regular cilantro which you may have a hard time growing, Vietnamese coriander loves the summer heat and will grow all through the summer so you’ll always have some on hand for your summer salsas and salads!
Keep this plant consistently moist and watch it flourish.
Mint plants grow extremely successfully in the tropics. So much so that often their excessive growth can cause their running root system to take over your whole garden.
Its recommended for this reason that you plant your mint plants in pots or containers to keep them at bay.
Mint has properties that are highly helpful for digestion. Steeping mint into a tea to have after a meal will change your life!
Peppermint has a higher menthol content than spearmint and is often used in sweet or fresh dishes but spearmint has a quality that seems to fit best with savoury dishes.
Lemongrass is a herb that is a jack of all trades. They can easily be disguised in your garden as an ornamental plant. They are tall grasses that look lovely planted as a border along pathways.
Lemongrass is a fresh and flavorsome herb that takes curries to the next level and does well steeped in tea.
The thing I like most about lemongrass is its ability to keep mosquitoes away, therefore, I like to have a lot of it planted close to the house.
Lemongrass is easy to propagate. Just divide a section and stick it into the ground, That is all there is to it.
Curry Leaf Tree
This next herb is a shrub and involves a commitment of time before you reap the benefits. It is slow-growing and takes time to establish roots.
Curry Leaf Trees thrive in the tropics as they do not tolerate frosts. These plants can also be planted in pots and brought indoors away from cool weather if needed.
The leaves are used in cooking much like a bay leaf. Let them swim around in your cooking and simmering and pick them out before serving. As the name implies, it provides a nice curry flavor to your dish, making them perfect for Indian or Thai cooking.
When lime is mentioned, most people think of big juicy limes to garnish drinks with. Kaffir lime trees produce small bitter fruit, what we are really after with this plant is its aromatic leaves.
The leaves hold incredible, strong, fresh flavors that bring an authentic flavor to Asian inspired dishes that cannot be replicated with dried herbs or spices.
Kaffir lime packs a real punch and will take your food to the next level.
The tree itself is slow growing and tends to be very compact. I have one growing near my front door that is about 10 years old and still only 5’ tall. Be careful though, the thorns on this plant can be brutal.