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More herbs, less salt:  Healthful ‘Holy Land’ herbs grow well in Tucson

Rosemary thrives amoung the citrus trees in Jacqueline Soule's Northwest Tucson garden.

The American Medical Association cautions that many Americans consume too much salt. The AMA encourages us to reduce our salt intake because excess sodium boosts blood pressure, leading to heart attacks, strokes and kidney failure. The problem is that we like flavor in our food, and most of us learned that salt enhances flavor. For a far more savory and healthful approach, try herbs in your cooking instead of salt. There are a vast array of herbs that easily add appetizing flavors to food and possibly years to your life.

Freshly harvested herbs are ever so much more flavorful than those dried and sold in tiny tins or bottles. There’s also a deep satisfaction in growing and harvesting your own foodstuffs. Start small! Try some Holy Land herbs in pots on the patio, or they can be grown in the landscape. The starter list includes rosemary, germander, oregano, marjoram, sage, and thyme. Even if you have a “brown thumb” you should be able to grow these hard-to-kill herbs.

I call them Holy Land herbs for good reason. These herbs are indeed found growing in Israel and the surrounding region, surviving in the wild for millenia, or perhaps escaped from ancient settlements.

These herbs are strong. They can withstand high heat, low humidity and plenty of bright sunlight. They can take light freezes and often come back more vigorous from conditions that would kill other plants. All of these herbs do best in well-drained soils and prefer drying out a little between waterings. This describes our Southwest growing conditions. These herbs are also tough to kill. People have been digging them up and moving them around for millennia.

These Holy Land herbs are mostly low growing shrubs or slightly woody perennials. They are small enough to grow in pots on patios. They can also be grown in the yard, and fit into Southwestern landscapes exceedingly well.

Rosemary is perhaps the strongest and toughest on the list. Rosemary and its cousin germander are both available in two forms, upright or shrubby versus prostrate or creeping. Creeping forms work well as groundcovers, filling in spaces on slopes or trailing over edges of pots. The upright forms can be used as low shrubs in the landscape. Germander has small rounded, glossy green leaves, while rosemary has needle-like dark blue-green leaves. Both can be used the same way in cooking.

Oregano and marjoram are the next most tolerant of our climate. They are closely related in flavor, but marjoram is the milder of the two. Both are low-growing and do better if they get some afternoon shade in summer.

Culinary sage is a pretty plant, even if you never cook with it. The silver-green leaves are soft and fuzzy, plus they smell great. A fun plant for kids of all ages to investigate, sage does best with some afternoon shade in summer.

Thyme is one herb I killed many times. Then, while hiking in the Galilee, I learned the trick of growing thyme. Several species of wild thyme thrive there in rocky nooks, half-hidden under boulders. Home again, I planted my thyme on the shady north side of my Tucson home in soil with sand added, and it thrived.

Yes, I have killed plants, and you will too. That is just part of being a gardener. Plants die and you try again. Try more sand in the soil, or a different variety, or more shade, or more water or less water. If at first you don’t succeed, do try again. Once you start using your own herbs for your cooking, you may never need to reach for the salt shaker again.

Jacqueline Soule is the author of nine books on gardening in the Southwest. In her most recent book, “Southwest Fruit and Vegetable Gardening” (Cool Springs Press 2014), she covers the herbs mentioned here. Soule offers free lectures through the Pima Public Library. Learn more about growing and using herbs on her website, gardeningwithsoule.com.