Stretching our View of Herbs

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What usually comes to mind when thinking about herbs is a low bushy plant with fragrant leaves and blooms, like basil or thyme. It's a much broader category, however. An herb has been defined as "...any plant or plant part that has historically been used for medicinal, culinary or fragrance purposes" and also, simply, as "a useful plant." Gardening with Herbs | Herb Gardening | U of I Extension

Every year, the International Herb Association chooses an herb of the Year. This year, it is Hops (Humulus lupulus).This long, vigorous vine is a hardy perennial in Zones 3 to 8 with the foliage dying back to the ground each winter. Rhizomes are planted in the spring and vines need to be trained to sturdy supports starting in May. Each plant produces multiple vines that can reach 20 to 30 feet. There are both male and female plants, but only the latter produce the cone-like structures called strobiles that contain lupulin glands full of oils and resin that provide the aroma. The hops plant needs full sun and well-drained soil.

Growers should select the top two or three vines for each trellis and plants should be at least 3.5 feet apart. A tall and strong support system must be provided to avoid tangling vines and decreased production. Cones appear as the weather warms up and are typically ready to harvest in August. Hops need steady watering during the growing season and monitoring for pests including spider mites, aphids, leaf hoppers, and Japanese beetles.

Hops plants have been in use for centuries, but the proliferation of microbreweries in recent years has caused a spike in hops cultivation by specialty growers and home gardeners. The University of Illinois Extension Logan-Menard-Sangamon Master Gardener volunteers planted two varieties (Humulus lupulus 'Aureus' and Humulus lupulus 'Newport') four years ago in the Herb Garden at the Illinois State Fairgrounds. These plants have done well and attract a lot of interest from visitors to our Garden.

The main use of hops is to flavor beer but its anti-microbial properties inhibit the growth of organisms and contribute to flavor stability, too. Hops plants have also been used medicinally.

Pictures show hops growing at the Herb Garden, Master Gardener Janice Buscher giving a presentation on hops, and a hops bloom. The Herb Garden is located on the Illinois State Fairgrounds in front of Building #30 along 8th Street in Springfield. You are welcome to stop by.

Contributing author and photos by Barbara Rogers, Master Gardener volunteer.