If I had to rank the culinary herbs I grow at the melodious garden, from absolute most favorite to very very least favorite, lemon verbena would be at the very tippy top of the list, most favorite, hands down. Second on the list, just a pinch and a speck below my beloved lemon verbena, would be salad burnet. Thankfully asking a gardener to name their favorite plant is akin to asking a parent to name their favorite child. It is simply too hard to compile such a list, with too many variables at play. Are we ranking by usefulness or simply by beauty? It soon becomes problematic, so best to just start rambling on about the merits of all, which is my preferred method. For plants, that is, not children. Having only one child, it is easy to have a favorite. But – if asked about culinary herbs – salad burnet would always land a solid second place.
Salad burnet features petite deeply serrated leaves, which have a clean cucumber-like taste. Now do I use it in the kitchen as much as the old standbys, rosemary, parsley and thyme? Most likely not. But this herb is versatile, unique and quite flavorful. Sadly, it is often overlooked, both by gardeners and by garden centers. When I am able to find it in the nursery trade, I am apt to buy a half dozen or more starts, either for my own garden or to give away to fellow gardeners. (I have not yet tried to grow from seeds, but that is on my list of Garden Goals for 2023.)
I love to use salad burnet in salads, soups, sandwiches and egg dishes. It is especially good mixed with cream cheese as a spread for tea sandwiches. Salad burnet brightens up many beverages, from fresh squeezed juices to homemade lemonade. It pairs especially well with lemon, cucumber and celery.
As the name suggests, it really shines as a salad herb. Simply strip the leaves from the stem and toss with your lettuce greens. Young, tender stems can be minced and added, as well.
The young, vibrantly green leaves make a fabulous edible garnish!
Salad burnet grows in a small clump from one central root, with the soft stems arching out from the center. The younger, smaller leaves have the best flavor, so for that reason I regularly harvest from the outer stems so that none of the stems ever reach their full mature size. That is also a great way to keep the plant looking tidy, as the older stems can get weighed down and create a lovely habitat for pillbugs, if grown out in the garden. If I intend to use as a garnish, I will harvest the youngest, brightest green leaves.
After twenty-plus years of growing salad burnet, I find that I prefer to grow it in a container, where its foliage can cascade over the edge of the pot. If we end up with a spell of brutally hot and dry weather, such as this past summer, I can easily move it to a bit of shade if need be.
This herb is generally considered an evergreen in zones 7 and 8. I have not dried salad burnet for winter use, as it is said to not hold its flavor well when dried. I much prefer to use salad burnet fresh and, thankfully, we seldom get snow cover or long periods of freezing weather, so I am able to harvest fresh much of the year. If I was not able to have fresh year-round, I would most likely freeze salad burnet for winter use.
Depending on what reference book you are reading, salad burnet may be listed as either a biennial or a short lived perennial. In my experience, it is a short lived perennial, generally living about three to four years in my garden. It is listed as invasive in several online references, but I have never seen or heard of it being invasive in the North Texas area. Our growing conditions in zone 8a, Dallas-Fort Worth, are generally nothing like its native habitat.
The flowers are either inconspicuous or fascinatingly Dr. Seuss-ish, depending on your perspective. I find they make an interesting addition to a small floral arrangement.
In my garden, salad burnet generally tops out around one foot tall and maybe as much in diameter if I am not harvesting on a regular basis. It will tolerate full sun if watered on a regular basis in summer, though will well with partial sun.