Tuscan herbs

Last day in Tuscany today. Even now in mid October, there are plenty of herbs still in flower: thyme and marjoram, oregano and rosemary grow at the side of every path. Sage and lavender, mint and lemon balm are still in full leaf, too, though the flowers are gone.

There’s a reason why these lovely aromatic herbs are so abundant here. The oils they contain help them to resist drying out in the long, hot summers; back in England, they don’t fare so well in our cold, damp winters and heavier soils. And the oils also make them less palatable to insects. All of them are natural pesticides, antifungal and antibacterial, though some are more effective than others. And there is a roughly inverse relationship between the level of oils in a plant and the environment where it is growing: the more marginal, in poorer soil or higher ground, the more powerfully aromatic the plant will be.

And of course, the same qualities that help them to repel insects and diseases make them all the more attractive to us. Added in small quantities to our food, they bring it to life and make our taste buds sing, while helping to preserve it as well. Taken in larger quantities as medicine, they boost our immunity and ease inflammation. And if we have plenty of them in our food, we too will become less attractive to biting insects like mosquitos. As long as we don’t over-harvest this wild bounty, it goes on giving generously, year after year, century after century. It’s a wonderful bargain on both sides.

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