Think candy: mint, chocolate, licorice, cinnamon, sugar, root beer, tutti frutti bubblegum. If a group of elementary school students were told that this was the subject of their next science class, or health class, would the teacher have their attention? If this was a description of flavors available on the school lunch menu, would school lunch become popular? Sure, but the parents and the folks behind the Healthy Schools Act would be up in arms! Right?
Not so fast. Welcome to the Candy Store Herb Garden, the most popular herb container garden on the Murch Elementary School campus. Whether you are teaching plant science, nutrition, cooking, the human senses, the evolution of human technology, or art, a themed herb garden is a great place to start. This small container of herb plants hosts some powerful and tasty lessons. Just look at the descriptions of scent and flavor in this list of plants:
Agastache ‘Tutti Frutti’ – smells like bubble gum to most kids. This is a beautiful, short-lived, native perennial with tall, spiky, pink flowers. It attracts pollinators and hummingbirds … and students.
Agastache foeniculum “Anise Hyssop” — some swear it smells like root beer with a twist of mint. One sugar craving nine-year-old calls this native perennial the Root Beer Plant – and he would know! He harvests it to make his favorite herb tea. It also has the intriguing quality of altering human saliva such that everything you eat after it tastes sweeter. This makes it an awesome herb to mix into vegetables and the subject of a fun chemistry experiment.
Mentha pierita “Chocolate Mint” — seriously smells like mint chocolate chip ice cream. Be sure to plant this one in a pot though, as it is a very aggressive sprawler. Mint plants boast a wide variety of interesting fragrances, so go taste testing and pick your favorite. All of them have a home in the Candy Store.
Pelargonium tomentosum “Scented Geranium, Peppermint Tom” — when one student found this fuzzy-leaved, minty plant at DeBaggio’s Herb Farm in Chantilly, Virginia, he just had to have it — after all, it shares his dad’s name.
Pelargonium “Scented Geranium, Cinnamon” — You can find geranium naturally scented with a shocking variety of pleasing smells like mint, apricot, rose, strawberry, and more — many of these would do nicely in the Candy Store.
Ocimum basilicum “Cinnamon” — this basil has a pleasant cinnamon undertone; some of the purple basils have a cinnamon scent too.
Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’ or bronze fennel — like licorice, but better. This feathery, bronze-colored herb smells and tastes like licorice, and the seeds are great to chew on when you have a tummy ache.
Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa or French tarragon — tastes like licorice, but it also has the super fun ability to make your tongue go numb! Kids love that trick.
Stevia rebaudiana — strong taste of sweet sugar. Stevia is so awesome that sugar megacorporations tried to get it banned – not that there’s anything wrong with the plant except that is sweeter than sugar with none of the unhealthy side effects. This annual is the first to disappear from “overuse” in the garden at Murch.
All of these plants are easy to grow (and hard to kill) and most are perennial. For the past four years the Candy Store has been the most popular herb container garden on campus at Murch, thriving only in the summer when fewer students are around to devour its leaves. During the school day, students look at it, touch it, smell it, and taste it. Although they have been taught to rub a leaf gently between their fingers and smell the oil that rubs off on their skin, the urge to taste can be overpowering. Kids are eating leafy greens!
So aside from being beautiful, and smelling and tasting wonderful, what does this group of plants have to offer the elementary school student? First of all, it is a plant, so any teacher trying to illustrate plant parts could use these popular herbs to do so. They have roots, stems, leaves, and flowers, and the licorice-flavored bronze fennel in particular has delicious seeds that even preK students can harvest and replant – if they don’t eat them all first. These flowering herbs also attract helpful bugs and pollinators and some repel harmful bugs. Teaching the senses? These plants offer a range of colors when in bloom, smells that will cause some excitement and possibly some debate, and a variety of forms and textures to inspire budding artists. The link to cooking and nutrition is fairly obvious, but the opportunity for students to use their own imagination in creating recipes is where the real excitement lies. And for older students it does not take long for an important scientific question to arise: is this where the flavors in commercial candy really come from? History and chemistry teachers, have a field day! Literally.
Favorite Herb Resources:
Tucker, Arthur O. and DeBaggio, Thomas. 2009. The Encyclopedia of Herbs: A Comprehensive Reference to Herbs of Flavor and Fragrance. Portland, London: Timberpress Inc.
Creasy, Rosalind. 1999. The Edible Herb Garden. Boston, Singapore: Periplus Editions.