Unusual Garden Plants of the Culinary Kind

Durell Godfrey and Bridge Gardens Photos
In addition to prickly pear, other culinary herbs, such as two varieties of rosemary, chicory, and comfy, are cultivated at Bridge Gardens.

To the casual observer, or first time visitor to the East End, probably the two most prevalent and visible plantings are hydrangeas, hydrangeas, hydrangeas — and privet. Lots and lots of privet. So many people have neat little rows of blue hydrangeas lining the perimeters of their estates. The privet hedges out here can grow so high they need telephone pole repair equipment to trim them. They are so popular and common, a skin care line Hampton Sun (natch!), has a privet bloom perfume.

But look a little more closely and you will find some remarkable and unusual plantings. There are cacti in the dunes and cranberries in the bogs of Napeague and Montauk and opium poppies with lazy drunken bees taking a snooze inside of them.

At the South Fork Natural History Museum’s native wildflower garden there are prickly pear cacti growing quite happily. They may not bear fruit as they do in the arid desert landscape of Arizona, but I learned from Rick Bogusch, garden manager of the Peconic Land Trust’s Bridge Gardens that cacti actually grow in all 50 states.

Many other species of plants that do quite nicely in our climate and are native to this area are bee balm, which was used by Native Americans for dental care, poultices, and, uh, flatulence. Monkey flower was used as a salt substitute.

As a gardener, landscape architect, and avid cook, Mr. Bogusch enjoys growing unusual and often culinary specimens. His Italian green (or herb) known as “sculpit” survived the winter. He describes its flavor as a cross between arugula and tarragon, and he suggests using it in salads and egg dishes. Another hardy green is his chicory, Gerumulo bionda, a very popular miniature-headed variety from Italy. Bridge Gardens also grows prickly pear cactus and he says it “always invokes questions” with its pale yellow blooms in June and carpet-like growing habits.

The herb garden there has a type of comfry called Bocking 14, developed in Russia and proven effective for dressing wounds and healing broken bones. Within the greenhouse, a Meyer lemon tree happily produces perfumed fruit, and two unique varieties of rosemary spend their winters indoors but were already sunning themselves outside the door in late March. One is Majorca which has pink flowers and smells like rosemary but with a hint of pine. The other variety is called “barbecue” rosemary and is specifically grown for its strong straight stems, perfect for skewering lamb kebabs for the grill.

When Mr. Bogusch waxed poetic about one of his favorite plants, the tall, purple Moor grass called Windspiel, which grows to seven feet, I asked him if there are any plants he has tried but was eventually heartbroken or disappointed about becauses they wouldn’t grow. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned about serious gardeners and farmers, they like to push the envelope as much as a Formula One driver.)

Mr. Bogusch tried to grow a red hot poker plant but it just didn’t like our summers (can you imagine?!) and it got all moldy and withered away to rot. Adding insult to injury (or minor botanical failure) the darned plant stunk up the garden when it died and had to be removed.

My friend Justin is a devoted gardener, gourmand, and excellent cook. When not working on his current biography, which includes such foodies luminaries as Richard Olney, M.F.K. Fisher, A.J. Liebling, and others, he is planting and tending berry bushes, roses, herbs, vegetables, and flowers galore. He grows opium poppies for their silvery blue foliage and “preppy” pink flowers. When their petals fall and leave a silhouette of poppy pods, they are still a beautiful decorative element in his garden. He does, however, have a friend who once harvested the pods, made a tea, and took a really long nap.

His garden is primarily focused on attracting bees and birds and butterflies, pollination, propagation, and food. What would his pipe dream plants be? Passion fruit and Italian prune plums which just won’t thrive in this 6-B zone. According to Cornell’s planting zone map, most of Long Island is zone 7 but there is a pocket of 6-B.

Unlike most folks, perhaps the ones with the blue hydrangeas aligned like soldiers and high pristine privet hedges, Justin and his partner, Tony, don’t really use their garage to park their cars. It is a sanctuary for lollipop gardenia topiaries, lemon balm, melissa, and winter lettuces — an indoor/outdoor home for plants. “All gardens take time and effort. We grow things that make us happy!” And the birds and the bees!

Rick Bogusch, the general manager, above, enjoys introducing visitors to the unusual plants at Bridge Gardens.
The prickly pear (left of the stone walk) has pale yellow flowers in June; its fruit can be harvested in the fall for juice and jellies.
This monkey flower marker is among the many in the South Fork Natural History Museum’s native wildflower garden.