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growing savory from seed

Two Seasons, Two Seasonings: Growing Savory from Seed

Are winter savory and summer savory the same thing? That's a question a lot of home chefs ask when they're stocking their seasoning stash.

The answer? Nope!

Chances are, if you're at the grocery store and come across a seasoning labeled "savory," it's Satureja hortensis, or summer savory. Winter savory (Satureja montana) is seldom found in markets, though it's no less valuable as a culinary herb and ornamental.

What's the Difference?

We'd say, "think of them as a feminine, dainty sister and a rough-and-tumble, masculine brother," but we don't want to ignite a gender war, especially because we've got some uber-feminine ladies in our family-centric staff who could kick the burly backsides of pretty much all the guys around here.

So we're playing it safe.

The savories differ both in appearance and in their roles in the kitchen. Winter savory is a shrubbier plant, while summer savory is more tender and often somewhat taller and expansive.

Summer savory is a bit sweeter and milder than S. montana, but both share the same flavor notes. A taste of savory will resemble—as well as complement—these herbs:

  • Pepper
  • Mint
  • Sage
  • Thyme
  • Marjoram
  • Oregano

Summer savory is best suited for dishes that require a light touch—seafood, salads, and fresh cheeses. The more robust winter savory takes on dishes that require longer cooking times, or those that require a more potent seasoning; it's often used in stews, sausages, tomato sauces, bean soups, and as a seasoning for roasted red meats.

Savory's Cultural Heritage

Savory is native to the Mediterranean region of southeastern Europe, where—like most of the herbal superheroes—it thrives on rocky hillsides and in depleted soils.

In Germany chefs call the savories bohnenkraut, which means "bean herb", and in French cuisine, savory is often used in bouquet garni, which is a small bundle of herbs cooked with soups and sauces, or placed in poultry cavities. (It can also be wrapped in cheesecloth if you don't have fresh sprigs). Remember that scene in Bridget Jones' Diary when the heroine inadvertently turns her potato leek soup blue? She tied her leek-wrapped bouquet garni with blue string.

Please. Don't do that.

Savory is among the oldest culinary herbs. The Greeks and Romans were early adopters, putting it in pretty much anything they'd stuff in their faces. They even used it to flavor vinegar and wine and were the first to recognize savory as a digestive aid...which they certainly needed, given that they were pretty much always stuffing their faces and boozing it up.

Savory wasn't just a participant in food orgies; it was thought to be an aphrodisiac, and to give the guys a little bit of "get up and go". And we're not talking about trips to the vomitorium.

Savory's role as a party herb (in regards to the above...not the stuff that's giving Colorado another reason to celebrate the term, "mile high") earned it its family name. Satureja is derived from the Satyrs, which were the goat-legged minions of the Greek God of Good Times, Dionysus.

Savory made its way into English cuisine in the mid-16th century, where it's still used in the UK as a popular breading recipe for fish among other things. It crossed the ocean to the New World with the colonists and early records claim it made the "if you were stranded on a wild continent, what plants would you absolutely have to have" list.

Savory as a Medicinal Herb

Savory doesn't have a significant role in herbal healing since most of its medicinal properties are fairly common among other herbs. The crushed leaves from either plant are known to relieve bee stings and wasp bites, and even today it's considered as a digestive aid.

Of the two savories, S. montana is the most potent and contains a high percentage (30 to 50%) of carvacrol, so winter savory shouldn't be written off as an herbal remedy. Here's why carvacrol is so important to plant-based medicine:

  • Studies show that carvacrol may be effective in beating the crap out of cancer cells.
  • Carvacrol is effective in fighting candida yeast infections.
  • It's proven to eliminate salmonella on commercial produce, on work surfaces, and in water.
  • It's also useful in eliminating Listeria monocytogenes, Escherichia coli, and Campylobacter jejuni.
  • Carvacrol is an anti-inflammatory.
  • It reduces blood sugar levels.
  • It's an antioxidant, promoting the good cholesterols while fighting the bad.

Check out this link for more information on carvacrol's benefits, which includes references to scientific studies.

Savory in the Garden

When we think "ornamentals" we tend to think of plants that are kept only for their aesthetic value, but really, we know that herbs and many vegetables could justify their existence for their beauty alone. The savories aren't as flashy as other members of the mint family, but they're still gorgeous. They hold their own wherever you stick ' long as you abide by their environmental preferences.

S. hortensis and S. montana resemble a smaller version of its cousin, rosemary. Where rosemary's leaves are somewhat needle-like, winter savory's shiny foliage is narrow and ovate, with a lighter green hue. Both savories, like rosemary, have white, lavender, or pink tiny flowers that begin blooming in mid-summer. Savory's blooms are fused, four-to-five petal flowers in a bell shape, unlike rosemary's two-lipped, orchid-like blooms...but close enough.

    Both varieties require full sun and barely tolerate partial shade. Allow the soil around your savories to dry out before each deep watering.

    Savory is considered an excellent companion plant, especially for beans and peas. And with these seasonal varieties, growing savory from seed is a breeze. Which is pretty cool, considering that summer savory is often used to flavor pea soup, and winter savory is, as we mentioned, the "bean herb".

    Winter Savory

    Its shrubby, upright growth habit, usually about 18" tall and 8" to 12" across, makes it a nice low border hedge, and some gardeners have planted it around for rosemary plants that have gone a bit "leggy," or to create a more graduated look around the taller herb. But these are just a couple examples. It's grown as a semi-evergreen perennial in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8. If you plant your winter savory in pots, you can bring it indoors when the temperature drops if you live in the colder zones.

    Winter savory actually prefers rocky, poor soils, but it's usually a good idea to throw in a little compost when you're planting it, and again at the end of the season. Its stems become woody as the plant matures, a trait common to hardy perennial herbs.

    Summer Savory

    As we've mentioned, S. hortensis is a bit more delicate than winter savory and is grown as an annual. It prefers a slightly richer soil and can tolerate more frequent watering. Its leaves sometimes have a mossy green color and are usually lighter than those of S. montana.

    Because you won't be overwintering your summer savory, you can grow it in just about any USDA Zone.

    Growing Savory from Seed

    We recommend direct-sowing savory once you're past the danger of frost, and the soil has warmed to about 70°F. You won't have awful luck starting them indoors about 8 weeks prior, but savory gets persnickety about having its roots disturbed.

    Seed Spacing: Sow, thin, or transplant your winter savory plants 12" apart, or about 3" to 4" apart for the shorter-lived summer variety. Because it can be difficult to germinate, you might consider scattering the seed and pulling out crowding seedlings. If you do plant in trays or, preferably, peat pots, use the freshest seeds possible and consider double-seeding each pot or pellet.

    Seed Depth: Plant all savory seeds no more than 1/8" below the surface, as it needs sunlight to germinate.

    Germination: Savory germinates in 10 to 21 days. Winter savory drags its feet a little.

    Maintenance: Prune savory to just above the woody base in early spring, just before it breaks dormancy. This will keep it compact, and encourage new, less woody growth.

    Pests and Diseases: The savories aren't prone to predation or pestilence. In fact, it's believed to repel most pests from themselves and neighboring plants.

    Harvesting: You can pinch new growth from either variety to help retain the plant's compact shape, and to get the best flavor. Savory leaves are most potent in the morning. We'll refrain from making a joke at this point. You're welcome!

    We prefer to yank out summer savory plants toward the end of the season to dry and store their leaves, using the leaves from winter savory on an as-needed basis. Both plants mature in around 70 days.

    Sweet! Savory Recipes!

    Most of the savory recipes you'll find in cookbooks or online sites call for summer savory because it's the easiest to find. We'll leave it up to you to obey your palate when you decide which variety you'd like to use for your favorite dishes. As a guideline, use winter savory when you need to crank up the flavor.

    Summer Savory Bruschetta Topping: Have a taste of Tuscany with herbs and tomatoes looted from your garden.

    Green Bean Salad with Summer Savory Vinaigrette: Spoil your vegetarian guests with this recipe, and use those green (or yellow) beans!

    A Collection of Winter Savory Recipes from The Campaign for Real Farming includes:

    • Apple, Nut and Savory Stuffing
    • Cassoulet
    • Tuscan Bean Soup
    • An overview winter savory as with bean dishes

    Stock Up on Fresh Savory Seeds

    Are you becoming an herbaholic? We'll enable you. You can order your varieties straight or choose some fancy mixers. We only sell top-shelf quality, and we only buy our stock in small, fresh quantities. If you're looking for a gallon jug of rot-gut, well, the best we can do is throw a blanket over you when you face-plant at the end of a tough growing season and eagerly await your order the following spring.

    Contact Seed Needs today to catch your gardening buzz!
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