I recently dug and divided the salad burnet in my herb garden and a thought occurred to me — why didn’t more people use this ancient herb? With its clean, crisp cucumber flavor, salad burnet is surprising to those who try it for the first time, and appreciated the more it’s used in the kitchen.
Introduced to Elizabethan England in the 16th century as an ornamental herb, the leaves were floated as a garnish in goblets of wine. Eventually they found favor in European cuisine (where they’re often bundled together with other herbs at the markets these days), the name alone telling you what they’re most used for.
But salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor) isn’t just for sprinkling on salads. It can be folded into cream cheese or compound butter to brighten little tea sandwiches, or infused into a bottle of vinegar to make a zesty salad dressing. It can turn into a fresh, tangy puree for topping steamed fish and swirling into light soups. And personally, my favorite is using it as a garnish for gin and tonics, iced teas, lemonades, and what I call “spa water” — cold, refreshing glasses of cucumber- and lemon-scented water.
Like many Mediterranean herbs, salad burnet is drought tolerant and heat tolerant. It’s a hardy perennial in zones 4 to 10 and can even survive mild winters outside, despite its delicate appearance. With some protection in severe climates, it’s one of the first plants to bounce back in spring.
Salad burnet spreads by rhizome and seed and stays green all year long, growing in a low, loose rosette of fern-like sawtooth leaves. It forms a clump that can easily be divided to transplant elsewhere. In spring, clusters of pink and purple flowers appear on spikes, eventually drying into seeds you can collect (or you can simply let the plant self-seed).
If you cut your salad burnet back (and you should, to encourage the growth of tender and tastier new leaves), you can save the flowers to eat; they’re especially pretty as a salad accent. I liken the taste to borage, another cucumbery plant. The leaves can be stripped off the stems or the stems can be used whole. Their flavor is freshest when picked and eaten the same day.
With my cucumber plants winding down for the season, having a handful of salad burnet leaves to toss into a bed of greens instantly brings a bit of summer into the kitchen… a nice way to tide me over until the next crop of cukes come into the garden.