Before Eastern spices came into common use, savory was valued for its bold, spicy flavor. Before pepper was even discovered, it was utilized as a substitute - albeit a very poor one. It came originally from the mountains and cliffs of southern Europe and the moors of Provence and once again it was the Romans that traveled with it and popularized it in other countries. Lore states that savory belonged to the satyrs, the goat-like woodland deities of ancient myth, who supposedly only lived in meadows of this herb.
There are two types, the perennial winter savory (Satureja montana) a small woody evergreen shrub and summer savory (S. hortensis), an annual. Both summer and winter savory are equally useful to cooks and are somewhat reminiscent of thyme in both taste and appearance but with bigger leaves.
Summer savory is bushy and low-growing but is the sweeter or softer of the two. Its long narrow leaves (but slightly larger and more rounded than the perennial) grow sparsely along the stems bronzing slightly in late summer. The tiny flowers range from pale lilac to white. It is slow to germinate, but plant summer savory from seed where it will grow - it dislikes transplanting - in a rich, light soil where it will get lots of sun, a fair amount of moisture and excellent drainage. Pinch lightly at the start to make it bushy and by summer, harvest the tender leaves for salads or add to culinary dishes - especially green vegetables and of these especially green beans. Like a few other herbs, summer savory has carminative properties - you were supposed to have looked that word up by now - that aid digestion and the early colonists used it, as well as dill, almost more for that purpose than flavor. I think it has a unique taste all its own but some detect an undertone of mint, thyme or even marjoram and so summer savory can have everyone munching their greens without complaint.
Winter savory, on the other hand, is a dense hardy subshrub that is evergreen in warmer climates with dark-green leaves that are smaller, stiffer and more pointed than the annual with a distinctive central vein that creates a fold. Winter savory also needs sun, can tolerate poorer soil (say a rock garden) that is well drained and less moisture. Cut back winter savory after flowering and even propagate new plants from cuttings as the plant tends to become spindly and less leafy after two years. Here it would need extra protection in winter or better yet brought indoors. Winter savory is better used in dishes that require longer cooking such as stews and soups where the oil in the leaves can release and have a chance to diffuse and become more of an undertone to the dish. It also is particularly good in stuffings, rubs and the making of sausage and salami.
Now that the satyrs are gone we share savory with the bumblebees, and with a little imagination and experimentation, this herb, with few aromatic peers, will add wonderful flavor not only to our culinary efforts but also to the honey the bees make.
Jane McLeod is a Master Gardener through the Routt County Cooperative Extension Office. For information: http://rcextension.colostate.edu or call 879-0825.