If you’d like to make the spring holidays a little more homestead-y and home-grown, here’s how to grow bitter herbs for Passover. We’ve given detailed instructions for growing four bitter herbs, with suggestions for a few others. Shalom and Happy Passover!
The following article includes excerpts from our newest book, Homestead Holidays, which walks homestead families through the holidays of the year. Learn to grow your homestead family by celebrating together amidst all the work of each season.
What do Bitter Herbs Represent in Passover?
Herbs play a huge role in the traditional Passover meal, the Seder. Meant to represent the harshness of life and to serve as a reminder of the bitterness of the slavery of the ancient Israelites, these herbs make the meal!
- Bitter herbs, referred to as maror in Hebrew, are reserved for a special part of the meal.
- So, too, are chazaret, or bitter vegetables, which are often interpreted to mean celery or bitter lettuce, like escarole.
- Lastly you have, karpas, another vegetable, often interpreted to mean parsley.
Each part of the meal has a meaning and the herbs are meant to remind the participants of the Seder of the bitterness of the slavery of the Jews in Egypt.
What are Some Bitter Herbs for Passover?
If you’re Jewish, then you probably already know that the Mishnah (a collection of the oral traditions of the Rabbis and forming part of the Talmud, Jewish scripture) designates five herbs that will suit for Passover. There’s some disagreement as to the meaning of the words, but it’s commonly accepted that three are:
- romaine lettuce
If you’re not Jewish, you might be a little more broad in your meaning of “bitter herbs.”
We usually use home-grown horseradish for the maror, and typically forage the chazoret and even the karpas, for our Seder plate because it’s simple to do and free of charge.
We have also used dandelion greens which are more bitter the older and bigger the leaves are.
Substitute Bitter Herbs
Other commonly used stand-in maror/chazoret/karpas plants include:
*The book of Exodus tells us that hyssop was used to paint the doorway of the faithful families with the blood of the sacrificial lamb ensuring that the angel of death would pass over their household without incident. This is probably why it’s considered a suitable maror herb.
Unless Passover falls late in the spring, my hyssop isn’t usually up in time to be of much use, though your climate might be warmer. Horehound, too, can be elusive in the early spring; if yours is up, use it because it has a unique flavor!
All of these herbs can be easily grown so that you always have a supply of appropriate herbs for your Seder dinner. A bonus is that these herbs have other wonderful uses, as well. We will feature four herbs here and how to grow them, and then encourage you to research others to add to your herb garden.
When to Start Growing Bitter Herbs for Passover?
Passover moves around the calendar from year to year because it is a holiday that follows the lunar calendar. (We have a whole section in Homestead Holidays that explains why some holidays do that – it can get so confusing to people who are used to using the Gregorian calendar!)
Suffice it to say, because Passover can begin in March one year and in April the next, it can be hard to plan growing bitter herbs. What is ready for harvest in March will be different than what is ready in April.
Consequently, I’ve given you a variety of ideas on what to grow for bitter herbs. To get you started, here are few ideas (more growing details follow in the body of the article below):
Bitter herb seeds to start in early spring indoors:
- Endive – 75-80 days to maturity
- Parsley – 15-30 days to germination – it can be a slow starter!
- Horehound – 15-30 days to germination
Endive can be started indoors AND grown indoors, if the weather is too cold for transplanting outside once Passover comes. It can then be transplanted and enjoyed all through early spring, and then again in late fall. More details on growing follow.
Parsley seeds can be finnicky to start and you’ll want to start them 6-8 weeks before your last spring frost date. The plants can be started from cuttings, if you know someone who is growing parsley.
They are biennial plants, which means they have a 2-year life cycle. If you plant parsley one year, you can harvest it for one more year. If your climate is temperate, you can begin harvesting it in spring. Parsley is hardy down to zone 3.
Plants to start outdoors in early spring or late fall:
While you can grow horseradish in a container, it’s typically easier to grow in the garden because of how it spreads and how deep the roots go. On the other hand, maybe you don’t want it spreading across your garden and a pot sounds like a great idea.
Either way, you can take horseradish root cuttings for planting either in the early spring (at Passover time), or in the fall before the ground freezes.
Horehound is hardy as low as zone 4 and can tolerate cold winter temperatures by going dormant down to its crown. If you plant in fall, the cold temperatures will stratify (or condition) the seeds to germinate well. Mulch the horehound seedbed for winter protection.
If you live in temperate winter areas, you will probably be able to harvest several baby leaves from under the mulch. It may also be starting its new spring growth by the time Passover rolls around in your climate. You may also plant it in the spring garden, but you may need to cold stratify the seeds. (See the list below for an article detailing how to do that.)
How to Grow Bitter Herbs for Passover
Let’s walk through the growing requirements for a few of these possible maror/chazoret/karpas herbs, as well as how you might use them in other ways. We’re including information on how to grow them in pots since many areas will be still under winter temperatures when Passover rolls around.
For in-ground growing, please not that any perennial herb or veggie will benefit from a layer of leaf or straw mulch where winter temperatures are low and cold. Each plant listed here varies in cold tolerance, but all have at least some ability to withstand a certain measure of cold.
A mulch layer in winter will simply ensure their survival – like tucking them in with a blanket.
Plant: Endive (Cichorium endivia) is a member of the chicory family, as are specialty lettuces like radicchio and escarole. Curly endive is the most lettuce-like. Lettuce of any kind is very easy to grow in a container, which is good since Passover may fall so early in the spring that none of your spring veggies dare set foot outside for fear of frost. You can, of course, purchase a head of any bitter lettuce from the grocer.
Since endive is an annual which begins and ends its life cycle in one year, you may decide that it’s not worth it to grow it yourself. On the other hand, if like me you are itching to grow something come March, anything in the lettuce family can easily and quickly scratch that itch. Many loose leaf lettuces will grow from seed and be edible in less than two months!
Pot Size: 6″ pot – If you want to grow two endive in one pot, use a 10 inch pot.
Planting Depth/Spacing: Place seed 1/4” into the dirt and cover loosely with soil. Plant out at about 4” spacing between plants. If planting in the garden, consider a cold frame for frost protection.
Sun: Full sun or part shade.
Notes: Keep endive well watered to promote decent growth. Depending on where you live, you might also be able to forage for endive’s cousin, common chicory (Cichorium intybus). It doesn’t usually start leafing out until late spring/early summer in my climate, but it’s worth a look. Though it flowers in late summer and fall, it’s the bitter leaves you want for maror.
Either endive or chicory leaves will work nicely as chazaret, while chicory root could be used as maror. If all you had was endive for karpas, that would work, too – although veggies like potato or onion are acceptable to use.
Plant: Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) is a member of the Brassicaceae family, as are mustard and cabbages. Horseradish is cold tolerant and is usually one of the first things to pop up in the spring. Horseradish actually benefits from being dug up and harvested every other year after it’s first two years of being in the ground. Passover time is usually a great time of year to do that, or you can harvest in the fall.
Horseradish is a perennial, so it will come back year after year. It’s propagated by root cuttings that can be planted in new patches around fruit trees to deter pests. Use the largest taproots for turning into horseradish puree for your favorite roast beef recipe. Use the smaller roots for replanting. If any roots are hard and stringy (usually those over 3-4 years old), just compost them.
Pot Size: Big, at least 3 feet deep and 12” diameter – a wine tub or livestock trough will work well.
Planting Depth/Spacing: Grows well outside and tolerates cold; plant small root cuttings 8-12” deep. Keep soil loose for quality root development.
Sun: Sun or part shade.
Notes: The youngest spring leaves of horseradish are the most mild, tasting a little like cabbage or kale, and could work as karpas. It’s most common to use the root for maror on your Sedar plate. Visit the link to The Herbal Academy to learn more about growing horseradish.
Plant: Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is a member of the Apiaceae family, like carrots and celery which is why their foliage all tastes similar. Parsley is one of the most widely recognized culinary herbs being used as a garnish and major ingredient in dishes like tabbouleh, gremolata and Mom’s chicken soup. It’s typically thought to aid digestion, and grows very well both in pots and in the garden.
Parsley seeds can take awhile to germinate but you can grow parsley easily from transplants. Just watch for their baby leaves to emerge in the spring, or divide mature plants in the fall. Parsley is frost tolerant and doesn’t mind growing in the shade.
Pot Size: 8-10″ as the plant will bush a bit
Planting Depth/Spacing: Plant seed 1/4” deep; space plants 6-8” apart.
Sun: Full sun or partial shade
Notes: There is a wide variety of leaf shapes and flavors of parsley. The flat leaf parsley looks a lot like cilantro, while the curly-leafed parsley would be particularly handsome on your Sedar plate as either chazeret or karpas.
Plant: Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) is a member of the mint family, which you can easily see by examining its square stem. The square stem is always a tell for the mint family! Horehound is an old herbs, often referred to as houndsbane. The flavor is certainly bitter, but it’s also savory and would make a great chazeret herb. In fact, the word botanical name of horehound derives from the Hebrew word marrob, meaning bitter.
Pot Size: 8-10″ as the plant will bush a bit
Planting Depth/Spacing: Plant seed 1/4” deep in spring; space plants 6-8” apart. Horehound will tolerate poor soils and some neglect. Using a sharp shovel to cut, you can also divide the plant in the fall to plant out elsewhere.
Sun: Full sun or partial shade
Notes: Horehound is traditionally used in cough syrup and cough drops, and has been found in cottage herb gardens for centuries. It grows easily and well in most climates, and can take some frost. One caution if you let it go to seed, be aware that the seed pods produce casing akin to stickers. You’ll need to process the seed stalks with gloves to prevent being stabbed mercilessly as you winnow out the seed.
Keep on top of the seed and cut away any stalks not needed for saving because horehound self-sows readily.
More Bitter Herb & Other Herb Resources
Here are a few more herb-y articles that might help you. If you have any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments section below.
Michal Irby says
Very cool article! I hope to try some of these ideas out!
Homestead Lady says
So glad you enjoyed it, Michal! I hope it proves useful to you, even though it does take some planning ahead. There’s something quietly satisfying about using herbs you’ve grown yourself.