I originally came across this plant in Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs many moons ago, and after the internet took off, started searching for it high and low. I was very kindly sent a small cutting by an interstate nursery with an order, but one day of typical Adelaide summer weather put pay to that. Then a couple of years ago, I was able to order a couple of packets of seeds from a US nursery. This was after waiting for AQIS to list it as a permitted import, which they did quite quickly as they’d had a number of requests about the plant. How’s that for a government department!
I only managed to grow one plant to maturity from the first sowing, but it produced enough seeds for me to grow a second run this year (which was good as I’d misplaced the packets). This time I thought more about the conditions it would need: a plant from mountains in the Mediterranean and Middle East… The seeds were sown on top of potting compost with a thin covering of vermiculite.
Success! A baker’s dozen meant that I had enough to grow a decent crop for us and pass on plants to interested parties including the “local” herb nursery: Hillside Herbs at McLaren Vale. I’ll also be contacting the nursery that originally sent me a cutting.
So, what’s it used for? There’s zatar (funny, that) – the spicy mixture for dipping bread (after a dip in olive oil), and no doubt any other recipe that calls for some herbal zip. I’ve asked a number of acquaintances from the Middle East what they would use it for, but they tell me that za’atar is thyme, or Syrian oregano. It could be any one of a number of plants, including Satureja. I guess it depends where you’re from and what herb is locally available to give that spicy-herby flavour.