Jackie French: Best plants for the barbecue

Jackie French: Best plants for the barbecue

The top picks for barbecue time are not those reputed to repel flies and mozzies, but those you can use while you grill, writes Jackie French.

Let us be honest here. There is only one plant you can slip into your garden design that will keep the flies and mozzies from your barbecue, unless you have a friendly biochemist cum botanist who will breed you a vast mutated Venus Fly Trap for Christmas. Possibly the reason these don't already exist is a. it can't be done and b. if it could, your mutated Venus fly trap might consume the cat or even the postie, too.

No, wormwood will not do it nor pyrethrum or lemon verbena or cedronella or even citronella grass if a frost-free area. Lavender can work, but only if the bushes are in bloom, and you have 20of them at least and you stand in the middle of the branches, rubbing yourself gently with the blooms and hoping you don't get eczema.

Corn is grand on a barbecue.

Corn is grand on a barbecue.

The secret plant that really does keep off the flies? Basil. But you need to be totally surrounded by bushes, at least six plants deep, all at least a metre high and thriving. And even then it may not work if you are more than two metres tall. I only know basil works because I used to grow it commercially, and realised that if my doorway was filled with buckets of basil, ready for delivery to restaurants, the flies and mozzies refused to fly in. But one pot of basil on the window sill? No effect at all, or at least not with Aussie blow and bush flies. French flies may more herb sensitive.

There is a rumour that the native Backhousia citriodora will also repel mozzies, flies and even sandflies, though I have never tested its effectiveness. It prefers tropics and sub-tropics, where it grows into a handsome and superbly lemon-scented tree, but in our climate it becomes a bush and even then needs shelter or it will die in the frost. Nor are the leaves strongly scented in cooler climates, even if you can coax them to grow. But Backhosia citriodora leaves smell divine scattered on the barbecue, or wrapped around fish before you place it in baking parchment for baking.

Grilling time is also time to be harassed and bitten by flying things.

Grilling time is also time to be harassed and bitten by flying things.

Other good barbecue plants? A lemon tree, of course, for adding a slice to cold drinks, a squeeze on the barbecued fish, lamb chops or sweet corn (lemon juice and black pepper are a low-calorie delight instead of butter on barbecued cobs of corn). Lemon prunings also make excellent flavoured skewers for kebabs.

Which brings me to grape vines. They'll shade the barbecue, dangle bunches of grapes seductively above your head (and possibly bees, wasps and small birds who leave droppings). They are also excellent for stuffed grape leaves or add the very young tender leaves to salads.

My favourite barbecue plants are chillies, savoury, rosemary and thyme. Throw a bunch of any of those herbs on the barbecue to favour whatever you are cooking and the whole garden too. You can also add them to marinades – a different effect entirely from the charred fragrance of barbecued herbs, but equally good.

Ripe chillies can be thrown on the grill, for anyone who wants to show off and eat them whole and charred and sweet and fiery.

The best-flavoured thyme comes with sun and heat, either in a hot pot or between hot sunny pavers.

But thyme plants vary in power and fragrance. Always squish a few leaves and sniff before you buy. Do the same with tarragon. If you can't smell the crushed leaves a metre away, look for another plant or, at least, grow them in more heat and sunlight to increase the amount of scented volatile oil they produce.

Plants to avoid around the barbecue? Leggy hybrid tea roses, all thorns and stems, and rambling thorny roses too, in case an enthusiastic guest backs into them. Cactus, for the same reasons. Also giant stinging nettle trees, which grow in a few gullies near here, and which I have sometimes fantasised might be a burglar deterrent in the garden, though unfortunately giant stinging nettle trees might deter family and friends too. And any dog unwary enough to lift its leg.

Come to think of it, perhaps the best barbecue plant is the much-maligned grass. You can lounge on it, play with your toy trucks on it, have a go at backyard cricket (penalties if the ball goes over the fence or onto the barbecue). Paving looks smart but stores and reflects heat into the house or onto you. Grass is gentler, softer. Just don't water it till after the barbecue – also good for watering in spilled fruit punch or wine – or you may increase the humidity. Water the night before, so it soaks it up and greens overnight, soft and enticing while you wait for the barbecue to cook.

PS I rarely eat meat, unless it's a locally exterminated feral or served with love and generosity. But barbecued corn cobs, charred, already cooked, cold new potatoes, served with lemon butter, barbecued ripe tomatoes, slices of eggplant, cooked sweet potato, chunks of ripe red capsicum grilled till they're burnt on the edges or zucchini marinated in olive oil, lemon juice and herbs, are a delight, with no meat needed unless you feel carnivorous.

This week I'm:

* trying to work out who ate all the corn and coriander plants – I'd suspect a wallaby but, if it is, then it has learnt to leap on tip toe (or tip paw) leaving no prints or other damage;

* planting more corn and coriander, fingers crossed;

* hoping the sky does the watering – a. because I don't have time and b. because the sky does a better job than I do;

* checking the apricot trees for the first ripe apricots, inspecting loganberries and strawberries for ripe berries and picking the cherries before the birds do;

* watching the tiny zucchini and cucumbers hopefully turn into full-sized ones and not drop off as babies; and

* planting two plants of the most perfect rose in the world, Climbing Souvenir de la Malmaison, bred at the Empress Josephine's rose gardens. We grew one years ago, but sacrificed it when we extended the house. Virginia gave me two for my last birthday and we have the perfect spots for them – one can replace the so-called winter-blooming jasmine outside my study window, which flowers in spring, when we have more blossom than we need, and another on a pergola post where the passsionfruit has finally given up the ghost after about 20 years of faithful fruiting. If these bloom like our last one, there will be masses of flowers all spring and summer and autumn, and even a few blooms occasionally through winter encouraged by the warmth of the house and all the spare water we can give them. Even in a drought the bowls of water left over from cleaning the family's teeth can keep a Souvenir de la Malmaison flowering, with its magically quartered, flesh pink and divinely perfumed blooms.

Recipes: One for the barbecue and some fruity delights

Barbecue corn

Fresh cobs, one per person, husks on. Try brushing with olive oil and crushed garlic or a small amount of chopped chilli before grilling.

Cherry, Caramel and Oranges

This is fiddly, but glorious, possibly the best of summer fruit desserts.

4 cups cherries, pitted
2 oranges, peeled and sliced and membrane removed
4 tbsp orange zest
4 tbsp Cointreau
8 tbsp caster sugar

Place sugar, zest and caster sugar in a pan; bubble till it JUST turns golden. Take off the heat. Add to the fruit and Cointreau. Chill with clingwrap over it. Serve very cold. You can serve with cream or ice-cream – and very good it is too – but it is also a wonderfully light but sweet dessert without any additions.

Strawberry and Peach Jelly (looks stunning)

2 cups strawberries, sliced
2 cups peaches, peeled and sliced (either yellow- or white-fleshed ones)
1 cup white wine
1 cup caster sugar
juice of two lemons
½ cup water
2 sachets gelatine

Use a non-stick cake tin or line a cake tin with plastic wrap. Place layers of the fruit in the tin.

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