The International Herb Association has chosen hops as its 2018 Herb of the Year. Hops are known for use in beer making, but also serve as pretty ornamental vines that have other uses as well.
Hops are a perennial vine with vigorous growth – up to one foot a day! Vines get to 25 feet in a single season and die back to the ground in winter, making them perfect for screening undesirable views or providing shade and privacy. The vines climb by wrapping around whatever support they find and holding themselves up by gripping with stiff bristly hairs.
The leaves of hop vines are similar to those of grapes. They produce papery, greenish-white, pine cone-like structures called strobils. There are separate male and female vines; only females have noticeable strobils and they don’t appear the first year of growth.
The strobil is what is used in beer making. Under each scale, there are glands that produce a yellow pollen-like powder. This powder is where the hops aroma comes from as do the acids that flavor beer.
Dried strobils are used in flower arrangements and other crafts. They also make a very effective sleep aid, by placing them inside a pillow or sachet.
Several hops cultivars are available from mail order nurseries. If you are planning to make beer, you’ll want to read the cultivar descriptions carefully and do much research before ordering. For other than beer making, you’ll have your preference of more or less aromatic hops, and larger or smaller leaves and strobils. Hops need full sun, well-drained soil free of weeds and grass, and obviously, room to climb.
You’ll be receiving bare-root plants. If it’s too early to plant, refrigerate them in plastic bags up to three months. At planting time, lay the roots horizontally below ground. For planting depth, follow the instructions that come with your plants.
In two to four weeks you’ll see above-ground growth. The first year, hops spend most of their energy producing roots, which may go 15 feet deep! Keep them well-watered that first year; after that, you shouldn’t need to supplement the rainfall.
After the first year, cutting vines back in early summer results in healthier, more vigorous new growth. Delaying growth this way also helps circumvent downy mildew which is less active later in the growing season. It’s also a good idea to snip off leaves and side shoots nearest the ground so water which may contain downy mildew spores doesn’t splash up onto the leaves.
To propagate hops, take cuttings in early summer, or divide roots in spring. If you’ve allowed the vine to creep along the ground, you may find some have rooted. Separate them from the plant in early spring to replant in another location.
Harvest strobils in late August or early September when they lighten in color and feel papery. After the first frost, cut the vines a foot from the ground and untangle them from whatever support you’ve used.