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herb garden
Picture Credit: “Herb Garden” by Amanda Kae’s Photoz is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The word herbaceous is derived from the Latin herbāceus meaning “grassy”, and is derived from herba “grass, herb”. Herbs have a variety of uses, including culinary, medicinal, and in some cases, spiritual. In general usage, herbs are plants with savoury or aromatic properties used for flavouring and garnishing food, medicinal purposes, or fragrances, excluding vegetables and other plants consumed for macronutrients. Culinary use typically distinguishes herbs from spices:

  • Herbs generally refer to the leafy green or flowering parts of a plant (either fresh or dried)
  • Spices are usually dried and produced from other parts of the plant, including seeds, bark, roots and Fruits.

Tea comes from the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant, a shrub native to regions of Asia. Some herbs can be infused in boiling water to make herbal teas (also termed tisanes[1]). Typically the dried leaves, flowers or seeds are used, or fresh herbs are used. Herbal teas tend to be made from aromatic herbs, may not contain tannins or caffeine, and are not typically mixed with milk. Common examples include chamomile tea or mint tea.

Herb Facts
Did you know that…

  • Fresh herbs contain more antioxidants (fighting cancer and heart disease) than some fruit and vegetables.
  • Rosemary is rich in antioxidants that help maintain vitality and slow the ageing process.
  • The Romans believed that the consumption of mint would increase their intelligence and the smell of mint in their houses was also a symbol of hospitality.
  • Growing a pot of basil in the kitchen may smell good to us but not so to flies and mosquitoes, which are repelled by the aroma.
  • Mint leaves or oil deters ants, and a few scattered leaves in your cupboards can prove a useful, natural solution.
  • Fresh herbs aid the digestion of food (especially fat) and help eliminate toxins from the body.
  • Chives have a beneficial effect on the circulatory system, lowering blood pressure.
  • Dill is effective for the treatment of colic, gas and indigestion. It was once an important herb in witchcraft and a purported aphrodisiac. It has a distinctive sour flavour that makes an interesting and sometimes unexpected statement in cooking. The leaves, seeds and flowers of the plant can all be used.
  • Today we use the majority of the traditional ‘strewing’ herbs to make scented sachets to deter moths, for potpourri to sweeten the room and a variety of other aromatic uses.
  • Herbal seeds have been found in prehistoric cave dwellings dating back as far as 500,000 years ago. Our ancestors have always used herbs in cooking and health remedies.
  • The Egyptians studied herbs and used them in medicinal and religious functions as far back as 3500 BC.
  • The Chinese began the organised study of herbs in 2500 BC. Written records in China have survived showing the uses of herbs that date from 100 BC.
  • Parsley is a natural breath freshener, particularly in combating the potency of garlic.
  • Ancient records reveal recipes for herb infused oils and creams in the tombs of legendary beauties such as Cleopatra.

In botany, the term herb refers to a herbaceous plant, defined as a small, seed-bearing plant without a woody stem in which all aerial parts (i.e. above ground) die back to the ground at the end of each growing season. Usually, the term refers to perennials, although herbaceous plants can also be annuals (where the plant dies at the end of the growing season and grows back from seed next year), or biennials. This term is in contrast to shrubs and trees.  

Culinary Herbs
Some plants are used as both herbs and spices, such as dill weed and dill seed or coriander leaves and seeds. There are also some herbs, such as those in the mint family, that are used for both culinary and medicinal purposes. Herbs can be:

  • perennials such as thyme, sage or lavender
  • biennials such as parsley, or annuals like basil
  • perennial herbs can be shrubs such as rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) or trees such as bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) – this contrasts with botanical herbs, which by definition cannot be woody plants

Some plants are used as both herbs and spices, such as dill weed and dill seed or coriander leaves and seeds. There are also some herbs, such as those in the mint family, that are used for both culinary and medicinal purposes.

Medicinal Herbs
Herbs were used in prehistoric medicine. As far back as 5000 BC, there is evidence that Sumerians used herbs in medicine and was inscribed on cuneiform. In 162 AD, the physician Galen was known for concocting complicated herbal remedies that contained up to 100 ingredients. Some plants contain phytochemicals that have strange effects on the body. There may be a limited effect when consumed in the small levels that typify culinary “spicing”, but some herbs are toxic in larger quantities. For instance, some types of herbal extract, such as the extract of St. John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum) or kava (Piper methysticum), can be used for medical purposes to relieve depression and stress. However, large amounts of these herbs may lead to toxic overload that may involve complications, some of a serious nature, and should be used with caution. Complications can also arise when being taken with some prescription medicines.

Herbs have long been used as the basis of traditional Chinese herbal medicine, with usage dating back to the first century AD and far before. In India, the Ayurveda medicinal system is based on herbs. Medicinal use of herbs in Western cultures has its roots in the Hippocratic (Greek) elemental healing system.

The Royal Horticultural Society Guide to Herbs
The Royal Horticultural Society provide a brief guide to growing and using some of the most commonly-grown herbs:

  • Basil (Ocimum basilicum): Grow in rich, light, well-drained to dry soils in the sun. Pinch out growing tips to encourage bushiness and delay flowering, though regular sowings are still needed to have a summer-long supply. Leaves are picked during the growing season and used fresh or dried. Purple-leaved cultivars have ornamental value
  • Bay (Laurus nobilis): Grow in well-drained soil in the sun or part shade. Bay also lends itself well to container-growing. Trim to shape in summer, removing suckers from standards and topiary as they appear. Leaves can be picked in summer for drying.
  • Caraway (Carum carvi): Grow in well-drained, fertile soil in full sun, tolerant of heavy soils. Leaves and roots used fresh as a vegetable, seeds, when ripe, used dried.
  • Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium): Grow in rich, light, moisture-retentive soil in part shade. Has delicate anise flavour, leaves are used fresh in salads or in French cooking; the flowers and roots are also edible.
  • Chives (Allium schoenoprasum): Grow in rich, well-drained soil in full sun, although it is tolerant of wet conditions and heavy soils. Cut down to the ground after flowering to produce fresh leaves. Chives have a mild garlic-like flavour; leaves, bulbs and flowers are all used.
  • Coriander (Coriandrum sativum): Grow in well-drained fertile soil in full sun, but leaves may be more productive in part shade. Leaves and roots are used fresh, especially in Thai cooking. Dried seeds can be used in curries and pickles.
  • Dill (Anethum graveolens): Grow in well-drained neutral to slightly acid soil in the sun. Leaves are cut in spring and summer for using fresh or dried; seeds harvested in summer for use dried, all widely used in cooking, especially Scandinavian cookery.
  • Marjoram (Origanum vulgare): Grows best in well-drained to dry, neutral to alkaline soil in the sun. Leaves are picked during the growing season; often used dried in Italian, Greek and Mexican cuisine.
  • Mint (Mentha spp): Mentha is a well-known genus (in the Lamiaceae family) with medicinal and aromatic value. It is grown in rich, moist soil in the sun or part shade where it may become invasive, so it is best grown in a container and regularly divided. The intensely aromatic leaves are used for flavouring and tea.
  • Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) Grow in rich, well-drained neutral to alkaline soil in the sun or part shade. Pick leaves just before flowering and use fresh ingredients in French, Italian, and Middle-East cookery.
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): Grow in well-drained, ideally neutral to alkaline soil in full sun with shelter in cold areas as it rarely survives prolonged freezing. Remove dead stems and weak growth in the spring, prune after flowering to encourage bushy growth. Fresh or dried leaves are used for flavouring, especially meat such as lamb. Fresh sprigs can be steeped in vinegar or olive oil.
  • Sage (Salvia officinalis): Grow in well-drained to dry neutral to alkaline soils in full sun. Sage dislikes damp conditions and low light in winter. Many cultivars have excellent ornamental value. Hard prune in early spring to promote bushy growth. Leaves are used to flavour many dishes, especially meat. Fresh or dried leaves are used for tea.
  • French Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus): Grow in well-drained, neutral to slightly alkaline soil in the sun. Pick leaves before flowering. Has distinctive, aromatic leaves used to flavour chicken and egg dishes, salad dressing and sauces
  • Thyme (Thymus vulgaris): Grow in well-drained, even stony poor soils in the sun; most thyme prefer neutral to alkaline soil. Trim lightly after flowering to maintain a bushy form. Fresh or dried leaves and flowers are used to flavour many dishes, especially French cuisine

Herbal Histories: from the National Trust magazine for Spring 2021

  • Thyme: the Romans used thyme for massage oils, baths, and as an antidote for snakebites. It is a beautiful stock flavouring and is also used in stews. It is a good accompaniment for carrots and leeks. Because thyme has a strong flavour, you don’t need to use much of it.
  • Tarragon: Once called little dragon mugwort, tarragon is aromatic, a taste slightly of aniseed and grows well in containers. French tarragon needs to be grown from cuttings. Tarragon is excellent in vinegars and salads or with chicken, fish or eggs.
  • Marjoram: is closely related to Oregano and is often used in Italian dishes, tomato sauces and pasta. It is said to have been grown by Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Greek Oregano is good for drying. Marjoram is milder, and usually, it is used whilst fresh.
  • Lovage: Has recently been rising in popularity. This herb had a taste similar to celery and can be used in stews, soups and salads. As it can grow up to 1.8 metres high, you should be careful where you plant it.
  • Parsley: has traditionally been used to garnish meat and fish salads. It brings a bright and mildly bitter punch to a plate. It is also used in tabbouleh and as one of the key ingredients in a French herb bundle or bouquet garni, adding flavour in soups and stocks.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Tisanes are teas that don’t contain leaves of the Camellia Sinensis. Instead they are infusions made from the leaves, roots, berries, and spices of other plants.

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