Herbs are plants with savory or aromatic properties that are used for flavoring and garnishing food, medicinal purposes or for fragrances.
The difference between herbs and spices is in what part of the plant they come from.
The green leafy parts of plants used for seasoning and flavoring food are considered herbs.
Herbs are distinguished from vegetables in that, like spices, they are used in small amounts and provide flavor rather than substance to food.
The word “herb” comes from the Latin word herba, meaning grass, green stalks, or blades.
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.
Herbs have a variety of uses including culinary, medicinal, and in some cases, spiritual.
The use of plants as herbs has been important to all cultures since long before history was recorded.
Herbs are mentioned in Genesis, the first chapter of the Bible, and throughout its text. As civilizations developed so did the knowledge for the use of herbs.
In India, Ayurveda medicine has used many herbs such as turmeric possibly as early as 4,000 BC.
In Mesopotamia, the written study of herbs dates back over 5,000 years to the Sumerians, who created clay tablets with lists of hundreds of medicinal plants.
Egyptian schools of herbalists have existed since 3000 BC.
The earliest collection of written articles about medicinal herbs and plants is the De Materia Medica, compiled by the Greek surgeon, Pedanios Dioscorides, in approximately 77 AD. It is considered one of the most influential herbal books.
In Europe the use of spices and herbs as food preservatives spread slowly. By medieval times large quantities of culinary herbs were in use.
Emperor Charlemagne (742–814) compiled a list of 74 different herbs that were to be planted in his gardens. The connection between herbs and health is important already in the European Middle Ages — The Forme of Cury (that is, “cookery”) promotes extensive use of herbs, including in salads, and claims in its preface “the assent and advisement of the masters of physic and philosophy in the King’s Court”
Many herbs have symbolic meaning that goes back centuries, even millenia. For example, the ancient Romans offered wreaths of bay leaves as a symbol of triumph and peace. Earlier, bay was thought to be sacred for the Greeks and to be a protector from disease, witchcraft and lightning. In England, rosemary was called “Rose of Mary” in memory of the Virgin Mary.
People often grow herbs in their gardens. Some people grow herb gardens for the patterned beds that they can create with these plants. Many other gardeners grow herbs for the flavor that the fresh or dried plants add to food.
In the past, herbs were only available during the warm months of the growing season, and at other times consumers had to purchase dried herbs. Today, the business of producing fresh herbs for consumption has become one of the fastest growing industries in agriculture.
There are many culinary recipes that include herbs – becouse their use brings a delectable, distinctive aroma and taste to a host of dishes.
Some herbs can be infused in boiling water to make herbal teas (also termed tisanes). 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. Herbal teas are often used as a source of relaxation.
Herbs contain essential oils, which are the flavouring components of extracts, and they are employed in the production of perfumes, cosmetics, toiletries, lotions, hair products, toothpastes, and soaps.
Dried herbs should be stored in their sealed jars in a cool, dark, and dry spice cabinet.