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Herbs are annual, non-woody plants normally grown from seed. The flowers, leaves, stems, seeds and roots of these “herbs” are used in cooking or for medicinal purposes.

The name “herb” comes from the Latin herba, meaning grass or herbage. Herbs are plants whose use has been known for millenia and records of their use may be found in Persian, Egyptian, Arabian, Greek, Indian and Chinese traditional texts. Many names given to plants giving details of their cultivation and use. The names of many are a reminder of their use and that their cultivation was once restricted to monasteries which were centres of agriculture, each having its own herb or “physic” garden.


Varying therapeutic and culinary usage

The categorisation herbs includes several thousand plants with varying effects. The use of herbs include nourishment, tonics, stimulants sedatives, and even potential poisons.

Nourishing herbs

are the safest herbs. The green portions are used as foods, like spinach. They contain high proteins, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, carotenes, and essential fatty acids levels. Some nourishing herbs are: alfalfa, amaranth, astragalus, calendula flowers, chickweed, comfrey leaves, dandelion, fenugreek, flax seeds, honeysuckle flowers, nettles, plantain (leaves/seeds), purslane, red clover blossoms, seaweed, Siberian ginseng, slippery elm, violet leaves, and certain wild mushrooms.

Herbs as Tonics

Herbs that are used as tonics are consumed in small quantities for long periods of time. A rule of thumb states that the more bitter the tonic,the less one needs to consume. Herbs used as tonics include Echinacea, fennel, garlic, ginkgo, ginseng, ground ivy, hawthorn berries, lady’s mantle, and lemon balm, raspberry leaves, St. John’s wort, and turmeric root.

Sedating and stimulating herbs

The consumption of sedating and stimulating herbs may cause adverse reactions and cause the consumer to behave absnormally. Reglar usage may lead to addictions and loss of bodily functions. These herbs include opium, rhubarb root, cayenne, or coffee. The strength and size of the dosage in therapeutic cases is usually inversely proportiuonal to the duration of its intake.

Herbal tonics with stimulating qualities do not ususally cause addictions. Some of these are citrus peel, ginger, hops, lavender, marjoram, passion flower, peppermint, rosemary and sage.

Potentially poisonous herbs

Herbal poisons includebelladonna, blood-root, celandine, foxglove, goldenseal, henbane, iris root, lobelia, May apple (American mandrake), mistletoe, poke root, poison hemlock, stillingia root, turkey corn root and wild cucumber root. Many schools of medicine use these as part of treatments. For example, belladona is used in homeopathy to treat headaches and insomnia, but in tiny therpeutic doses. It may be noted that these should never ever be taken without the advice of a certified medical practitioner.


Almost all herbs have therapeutic uses and some like - rue are used to a large extent in modern drug manufacture.

Herbs are more popularly used to flavour food and certain herbs are traditionally used in conjunction with certain foods to make digestion easier. Medicine apperas to have followed cooking very quickly and was the obvious results of combining certain food with specific herbs must have lead people to come to conclusions that quickly gained therapeutic repute.The Sumerians were apparently using thyme and laurel medicinally by 5000BC and the Chinese, in 2700BC had a herbal listing of 365 plants.

These therapeutic properties probably quickly aquired the appearence of magical properties which herbs were soon credited with. The Romans, for example, believed that a wreath of bay leaves would protect the wearer from lightning if worn during a storm.

Herbs in the kitchen

The use of herbs in the kitchen is ruled by culinary traditions which vary from country to country.

Every cuisine has its favourite herbs: Oregano, mint and dill in the Middle East and Greece are used a lot in lamb dishes; in Thailand, coriander leaves are a common garnish and the citrussy flavours of lemon grass and kaffir lime flavour many dishes; in Britain, sage with pork and the green sage derby cheese as well as mint with roast lamb; Dill for fish in Scandinavia, soups in Russia and Denmark and for pickling cucumbers in America; Basil with tomatoes in Italy and rosemary with lamb. Savory with beans in Germany; tarragon with chicken in France and so on.

Fresh herbs are preferred to dry ones in cooking, and many such as parsley, basil, fennel, marjoram and thyme can be grown in pots or on a window-sill. The flavour of dried herbs is more intense than fresh ones since the water content has been reduced, concentrating the flavours. Additionally, the nutritional/ medicinal/ therapeutic content of the herb remains unimpaired. For every teaspoon of dried herbs use 3 teaspoons of fresh ones.

Storing and Drying Fresh Herbs

To store fresh herbs, wrap them separately in paper towels, put them into plastic bags and keep them in the vegetable compartment of the refrigerator.

To dry herbs, pick them just as they are beginning to flower when their flavour will be at its strongest. Gather them on a dry day and hang in bunches away from sunlight. Alternatively, slow dry in a very slow oven. Crumble, sieve and store them in airtight containers away from sunlight. Use as soon as possible.


  • Botanical.com
  • The Book of Ingredients: Philip Dowell and Adrian Bailey: Penguin/ Mermaid Books 1993
  • Larousse Gastonomique

See Also