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What is an herb?

January 4, 2019
By JOYCE COMINGORE - Garden Club of Cape Coral (news@breezenewspapers.com) , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

In botany, the word "herb" is used as a synonym for "herbaceous plant."

In 780, an English scholar, clergyman, poet and teacher named Alcuin met Charlemagne when in Europe. They were discussing this question. They agreed that an herb was, "The friend of physicians and the praise of cooks." Herbs have culinary and therapeutic uses.

My holiday cooking is over for a while, but I have pots of herbs growing in my kitchen window. If I plant them outside, I run the risk of forgetting to water them. Above my kitchen sink, in the window, I have a better chance of seeing their needs. The window is facing the East, a nice early morning light to cheer them on to multiplying and producing. I need to move them out onto the patio, into larger pots.

I've tried nearby garden plots for easy access to obtaining them when I need them, but then watering goes amiss.

Defined in botany as herbaceous plants, small, seed-bearing plants without woody stems, that die at the end of their growing season, then grow back the next year, perennials. Although some are annuals that die each year and need to be reseeded for future growth. Still, however, some like sage, rosemary and lavender do not die down each year and have woody stems. Herbalism utilizes not just stems and leaves, but the fruits, roots, bark and gums.

So how do I nail down the definition of an herb?

One suggested definition of an herb is a plant which is of use to humans. An ancient philosopher divided the plant world into trees, shrubs and herbs. Herbs were classified in to three groups: pot herbs, sweet herbs and salad herbs. As selective breeding came in the 17th century, they changed them from wild plants and began to refer to them as vegetables, no longer suitable to only grow in pots.

Culinary herbs are distinguished from vegetables, being used in small amounts only, providing flavor, more than adding substance to foods. They are perennials like thyme or lavender; biennials like parsley; annuals like basil; shrubs like rosemary; or trees like bay laurel. Oregano and thyme are vining clumps. Mints spread like vines and have both culinary and medicinal purposes.

Medicinal herbs go as far back as prehistoric times. Physicians studied the effects of plants as medicine.

Some plants contain phytochemicals that affect the body. Some consumed in small amounts aid our health, but in larger doses are deadly: nitroglycerin, St. John's-wort, kava. Traditional Chinese herbal medicines, with usage dating back to the first century; India's Ayurveda medicinal systems are based on herbs. Modern pharmaceuticals had their beginnings in crude herbal medicines. Some herbs contain psychoactive properties used for both religious and recreational purposes since the early Holocene era, notably cannabis and coca plants. Monks would cultivate herbs alongside their vegetables, or set them aside in medicinal gardens for specific purposes. Myrrh, frankincense, neem leaves, holy basil, turmeric, cannabis and white sage were considered holy plants.

Herbal cosmetics date back to around six centuries ago in the European and Western countries. Mixtures and pastes were concocted to whiten the face. The 1940s brought bright red lipsticks. Herbal cosmetics take many forms: face creams, scrubs, powders, fragrances, body oils, deodorants, sunscreen.

Scattering herbs on floors or porches leave fragrant or astringent smells to cover bad odors, also serving as insecticides or disinfectants. Before hygiene awareness, herbs were scattered around and used.

Nothing beats having pots of herbs around available for snipping and using. Plants in pots need much attention. They go dry quickly if it is hot and when cool, weather keeps water from being utilized, rotting occurs. Different herbs have different moisture needs.

1. First, I love to have a full pot of basil. A warm weather annual, having well drained soil and sunshine gives you a nice size clump for frequent harvesting. It needs trimming to keep it bushy and growing.

When you see flower spikes shooting up, clip them off, the leaf flavor declines when blooming starts.

2. I have a small pot of chives for clipping for flavoring dips and sauces. The light oniony taste satisfies and clippings decorate any foods being served. The hollow tubular stems let you know they are oniony.

Flat stems are garlic chives.

3. Parsley needs a deep pot. Being biennial, it lasts two years to mature, but they can turn into a small shrub. It develops a long white carrot or parsnip-type root and needs depth to flourish. Parsley is a tasty garnish, adding color to any plate of food. Curley or flat leaf Italian are varieties to choose.

4. Rosemary is a flavor I love added to many of my foods. Stuff a turkey or chicken cavity with a stem of rosemary and a stalk of celery. Strip the needles and add to potatoes, meats. In our growing zone, the upright rosemary becomes a sturdy bush, so give it room and sunshine, don't overwater, no wet feet. I have seen topiaries done from rosemary, delightful but difficult for me to maintain. There is a rosemary that cascade downward, perfect for edges of pots or planters.

5. Thyme does well as a potted plant. Drought tolerant, it can take a bit of neglect. Full sun and on the dry side soil. Try English thyme or Lemon thyme. Love the variegated yellow and green leaves variety with a lemon scent and flavor.

6. Greek oregano fits into a small pot to help control it's growth. It will spread. Sprinkle the small leaves on any tomato food, add to vinaigrettes or marinades. Don't overwater.

7. Mints - best grown in pots, it REALLY spreads. Put several varieties together in a big pot. Clip for cool drinks, freeze in ice cubes, add to fresh fruit salads. Needs rich soil and ample watering. Soak but don't saturate.

I realize I have avoided sage - can't seem to keep it alive. Growing from seed can be complicated, it takes two years to mature, growing by cuttings or layering is best way to get this soft grey woody stalked plant to flourish. Fresh is a subtle flavor, whereas dried is a concentrated flavor so use one-third needed amount with dried.

Sage advice - grow all herbs in well drained medium and in Florida, filtered or at least 6 hours of partial sun.

Happy New Year!

Joyce Comingore is a Master Gardener, hibiscus enthusiast and member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.

 
 
 

 

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