Herbs: History,Types, Uses, and Cultivation

Herbs and Spices: Types, uses, and cultivation

“Anyone who thinks gardening begins in the spring and ends in the fall is missing the best part of the whole year; for gardening begins in January with the dream.” – Josephine Neuse  

Herbs have a long and storied history. They have been used in the culinary arts, fragrances, medicine, rituals, and mysticism.  Herbs are plants that don’t produce a woody stem.  A wide variety of plants are considered to be herbs- including annuals, biennials, and perennials. Generally speaking, herbs are either leafy greens or flowering plants that are prized for their culinary uses as well as for their aromatic and medicinal properties.

History of Herbs:

Herbs have been used in many different societies and cultures throughout the world for thousands of years. Some archaeological evidence suggests that herbs were being used by humans dating back some 60,000 years. Herbs have been used everywhere from the Americas to Europe, the Middle East, and throughout Asia.

Herbs were also used extensively throughout the Roman empire for their medicinal, aromatic, and culinary attributes. Both ancient Greeks and Romans would crown their leaders with herbs such as dill and laurel. In the 5th century B.C. the renowned Greek physician, Hippocrates, listed around 400 different herbs and their uses.

Early American settlers brought over a variety of herbs that were used for everything from home remedies to flavoring foods. Native Americans introduced American settlers to a variety of herbs including Black Cohosh which is still used to this day for relieving menstrual cramps and symptoms of menopause. Some Native American tribes used herbs for tanning and dyeing leather.

Popular and Common Herbs: 

Sage – The Romans regarded sage as being sacred. Sage is credited with having many medicinal benefits. One old adage state: “Why should a man die who has sage in his garden.” Medicinally sage is largely credited with aiding in digestion and is also used in  mouthwash. Sage is also credited with helping mental performance. In the culinary arts sage is popularly used as a seasoning for meats, especially pork. It’s also quite popular in herb teas. Sage grows well in dry sunny spots and is favorable to a little wood ash.

Hyssop – First thing first, Hyssop should not be used by pregnant women (according to my YouTube/Wikipedia research). Hyssop is hardy and can grow in poor soil. Historically it was mentioned by Pliny (Roman who lived in the first century AD).  Pliney described a wine made from this plant. Benedictine monks were known to use it for flavoring their liqueur. The Ancient Romans use Hyssop as a cleansing agent and it was widely regarded as a remedy for lepers. As I may have already stated, just because the Ancient Romans did it, doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea.

Laurel – Historically Laurel was used in Ancient Rome to crown emperors and men of influence. Laurel was also dedicated to the Greek god Apollo ( the god of music, prophecy, healing, sun and light, and poetry) as well as the god of medicine, Aesculapius. Laurel is credited with being a light narcotic (I wouldn’t recommend smoking it). Laurel was also believed to protect people from disease, evil spells and lightning. Although I’m not an authority on evil spells, I am fairly certain that it won’t protect you from lightning, but what do I know.

Mint – Mint is popularly used in the culinary arts for pastries, sauces, and herbal teas. Medicinally it’s typically used as a diuretic, digestive, and most commonly for coughs and colds. Mint grows well in sunny areas or in partial shade. Mint grows exceptionally well and can easily spread, in doing so becoming a nuisance if not tended to.

– Parsley is high in vitamin A and C, as well as Iron. It’s native to the Central Mediterranean area and is used as a garnish as well as in soups and stews. Both the Greeks and Romans regarded parsley as a symbol of death and rebirth. As such, it was used in burial rituals and was also attributed to the Greek goddess Persephone (Greek goddess of spring and the underworld).  Parsley grows best in moist, well drained soil with lots of sun.

Oregano- Oregano is a perennial herb of the mint family  (Lamiaceae). Although it’s native to the Mediterranean region, it grows quite well throughout North America. Dried Oregano leaves are popularly used in Italian cuisine. In Ancient Greek culture, oregano was used as a symbol of happiness. Bridal couples were crowned with garlands made of oregano.

Borage – It was used to lower temperatures and fever caused by colds or bronchitis. Also used for rheumatisms. The Greek medic Dioscorides remarked on its use against depression and for its relaxing properties. The Romans used it particularly as a flavouring in foods and drinks. They brought it to England where it is still widely appreciated.

Rosemary (ros marinus, meaning sea dew) – burnt for purification. In fact its antiseptic properties meant it would be used to preserve foods. It was also placed in the hands of the dead.

Basil (ocimum basilicum) – was introduced into Europe by the Romans. Amongst the various stories it is said to have been found growing on the spot of Christ’s crucifixion by the Empress Elena (mother of Emperor Constantine) and from hence exported across the empire.

Fennel (foeniculum vulgare) – In Ancient Rome Pliny advocated using fennel for problems with the eyesight. At the risk of stating the obvious, just because the Ancient Romans did it doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea. Medicinally it’s used in making tea and is said to aid in digestion. In terms of culinary pursuits, Fennel is often used in soups, salads, and even cakes.

Dill- Popularly used for flavoring pickles and sauerkraut. Dill is an annual and will reseed itself. Seed should be sown in early spring when there isn’t any risk of frost. Grows well in the sun or partial shade.

Catnip- As the name suggests, Catnip is known for attracting cats. It’s leaves are most commonly used to make soothing teas that ease nervousness and for combating colds and flue. Catnip is a perennial that’s known for being hardy and can grow in either the sun or light shade. It can be grown from either seed or division.

Chives- Chive are easily grown indoors and require little care. It’s a perennial herb that can be grown either from seed or division. Chive is an edible herb that is most commonly used in soups and stews. It’s also popularly used  in traditional herring dishes that are served during Swedish midsummer celebrations. Chives are are also commonly used in French cuisine. Chive grows best in well-drained soil rich in organic matter. Chive is also known to repel insects. As such, it’s popularly grown as a companion plant to help protect plants that may be susceptible to insect infestation.

Lavender- Lavender is generally grown from cuttings. It tends to grows best in dry, sunny locations with good drainage. Lavender tends to require little care and can grow in a wide variety of climates. It’s most popularly used for it’s rich and distinct aroma making it a popular ingredient for perfumes and air fresheners. It’s also an extremely popular essential oil. Lavender was also used in Ancient Rome, primarily in temples to prepare “holy essence.” Although it’s not popularly used in cooking, it is used in various tea blends. Honey bees are known to be particularly attracted to lavender and it also makes a great ornamental plant. Medicinally lavender has been used to reduce stress, encourage a good night’s sleep, and as an antiseptic.

Thyme- There are several different varieties of thyme, including lemon, orange, and wooly. Thyme grows best in light, well-drained soil with full sun. It’s generally grown from cutting or division. Thyme has been popularly used throughout history. Most notably by the Ancient Greeks who used it in baths and also burned it as incense in their temples. Ancient Romans also used Thyme for its aromatic properties, as well as for flavoring. The Ancient Egyptians used thyme for embalming. It was also used in Europe as incense and placed on coffins during funerals, and was believed to assure ones passage into the next life. Medicinally thyme is most popularly used as an antiseptic.

Peppermint- Peppermint is a perennial herb that generally grows best in moist, shaded areas. Since it’s a hybrid, it tends to be sterile. However, it can/will expand quickly by rhizomes. As such, many gardeners have found that they need to cut it back each year to prevent it from spreading across to great of an area.  Peppermint is an extremely popular for flavoring such things as ice cream, chewing gum, and toothpaste.

Tarragon- Tarragon is most commonly known as a culinary herb, most notably used in French cuisine. It’s also popularly used in flavoring soft drinks, primarily in countries such as Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia.  Tarragon is also popularly used medicinally to aid in digestion. Terragon is most commonly grown from division. This is largely due to the fact that they seldom produce seeds, and when they do, these seeds tend to be sterile. Terragon is a perennial herb that grows best in full sun. French Tarragon should not be confused with Russian Terragon, which although maybe easier to grow, is considered inferior in flavor.

Anise- Due to it’s licorice like flavor, anise is commonly used in cakes, as well as for flavoring drinks, and candies. Most notably it’s used to flavor various European liquors, most notably French absinthe. Anise has been used extensively around the world more it’s medicinal properties.Most commonly it’s used for treatment of menstrual crampsand colic. Anise is best planted in the early spring when there is no danger of frost.

Angelica- Used medicinally as a rub to ease symptoms of rheumatism. Angelica are a shade loving perennial herb that can grow up to 6 feet tall. Although it’s not commonly used for cooking, the  roots and seeds are occasionally used to flavor gin.

Horseradish- The roots of the Horseradish herb is popular used in the culinary arts, typically used for making sauces and flavoring meat. I once put it on my ice cream thinking it was whip cream. Believe me, it doesn’t taste anything like whip cream and I would not recommend pairing it with ice cream. Horseradish has also been used medicinally as a diuretic.

Rue- Rue is an easily grown perennial that generally grown for it’s ascetics.  Rue is not used to any great extent in the culinary arts. Rue is used is common in folklore, primarily in Lithuania where it’s considered the national herb (I didn’t know that was a thing) and is associated with young girls, virginity, and “maidenhood.” Rue is mentioned in the Bible, Luke 11.42: “But woe unto you, Pharisees! For ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs”…. So there’s that.

Yarrow- Yarrow should not be consumed by pregnant women. Common Yarrow is also known by its Latin name Achillea millefolium. Achilliea refers to Achilles, a great Greek warrior from Greek mythology. Achilles supposedly used yarrow for various medicinal purposes.  Medicinally yarrow is know to cause perspiration, as such, it has been used at the onset of colds and flue. Yarrow is quite popular with gardeners, due largely to the fact that it grows well in many different kinds of soil. It grows well in full or partial sun and prefers moist soil.

Woodruff (Galium odoratum) Woodruff is a perennial that grows well in partial shade. As such, it’s a good plant for ground cover under larger plants. It will require frequent watering during hot dry summers.  Sweet Woodruff is commonly used for ground cover and has also been used for flavoring drinks such as German may wine.

Caraway- Caraway grows best in warm, sunny locations with well-drained soil that is rich in organic matter. Caraway is used as an essential oil and is also quite popular in Hungarian cuisine as well as for flavoring European liquors. Caraway seeds are also popularly used for flavoring rye bread.

Calendula- Calendula produces flowers that open during the day and close at night. Popular folklore states that it’s a sign of rain if the flowers remain closed after 7 a.m. Historically it has been used for medicinal, cosmetic, and culunary uses.

Comfrey: Used for external uses ONLY! Medicinally it has been make into a paste and used for cuts, bruises, and sprains. They are great for compost since they break down quickly. Comfrey is a perennial and will spread if not kept under control. It grows well in shady areas with damp soil.


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