Centuries ago, the interior atmosphere of the average home frequently was filled with rather unpleasant odors. Long before the availability of plug-in air fresheners and scented candles, plants were used to help to make homes more livable by masking unpleasant odors. With their aromatic foliage, herbs accomplished that task very well and frequently were strewn over floors. Walking on these plants helped to release their fragrances and make the home more tolerable. Additionally, many herbs were thought to possess medicinal properties, giving rise to their early use as a treatment for various ailments. Today, herbs add zest to our diet as well as fragrance to our lives and are becoming increasingly popular with gardeners.
From a botanical standpoint, an herb is a non-woody plant that dies back to the ground at the end of each growing season. A more functional definition of an herb would be a plant whose leaves, stems or seeds are used for their aromatic, culinary or medicinal properties. This would include plants used for food as well as those used for aesthetic reasons.
Herbs have been used by humans for thousands of years in a number of interesting (sometimes novel) ways. For example, the Romans used dill to crown their heroes as well as to purify the air in their banquet halls. The Chinese considered artemisia to have special charms and in Medieval France babies were rubbed in artemisia juice to protect them from the cold. Ancient Greeks used parsley as a treatment for stomach problems and sweet marjoram as a tonic. Greek athletes crushed mint leaves and used them as a lotion after bathing. Mint was also reported to produce aggressiveness. During the Middle Ages, rosemary was used as a tranquilizing agent and cure for headaches while Scottish highlanders used thyme to impart strength and courage as well as to prevent nightmares.
Early immigrants to the United States brought herbs with them and used them to add pleasant fragrance to their surroundings, help treat their ailments and flavor their food. The latter was important because poor preservation methods of that era often led to foul-tasting food. Although these settlers found many familiar herbs growing in the wild in their new country, herb gardens became an essential part of the pioneer homestead. They were usually located in a sunny spot close to the house for ease of tending and harvesting. While the need for growing one's own herbs declined with the advent of modern merchandising, many gardeners today are rediscovering the satisfaction derived from growing herbs in their gardens.
The Brooklyn Botanic Garden's lists 73 different types of herbs which are classified into one or more of the following categories: 1) culinary herbs, 2) aromatic herbs, 3) ornamental herbs, and 4) medicinal herbs. The culinary herbs (e.g. basil, parsley and chives) probably are of greatest interest to home gardeners since their pungent flavors add flavor and appeal to food.
Aromatic herbs such as lavender, lovage and mint are used to scent linens or clothing as well as for potpourris and sachets. Most of these are members of the Lamiaceae (formerly Labiatae) or mint family and produce strong volatile oils which can last for considerable lengths of time, even after harvesting and drying.
Ornamental herbs such as catmint have brightly colored flowers and/or foliage and are used in the ornamental garden along with other plants. Many of the ornamental herbs can be used for other purposes (e.g. culinary) as well.
Finally, medicinal herbs (e.g. feverfew and angelica) are reported to have therapeutic properties. While modern science has confirmed the "active ingredient" or therapeutic compound for a few of these herbs, many probably are highly overrated relative to their medicinal value. While most of the latter are harmless, a few can be dangerous if consumed. Tyler's Honest Herbal (Routledge Press) remains one of the most frequently referenced guides to the medicinal value and use of herbs.
Most herbs can be grown from seed, but a few (e.g. peppermint) must be vegetatively propagated. As a general rule, herbs will grow in any location suitable for vegetable production and many gardeners make part of their vegetable garden their herb garden, also. Herbs demand well-drained soil for successful production. Incorporating copious amount of well-decomposed organic matter into the soil before planting is very helpful in improving its porosity. Herbs require only modest fertility since high fertility leads to excessive vegetative growth and poor flavor. Most herbs appreciate at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight and adequate amounts of water throughout the growing season. Herbs are troubled by very few diseases and insects; if control measures should become necessary and pesticides are used, it is important that they are labeled for food crops. In addition to traditional production methods, herbs are easily grown in containers as long as the medium is very porous.
The following list describes 10 of the most popular herbs today:
1. Basil (Ocimum basilicum) was known as the "Herb of Kings" by the Greeks and was said to have been harvested only by royalty using a golden sickle. Although it had early medicinal uses, today it is an important culinary herb with a rich, spicy flavor. A tender annual, basil's pungency is used to flavor pesto sauce and many Mediterranean dishes. It also complements garlic nicely in flavor. Basil leaves should be picked when young, before the plant blooms. It is quite productive and easy to grow in pots indoors.
2. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) was first used as a condiment by the Chinese nearly 4000 years ago. This perennial species has a mild, garlic-like flavor and is used to flavor salads, soups and other dishes. Chives can be incorporated into butter or cream cheese for use as a bread spread. Harvest when leaves are mature leaving about two inches for regrowth. Chives can be grown indoors.
3. Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) has been cultivated as a medicinal and culinary herb for nearly 3000 years. The seeds of this plant are known as coriander and are used to flavor soups, salads and vegetable dishes whereas the fresh leaves are known as cilantro. The latter adds interest to salads, stews, sauces or can be used as a garnish. Leaves can be harvested at any time; wait until seeds have matured before harvesting them.
4. Lavender (Lavendula spp.) is used more for its unique fragrance than its culinary virtue. It can be used as a strewing herb or dried for use in sachets. It also is quite decorative as a garden plant. Lavender oil is distilled from the plant commercially and has a number of uses including adding fragrance to soaps and cosmetics. Leaves can be harvested at any time; flowering stems destined for drying should be harvested as the flowers just begin to open.
5. Mint (Mentha spp.) includes a number of different perennial species that have been used since biblical times for their zesty fragrance. Although first used as a strewing herb to mask odors, mint is used today primarily as a culinary herb to add flavor to drinks, sauces, jellies and syrups. Mint is quite invasive and should be contained in the garden to keep it from becoming a nuisance. Harvest leaves just before the plant flowers.
6. Parsley (Petroselium crispum) was used symbolically by the Greeks to crown their victors and as a culinary herb by the Romans who consumed large quantities of it. Rich in vitamins and minerals, parsley also saw medicinal use in antiquity. Today, this annual herb mainly is used as a garnish or chopped finely and added to soups, salads and sandwiches to add a unique flavor once described as "the summation of all things green". Outer leaves of parsley should be harvest first. Parsley dries readily for future use.
7. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is said by many to exhibit the true essence of an herb garden and has been used for ages both symbolically and as a culinary herb. During the Middle Ages this perennial herb was used medicinally to "purify the air" and was thought to have disease-preventative properties. Today, rosemary is used in a variety of ways. As a culinary herb rosemary can be added to meat dishes or used to flavor vegetables and bread spreads. Because of its pungency, it still is used as an aromatic herb in potpourris to add fragrance to rooms. Additionally it said to stimulate blood flow when used as an additive to bath water or a facial steam. Harvest rosemary leaves before the plant flowers for best quality. Rosemary also makes an attractive garden plant and can be sheared when used for topiaries. It appreciates moist (but not wet) soil.
8. Sage (Salvia officinalis) has been associated throughout history with longevity of life. Indeed the genus to which it belongs comes from a Latin word salvere meaning "to cure" or "to save". A perennial in nature, salvia is used today primarily as a culinary herb where it has been described as "the prima donna in the grand opera of cooking". However, there are variegated forms of sage which make attractive garden plants as well. Sage should be harvested just before the plant flowers. Leaves dry readily and most often are used in the dried form.
9. Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) was associated with dragons in antiquity as evidenced by its specific epithet. Tarragon and other "dragon herbs" were believed by ancients to cure the bite of venomous creatures including serpents. The most popular tarragon today is French tarragon which is a fairly long-lived perennial in the garden used primarily for culinary purposes. It can be used sparingly to infuse a subtle, warm flavor to a variety of dishes including meats, soups and salads. Also, it can be incorporated into bread spreads or infused in vinegar. Tarragon can be harvested at any time, removing no more than two-thirds of the total growth of the plant. For best quality, tarragon should be divided about every third year in the garden.
10. Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) has inspired poets to praise its virtues for many centuries. It was used as an aromatic herb by the Greeks and Romans and later as a medicinal herb. Ancient Egyptians used thyme in their embalming procedure and it is still considered today to contain both antiseptic and preservative properties. Today thyme is used for aromatic, medicinal and culinary purposes. Thyme often is added to sauces, stuffings and soups to impart flavor and aid in the digestion of fatty foods. Harvest thyme when the leaves are mature and the plant is in bloom. Leaves dry easily for future use.
REVISED: December 5, 2011