Growing Herbs


WHAT IS AN HERB?

There are three generally accepted definitions of an herb. Botanically, herbs are non-woody annual, biennial, and perennial plants that die back each year after blossoming. Another definition describes them as any of the herbaceous plants valued for their flavour, fragrance, or medicinal properties. The third is actually not a definition but a distinction between the culinary herbs and spices.

The botanical definition includes many plants that we ordinarily think of as weeds (and even eliminate from the garden when they appear) and therefore never cultivate as we do marjoram or sage. Many vegetables and ornamental garden plants also fit this description, but they are not usually thought of as herbs. Excluded by the definition are a number of shrubby and woody plants such as laurel and rosemary, which for centuries have been two of the most distinguished herbs.

More flexible is the second definition which singles out herbs as being useful as flavouring, scents, or medicine. But, because our uses of various plants change as our needs do, a list of plants that could be considered useful will differ from culture to culture and from century to century. Also, this definition does not distinguish fragrant flowers such as gardenias from the fragrant herbs such as lavender and germander.

In cooking, a distinction is made between spices herbs and herb seeds. Spices usually are considered to be derived from the roots, bark, fruit, or berries of perennial plants such as cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and pepper; herbs are the leaves only of low growing shrubs and herbaceous plants such as basil, rosemary, and thyme. There are several plants, however - such as some of the roses - which are included in herb listings even though their fruit (rose hips) is used.

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