Herbs have been used since the beginning of time to enhance our lives. According to legend, Alcuin, an Anglo-Latin scholar, asked his student Charlemagne this question as well. King Charlemagne replied, “The friend of physicians and the praise of cooks.”
Although this is true, herbs were used for medicinal and culinary purposes, they served in many other capacities as well. Herbs were, have been and are used in the practice of witchcraft and sorcery, aromatherapy, perfumery, and so much more. In medieval times, herbs were strewn over the rushes that were placed on the floors of castles to inhibit pests and to disperse an aroma when stepped upon. (They took very few baths and body odor could be over-powering.)
During Charlemagne’s time, herbalism and medicine were essentially the same practice.
What is an herb?
Herb vs. Spice
According to Wikipedia, “Herbs are plants used for flavoring, food, medicine, or perfume.”
The terms “herbs” and “spices” are often used interchangeably especially when specified for culinary purposes.
Differentiating between an herb and a spice – Wikipedia goes on to state that “culinary use typically distinguishes an herb as referring to leafy green parts of a plant (either fresh or dried), from a spice, a product from another part of the plant (usually dried), including seeds, berries, bark, roots and fruits.”
It becomes more confusing to distinguish herbs from spices considering Google’s definition of an herb: “Any plant with leaves, seeds, or flowers used for flavoring, food, medicine, or perfume” and/or “a part of such a plant as used in cooking.”
To muddy the waters even further, the term “herb” is used as an abbreviation of any “herbaceous plant”.
What is an herb?
The kingdomofherbs.com states, “While most people think of the herb as an aromatic plant used for seasoning in cooking, for its medicinal properties, or in perfumes, herbs actually include any seed-producing flowering plant that does not produce woody stems and that forms new stems and leaves each season.”
But rosemary, which is definitely an herb, has woody stems and although it forms new stems and leaves each season, it maintains its existing leaves and stems as well. Kingdomofherbs.com goes on to state, “For our purposes, garden vegetables have full and equal rights in the Kingdom of Herbs.”
As you can see, the word “herb” has many different definitions. In The Herb Society of America’s New Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses written by Deni Bown, she states that herbs include not only herbaceous perennials, but also trees (like gingko), shrubs (like rosemary), annuals (like basil), and vines (such as hops). She goes on to state that herbs also include “ferns, mosses, algae, lichens, and fungi.”
This leaves the definition wide open for interpretation. For our purposes, an herb would be any plant used for its medicinal and healthful qualities, flavoring (culinary), aromatic purposes (like potpourri and perfumes), dyes, and pesticidal properties. That is a whole lot of plants.
Herbs enrich our lives in so many. They make us feel better, make things taste better and smell better.