What is an Herb Anyway?

What is an Herb Anyway?
Herbs are plants that are used in medicine, cuisine and aromatherapy. In the culinary industry, herbs have a more specific meaning and refer to the leafy green parts of the plant. Herbs can be dried or fresh, and they are used to flavor dishes but never act as the main ingredient. Some of the most common herbs include basil, parsley, thyme, dill and rosemary.

When it comes to a broad topic like herbs, you’ll find that there are many definitions that are accepted around the world. Botanists have a more general definition for herbs and describe them as coming from small, seed-bearing plants that have fleshy parts rather than woody ones. Herbs may also include trees, shrubs, vines and annuals as well as ferns, mosses and algae.

It may be easy to tell an herb apart from something like a vegetable. Take spinach for instance. Spinach is green and part of a plant, but you can prepare this food on its own and use it as the main ingredient in a dish. It’s the same case with lettuce; the plant is green and found in the ground, but it acts as the main ingredient. Therefore, both spinach and lettuce are vegetables, not herbs.

Vegetables and herbs have a clear difference, but the lines become blurred when making the distinction between herbs and spices. Since herbs are the green parts of the plants that are used for flavoring dishes, spices are pretty much everything else. Things like roots, berries, twigs and dried bark are all examples of spices. Some of the most common spices include allspice (dried berries), cinnamon (bark) and cloves (dried flower buds).

What are the Uses for Herbs?

Herbs are found all around the world, and some are native to the area while others have been introduced. For people who study herbs, they understand the dynamic nature of these small but intriguing plants. For instance, did you know that there are over 90 varieties of rosemary?

With so many different varieties of herbs, you can imagine that they have many uses in traditional living. Herbs are valued for their flavor, fragrance, medicinal purposes, pesticidal properties, dyes and health qualities. Let’s delve deeper into the various contexts where herbs are used.

Culinary Herbs

One of the most common uses for herbs is to add flavor to dishes. Every American home has some type of dried herbs in their spice cabinet, and they may even have a fresh herb garden in their backyard. Most culinary herbs are perennials or biennials such as thyme, rosemary, basil and parsley.

Culinary herbs have been used for centuries, and they were especially popular during the pioneer days when immigrants were traveling to America and bringing native herbs with them. While herbs have remained a large part of the culinary world, processed, frozen and fast foods have become popular staples for American families because of their convenience. These foods rely on preservatives and sodium to bring flavor, but they also carry little nutrients or health value.

Thankfully, this trend is starting to reverse itself, and there is more appreciation for flavoring fine cuisine with a blend of herbs and spices rather than salt and butter. As we learn more about how these ingredients can contribute to health problems, there is a drive to get back to the basics and start cooking with natural ingredients. Herbs also have many health benefits, so adding them to foods delivers both flavor and a natural health boost.

Medicinal Herbs

Since plants have photochemicals in them, they have the potential to cause various effects on the body. The same goes for herbs; when ingesting them into the body, they have certain effects, many of which are beneficial to the functioning of our bodies. The medicinal purposes for herbs are no secret, and our ancestors used them regularly to treat certain health conditions. The problem was that the information surrounding medicinal herbs was a bit confusing, and quantities, dosages and the types of herbs could be easily confused.

For instance, St. John’s Wart extract in a low, controlled dose can help with depression and stress. Yet if you take the extract in large quantities, it can lead to toxic overload that can result in serious complications for the body. Still, herbs can be a powerful tool in alternative medicine. When used appropriately, herbs can provide the body with antioxidants, aid in digestion, calm upset stomach and anxiety and deliver anti-inflammatory properties. Some of the most common medicinal herbs include chamomile, ginger, milk thistle, peppermint and ginkgo biloba.

Sacred Herbs

Another use for herbs is in a sacred manner. Interestingly, some of our earliest uses for herbs were in sacred rituals, as sickness was often tied to a supernatural occurrence. In countries other than America, herbs are actually quite popular to be used in rites of passage, religious ceremonies and spiritual cleansings. Yet there are many people across our own country who choose to use herbs in their practice of magic to aid in spiritual enhancement, protection and healing.

Before now, you probably didn’t think much about what an herb really was and the many ways it could be used. Herbs are very interesting, and their numerous uses have given them a solid role in our world. Before processed foods and commercial products, our ancestors depended on what the world around them could produce – water, plants, herbs and wild game for example. Today, we are starting to appreciate this simplicity and recognize that sometimes things in their most basic form are the best for our health and survival.

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