Step into the magical world of culinary herbs. Beginning with rosemary in the upcoming March issue, Columbia Metropolitan will present a monthly series with each article profiling a key culinary herb. A potpourri of information about each will touch upon its purported health benefits, herbal folklore, its preparation and use, and how to preserve its fresh, herbal flavors.
The word “herb” comes from the Latin herba, meaning “grass, herb, or weed.” Herbs are short, green plants with fragrant, edible leaves. They are prized for their ability to enhance the flavor of foods or infuse teas. Since ancient times, herbs have been used medicinally and in the manufacture of perfumes, natural dyes, and cosmetics. Herbs bring ornamental value to the garden and appeal to all the senses.
After ancient civilizations discovered the healing powers of herbal plants, they became the basis for traditional medicine. Herbals are featured in the oldest known writings about plants. The English Physitian, still one of the best-selling herbals of all times, was written in 1652 by English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper. His book touched on traditional medicine, astrology, folklore, and magic, and it made herbal medicine accessible to the common people.
Charlemagne, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, was an avid gardener. From estate inventories in 800 A.D., we know that he planted 75 different herbs in his gardens. Herb gardens were just as popular in Colonial America as they were in Medieval England.
Herbaceous plants have green stems that remain soft and flexible. They can be annuals, biennials, or perennials. Herbaceous annuals include basil, dill, borage, marjoram, cilantro, and summer savory. These herbs go from seed to flower and back to seed within one growing season.
Evergreen perennials like rosemary, thyme, oregano, and sage have firm, woody stems and can live for years. They make attractive ornamental plants in their own right, growing as small shrubs, low mats, or groundcover. Lavender also has some woody stems and grows like an evergreen shrub, but it is considered an herbaceous perennial. These hardy herbs are all members of the mint family, Lamiaceae.
Herbaceous perennials include chives with their eye-catching, edible, lavender flowers; the invasive but perfumed mint family; and lemon verbena, which fills the air with a delicious lemony aroma. Perennials thrive well in South Carolina plant hardiness zones 7 to 9. Garlic is a perennial plant that is most often grown as an annual and used as an herb or spice.
Many people use the words herb and spice interchangeably. Both are from plant components and edible, but herbs are the fresh part of the plant, particularly the green leaves. Spices, like cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, will be dried when purchased. They come from twigs, roots, rhizomes, seed pods, buds, fruits, flowers, and bark. Fresh herbs are generally used in larger amounts than spices and have a milder taste.
The idea of food as preventative medicine has been gaining in popularity, especially during the pandemic. Eating a wide variety of nutritious foods may boost immunity and lower the chance of developing certain illnesses. Balanced, plant-based diets can offer protective health benefits. Flavorful herbs (and spices) make foods taste delicious, and research shows they are rich in natural plant chemicals called phytochemicals – healthy compounds that fight inflammation. Antioxidants in herbs also have protective characteristics against disease.
Herbs produce flowers and seeds in order to reproduce. The plant’s energy becomes focused on the flowers and seeds as they develop. If you have a garden or pots of blooming herbs, clip off the blossoms and sprinkle them over your foods and beverages to add a colorful, visual element. Trimming the blossoms will channel the plant’s energy back into leaf production.