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Herbs

Updated on May 6, 2010

A herb is any flowering plant that does not form a persistent woody stem. Unlike the stems of trees and shrubs, herb stems may die down at the end of a growing season. However, the underground portion of an herb may live for several growing seasons, giving rise to a new stem each year. If the underground part survives for several years, the herb is called a perennial. In a biennial herb the underground part survives for two years. An herb that lives for only one year is called an annual.

The leaves, seeds, and other parts of certain herbs are used to flavor foods, to scent soaps and perfumes, or to make drugs and other products. In popular usage even plants that are not true herbs are called herbs if they are used for any of these purposes.

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian
Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

Uses

The fresh or dried leaves of many herbs, including thyme, bay, mint, and parsley, are used as spices and flavoring for foods. The leaves may be used whole, chopped into small pieces, or in the form of a fine powder. Seeds, or oils extracted from seeds, are also used to flavor foods. Among the most popular seed-producing herbs are caraway, dill, mustard, and sesame. The underground bulbs or roots of some herbs are used in cooking. The best-known of these herbs include garlic and horseradish.

Various herbs, including camomile, horehound, and foxglove, are the source of drugs. Scents for soaps and perfumes are derived from the aromatic oils of such herbs as the rose, cassia, clove, bay, and anise.

Raising Herbs

Herbs may be easily raised as part of a home garden, along the edges of paths, or along the borders of flower beds. They may also be cultivated indoors, in sunny window boxes or in pots. Most herbs grow best in well-drained soil that can be dug into easily.

They need sunshine, but they do not require rich soil or fertilizers.

Before herb seeds are planted, the soil must be loosened and smoothed. The seeds are placed on top of the ground about half an inch apart and are covered with a thin layer of soil, which is then pressed down with a board to prevent it from being blown away.

Popular Cooking Herbs

Herb
Common Uses
mint
jelly, tea, and candies
parsley
soups and salads
caraway
baked goods
dill
pickles and salads
sesame
pickles and salads
chive
cheese and soups
tarragon
vinegar
paprika
poultry, eggs, and fish
basil
tomatoes, eggs, and fish
anise
fruit salad
marjoram
fruit salad
oregano
salads and sauces
poppy seed
baked goods
sage
meats
saffron
baked goods and rice
turmeric
pickles and relish
thyme
seafood and cheese
cardamom seed
baked goods
cayenne pepper
sauces
ginger
baked goods and beverages

Processing

Most herbs are ready for harvesting when their flower buds begin to open. The stem is generally picked early in the morning, when herbs are usually at their peak of flavor. The plucked stems are then washed and shaken dry, and the leaves or other desired parts are removed. Herbs are usually dried indoors, in a tray that permits the air to circulate freely around them. Generally, the drying requires about four days. When thoroughly dry, the herbs are packed in airtight containers to prevent the loss of color and flavor.

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