Gardeners love kindred souls, and if you decide to grow herbs, you’ll be in the company of plenty of kindred souls, both in the present and from times past.

Even before recorded history, herbs were the sources of countless culinary, medicinal, and craft materials. Historically, growing herbs wasn’t a hobby; it was necessary for survival. Then, during the last half century or so, chemists began developing synthetic forms of aromas, flavors, medicines, and dyes that formerly had been extracted from herbs. (Notice how often artificial flavors and colors appear in the ingredients lists on packaged foods.) Because it was cheaper to make these imitations in a lab than it was to grow and extract the real thing, herb gardening fell out of favor to some degree. Now that the “better living through chemistry” heyday is over, there’s renewed interest in getting back to natural sources of the stuff we ingest and otherwise use in our daily lives. And herb gardening is experiencing a renaissance.

What Makes an Herb an Herb?

Before we talk about growing herbs, it’s only fitting to define the meaning of the word herb. (We pronounce it “erb” with a silent “h.” If you want to sound British, pronounce the “h,” as in the name Herb.) What, exactly, is an herb? Different resources define the word in different ways, depending upon their frame of reference.

A biologist might use the term herb as shorthand for herbaceous plant — a plant that forms a soft, tender stem rather than a woody stem. However, that definition leaves out many plants that are typically considered herbs, including rosemary, a charter member of the culinary herb hall of fame. And it includes plants like daffodils, which aren’t on anyone’s herb list.

Some ethnobotanists (people who study plants in the context of how they’re used by different social groups) might define herbs as “useful plants,” but hundreds of plants are useful, such as corn and oats, that few of us would call herbs. Others define herbs as “plants grown for medicinal qualities and for seasoning foods,” but that definition leaves out dye plants, plants used in rituals, and those used for making cosmetics, crafts, and more.
The Herb Society of America (HSA) follows the “big-tent” philosophy and defines herbs as plants valued for their “flavor, fragrance, medicinal and healthful qualities, economic and industrial uses, pesticide properties, and coloring materials.” If it’s good enough for the HSA, it’s good enough — and broad enough — for us. So if you’ve planted something that tastes or smells good (or bad), cures what ails you, or can be used in some way, feel free to call it an herb. You won’t get an argument from us.

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