The history of herbs and spices is as long as the history of mankind. People have used these plants since earliest times. No other commodity has played a more pivotal role in the development of modern civilization as spices. The lives of people and plants are more entwined than is often realized. Some herbs have the power to change our physiological functioning, they have revolutionized medicine, created fortunes for those who grow, process and treat them, and in many cases have assumed social and religious significance. Herbs have changed the course of history and in economic terms have greater importance as ingredients in food and medicine, perfumery, cosmetics and garden plants. The knowledge of herbs has been handed down from generation to generation for thousands of years (Brown, 1995). Wars have been fought and lands conquered for the sake of these plants. Even today we continue to depend on herbs and spices for many of our newest medicines, chemicals and flavours and they are used in culinary preparations, perfumery and cosmetics. Many medicinal herbs are also food, oil and fibre plants and have always been grown for a range of purposes (Parry, 1969; Rosengarten, 1973; Andi et al., 1997).
The term 'herb' has more than one definition. In the most generally accepted sense, herbs are plants valued for their medicinal and aromatic properties and are often grown and harvested for these unique properties. Some of the earliest of herb gardens were planted about 4000 years ago in Egypt. Herb growing was often associated with temples, which required herbs and sacred flowers for daily worship and rituals. Both horticulture and botany began with the study of herbs. The earliest gardens were herb gardens. The present-day concept of a herb garden has developed largely from ancient Egyptian, Christian and Islamic traditions. In most parts of the world, herbs are grown mainly as field crops or on a small scale as a catch-crop among vegetables and ornamentals as they were thousands of years ago. The cultivation requirements of some of the most important herbs are given in Table 1.1.
Table 1.1 Cultivating requirements and uses
Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium)
Parsley (Petro-selinum crispum)
Annual. Seeds are sown in a dry, light soil in early summer. Seedlings should be thinned to inches apart. Anise needs 120 frost-free days to produce fully ripened seed heads.
Perennial. Grows easily from seed. It is frost sensitive. Basil needs medium-rich, well-drained soil and full sun. Pinch off tips and flower buds to promote bushiness.
Annual and resembles parsley. Seeds are sown in spring. Thin to 15 cm (6 inches) apart. Likes moist, well-drained soil and partial shade. Will self-sow.
Perennial, with many varieties. English lavender is the hardiest. Mulch it over the winter. Propagation is easiest by root division. Likes full sun and alkaline, gravelly soil.
Perennial. Prefers well-drained, slightly alkaline soil and full sun. Propagate by seed, root division or cuttings.
Biennial, usually grown as an annual. Both types like a rich, well-drained soil and full sun or partial shade. Parsley seeds seeds germinate slowly. Be patient; keep the soil moist. Thin to (20 cm) 8 inches apart.
Perennial, grown indoors in cold climates. Rosemary needs full sun, and a sandy well-limed soil. Cut it back after flowering to prevent it from becoming leggy.
Winter savory, a perennial, has a peppery, pungent flavour. Summer savory, an annual, is similar but more delicate. Plant seeds of summer savory in a rich, light, moist soil; thin to 20 cm (8 inches) apart. Winter savory thrives in poorer soil and with less water. It can be propagated by seed, division or cuttings.
Perennial. There are many species and varieties including lemon, English, golden and garden. The garden variety is the most popular for cooking. Thyme grows well in dry sloping sides; pruning after flowering will keep it from getting woody. Propagated by cuttings.
The aromatic seeds are used in cooking, in pot-pourris and in some simple home remedies.
The leaves are a classic complement to tomatoes; they are also used to flavour salads, sauces and vegetables.
The leaves, with their delicate aniselike flavour, are often used in soups and salads.
Grown for its fragrance in the garden and to be used in pot-pourris and sachets.
The leaves are a favorite seasoning for pizza and other Italian dishes.
Curly leaved parsley is popular as garnish, but flat leaved (Italian) parsley is more flavourful and is used as addition to salads and sauces. Parsley tea makes a healthful tonic.
Propagate by layering or cuttings. This is an aromatic flavouring for meat and poultry dishes. Also used for making wreaths.
Savory is used to flavour sausages and other meats and is sometimes included in a bouquet garni.
The leaves add pungent taste to meats and vegetables; thyme sprigs are a main ingredient in bouquet garnishing for soups and stews.
Source: Reader's Digest (1990).
Was this article helpful?
Learn what you can do with herbs! How to Plant, Grow, and Cook with Natural Herbs. Have you always wanted an herb garden but didn't know how to get started? Do you want to know more about growing your own herbs in the privacy of your home and using them in a variety of cooking?