Definition of an Herb
An herb is a flowering plant generally characterized as having a woody to soft stem and leaves, seeds, or roots that are used in culinary, medicinal, nutritional, household, and cosmetic applications.
The History of Herbs Across the World
The use of herbs has existed as long as civilization, with the earliest evidence dating back to at least 2000 BC in India, China, and Egypt. During the Middle Ages, herbs and spices from the Far and Middle East were introduced to Europe where their culinary merits were quickly realized. Europeans were taught about new and exotic flavors, which they started incorporating into dishes to add new dimension and flavor.
Hundreds of years would pass before refrigeration was invented, and so early foods were often stored and preserved for many months before they were consumed. Herbs and spices played a major role in food preservation not only because many were known to have properties that facilitated preservation, but also because their often intense flavors helped to disguise the pungency of foods that were bordering on rancid, making them substantially more palatable. Today herbs are used to add and infuse flavor to a range of foods and beverages, and they have increased in popularity in products such as teas, flavored oils, vinegars, butters, and more.
Using Herbs as Medicine
Before their culinary applications, herbs were primarily used for medicinal purposes. Many medicines today, such as aspirin and morphine, have ingredients that are derived from herbs that had been used for ages to treat the same ailments. There is a strong belief among many people that herbal remedies are effective in treating everything from acne to high blood pressure to calming the nerves.
In the Western world, a good deal of controversy with regards to the efficacy of herbal medicines has been evident because not much research has been done to support these claims. That being said, herbs have been used for centuries throughout the world to cure and prevent ailments. Denying the effectiveness of these treatments as a whole seems a bit premature. Recently, with the new consciousness and concern about what people are putting in their bodies, there has been a shift back into the exploration of using herbs, and other naturally derived ingredients, to aid in health.
Herbs Play a Role in Nutrition
Many herbs also have nutritional benefits, including as a source of antioxidants. Antioxidants, such as beta carotene, help to prevent and repair cell damage in the human body and have also been linked with impeding the onset of problems such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Oregano, marjoram, and thyme are all high in antioxidants and because there is so little water in these herbs in relation to their size, the amount is highly concentrated. Consuming just a small amount of these herbs could have noticeable nutritional benefits. Many herbs are also rich in vitamins, particularly A, B, and C. Parsley contains a high amount of vitamin C with more per volume than in an orange.
Other Uses of Herbs
In addition to the previously mentioned applications, herbs have numerous household uses as well. Rosemary and oregano have antiseptic and cleansing properties, while mint and thyme are good repellents for many types of insects. Fragrant herbs like lavender and lemon verbena are used as air and laundry fresheners and any number of herb combinations can be used to make potpourris and scented candles. Herbs, in their vast range of colors, also provide a safe and natural way of dyeing yarn and fabrics.
The use of plants and herbs for beauty and cosmetic purposes can also be traced back numerous centuries. In addition to soaps and lotions, herbs are used in shampoos, hair coloring, skin cleansers, toothpastes, perfumes, make up, and bath infusions.
About the Author
After receiving degrees from the University of Wisconsin and the Culinary Institute of America, Andrea Rappaport moved into a full-time career in the restaurant business. For over 12 years, she worked in various culinary jobs, including as a cook for Wolfgang Puck at Spago, and ultimately as the executive chef and partner of the highly revered San Francisco restaurant Zinzino. For the past seven years, Andrea has worked as the private chef for one family in the San Francisco area, and continues to expand her culinary portfolio by catering, teaching, and consulting.