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David Beaulieu

What Exactly Is an Herb?

By November 27, 2012

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A web search for "What is an herb?" yielded the following definition: "Any plant with leaves, seeds, or flowers used for flavoring, food, medicine, or perfume." Talk about a broad concept!

Lest you think of herbs -- based on this definition -- as "practical" plants only, let's introduce yet another element into the discussion. Our Guide to Herb Gardens, Amy Jeanroy, speaks rightly of "ornamental herbs." I, myself use plants ornamentally in my landscaping that I would regard as "herbs."

So what's going on here? Is there a way to stop the madness? Can we narrow the term "herb" down some so that the definition is more reasonably focused?

Well, taking on such a task in a thoroughgoing manner would be a bit much for a single blog post, but let me zero in on just one subcategory of herbs: those used for culinary purposes. I found an interesting treatment of the definition of herbs by Danilo Alfaro, About.com Guide to Culinary Arts.

Danilo makes an important distinction that narrows down the application of "herb." For his subject, he says that the term "refers to any green or leafy part of a plant used for seasoning and flavoring a recipe, but not used as the main ingredient." As an example, he contrasts spinach and lettuce with herbs such as basil and dill. The former are classified as vegetables, because they serve as food -- in and of themselves -- while the latter are used to season food.

Danilo continues with another distinction: namely, that between a "spice" and an "herb." Whereas herbs come mainly from the leaves of qualifying plants, spices are "pretty much anything else -- for instance, any dried bark, root, berry, seed, twig or other plant matter that is used to season or flavor a dish." He uses cinnamon as an example. Cinnamon, a spice that some of us think of mainly during the Christmas season, comes from the bark of a tree.

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November 27, 2012 at 4:22 pm
(1) scotty says:

Very interesting.

I gave up long ago trying to classify plants. Don’t get me started on vegetables vs fruit. If fruit have seeds on the inside what is a strawberry? :)

I have often wondered about horseradish. Some think of it as a root vegetable but I think it fits more into the herb distinction as one doesn’t normally have it as the main ingredient. However, perhaps it is a spice as Danilo puts roots with spices. So yes, I guess it is a spice.

Lovage is called an herb but one can also eat lovage roots. So I guess the leaves of lovage are an herb and the root a spice.

You can see why I gave up classifying long ago. :)

November 27, 2012 at 5:26 pm
(2) landscaping says:

I’m thankful for having you around, Scotty. Like me, you have more than a passing interest in such musings.

According to Merriam-Webster’s entry for strawberry, “Botanically, the strawberry fruit is not a berry or a single fruit, but is instead a greatly enlarged stem end that contains many partially embedded true fruits (achenes), popularly called seeds.”

All of which is beyond my own botanical acumen, but I’m glad somebody smarter than I has offered an explanation.

November 27, 2012 at 9:44 pm
(3) scotty says:

Oh I love to muse. Just like the Greek Goddesses. I fear I have driven folks out of the forum with my musings. Lately I have been musing on why some plants are hard to propagate from their seeds. I suspect it’s a survival of the fittest thing. The best seeds with the best genetic material will germinate but the rest wont. The species as a whole will benefit. Darwin is probably rolling in his grave but what the heck.

That’s very interesting about strawberries. A bit deep for me as well but interesting.

Rhizomes are also a ‘greatly enlarged’ part of the stem even though some folks call them ‘roots’. An example of a plant with rhizomes is that vile weed Lily of the Valley.

By the way, I looked up horseradish in my favourite gardening book and it is indeed listed as an herb. I’ll take that up with Danilo. :)


November 28, 2012 at 11:55 am
(4) David Beaulieu says:

Yeah, I have enough trouble classifying the above-ground stuff that I can readily see without delving too deeply into rhizomes, etc. Maybe when I have a bit more time to play in the dirt someday I’ll look into the subject in a more systematic manner.

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