Herbs

 Nonwoody, vascular plants (relatively soft plants with specialized systems of vessels for conducting water and nutrients), are technically herbs. More commonly, the word refers to various often aromatic plants used especially in medicine or as seasoning. Here, "herb" is used in its less technical sense.

Herbs and spices differ largely by usage. Spices are normally more aromatic than herbs, and are often of tropical origin. They may consist of seeds, bark, flower buds, fruits, etc. Herbs are usually leafy and locally grown, and their use extends far back into history. Culinary herbs are still of great importance as flavouring; before refrigeration, they were essential as preservatives and to disguise the flavour of bad meat. "Pot herbs" were almost any young, green growth that could be eaten early in spring to supply needed minerals and vitamins after the privations of winter. Various herbal teas, filling the same need, were very important to the inhabitants of the New and Old worlds.

Gardening

Many favourite herbs come from the Mediterranean area and their position in northern gardens must be planned accordingly. A sunny spot with a light sandy soil that warms up quickly in spring is ideal. For maximum flavour, herbs should not be given too much water or nitrogen. Luckily, many herbs are annuals or can be grown as such; therefore, they present no problem in any part of Canada. Seed should be sown outside as soon as the soil is warm, or started indoors and transplanted when all danger of frost is past. Dill (Anethum graveolens), summer savory (Satureia hortensis), sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) and sweet marjoram (Majorana hortensis) are annuals that may be grown this way. Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) and sage (Salvia officinalis) are perennial only in warmer parts of the country, but may be successfully grown as annuals.

Woody perennials such as rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and lavender (Lavandula officinalis) will not generally overwinter outside. Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is not very hardy, but creeping thyme (T. serpyllum) may be used as a substitute. Two popular herbs require somewhat different conditions. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are easy perennials in any good garden soil and should be divided and replanted every few years. Mint (Mentha) is a vigorous perennial, spreading rapidly in moist soil by means of underground stolons; in dry prairie conditions, it may die out unless moved to new ground frequently.

Medicinal Uses

The native peoples of North America were quite conversant with the use of herbs for health, healing and spiritual needs. In many cases, discoveries paralleled those of Europe; eg, willow (Salix) and poplar (Populus), each containing salicylic acid (as does aspirin), were used by both Europeans and aboriginals for relief of pain and rheumatic complaints. Rose hips (containing vitamin C) were important on both sides of the Atlantic, as were YARROW, sorrel, MINT and nettles. Native people introduced European settlers to medicinal herbs which they could substitute for those left at home. Particularly noteworthy were the effective cures for SCURVY, chief of which, available even in winter, were teas made of SPRUCE (Picea) or CEDAR (Thuja) needles.

The Greek Theophrastus (c 371-286 BC) was the first botanist/physician to write about plants, their identification and uses. Medical knowledge was kept alive in the monasteries during the Middle Ages, and emerged during the 16th century, hand in hand with BOTANY, when schools of medicine and BOTANICAL GARDENS were first established. Meanwhile, the local herbalist, wise woman, or shaman continued to minister to the sick, often in competition with the professional doctors.

Herbal specialists were sometimes revered, sometimes burned as witches. Because much ancient herbal lore relied on psychological as well as physical methods of curing, the use of herbal medicine fell into disrepute with the advent of "scientific" methods. Herbs, however, are the bases of modern medicines, some of which (eg, digitalis, belladonna and the many opium derivatives) are still obtainable only as plant extracts. Others, first discovered as plant ingredients, are now being manufactured synthetically.

Many scientists are now looking at old remedies, and interest in herbal lore has revived as people seek alternatives or supplements to modern medicine. However, the use of herbal medicine is an exacting science in its own right, involving the correct identification and use of what may be highly toxic plants. The use even of simple home remedies and herbal teas should be attempted only by those familiar with plant identification.

See also individual species entries; PLANTS, NATIVE USES; POISONOUS PLANTS.