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Herbs: As useful today as they were centuries ago.

Herbs are defined as "useful plants." But there are many useful plants. No one would dispute that a lettuce or tomato or bean plant is useful. Shade trees are useful, as are ground covers. So, what is meant by "useful" when referring to herbs? The answers to that question can be as different as the number of people asked.

Historically, "herbs" included all sorts of plants and plant parts: trees, shrubs, leaves, flowers, roots and seeds were used to season and preserve foods, as curatives and preventatives, as beauty products, deodorants and in religious rituals. Included as herbs were plants that we think of today as vegetables: asparagus, beans, beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, celery, cucumber, garlic, leeks and onions. These all had some sort of use in the medicine chest or as cosmetics. Some of these, such as cucumber, are still used in beauty products, and we're beginning to learn about the curative or preventative properties of many plants like garlic and the cole family, including broccoli and cabbage.

In contemporary times, we have come to define herbs as the leaves and/ or tender stems of herbaceous plants. Even with woody herbs such as rosemary, we use the soft leaves. There are herbs, however, in which we use the flowers as well: nasturtium, hibiscus, violet and calendula, just to name a few. The use of roots, stems and seeds leads us to the category of spices, and we'll leave that discussion for another time.

One thing most people agree on is that herbs are old. They are mentioned in, among other places, the Christian Bible and ancient Jewish texts and are seen in pictures in tombs of ancient Egypt. Their uses, locations and powers have been passed down in lore and folk medicine from generation to generation in almost every country.

Are today's herb varieties different from the ones used by our ancestors or are they the same? Herbs that we grow and use today are very close to the ones found by our ancestors in South America, Europe, Asia or North America. Granted, there have been many new varieties of rosemary, mint, oregano, basil and others. But the standard variety of these and other herbs has changed very little since ancient times.

Oregano still grows wild in Greece and Spain and is harvested from the dry hillsides there. In the Organum family, the standard varieties include O. majoricum: hardy, sweet marjoram, also known as Italian oregano; O. majorana: sweet marjoram or knotted marjoram, and; O. vulgare: Greek oregano. It is from these old varieties that all the modern cultivars have come. Some cultivars are purposely propagated; some are wild crosses due to wind and/or insects.

The mints we grow for tea such as peppermint, orange, chocolate, grapefruit, spearmint and the like are all in the Mentha family. Peppermint, orange and grapefruit mint are in the M. peperita species; spearmint is M. spicata and pineapple and apple mints are M. suaveolens. Other flavored mints fall into one of these three species. And, they will cross with the help of bees and other insects if they are grown close together and flower at the same time. When that happens, sometimes your mints will lose their distinctive flavor and even lose most of their good mint flavor. So, if you want to keep your orange mint "orangey" and your apple mint "appley," grow them apart from each other.

The flavored mints do not come true from seed generally, and since it is so easy to grow from root cuttings, either in water or soilless potting medium of some kind, it is best to use cuttings or even root clumps to propagate your mints. Anyone who's grown mint knows how it spreads and climbs everywhere. It makes lots of growth to give away to friends, or to harvest and use for tea or in sauces and salads. Growing mints in pots sunk in the ground makes them less likely to spread everywhere, and easy to take into the house or greenhouse for the winter.

Rosemary is a shrubby plant whose leaves are used with poultry, pork, potatoes and even in bread and rolls. It makes a wonderful hair rinse for brunettes. There are many cultivars of rosemary available, but they are all related to the original Rosemarinus offincinalis. Even the creeping varieties are in the same family. The cultivars that produce lighter or darker blue, pink or white flowers are in the same family. Some cultivars have leaves that are more grayish, slightly longer or shorter, and some are more or less cold hardy. The are all in the R. officinalis family, the same family of rosemary in the legends and stories about the Virgin Mary and how she laid her blue Cloak on the rosemary bush and thereafter the flowers of the rosemary were blue.

The lore and history of herbs is a very interesting study. You need look no farther than your own garden or pot of herbs to see history close up. The marjoram you add to your chicken dish, the peppermint in your tea or dill in your cucumber salad connects you to a long line of gardeners, practitioners and gatherers from every land. Anyone who has used herbs for comfort, cure, flavor or health has made a connection to history through the very plants used by women and men of long ago.

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Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Mar 1, 2001
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