A Look at the History of Herbs

Herbs have been used throughout written history, and probably much longer. They were depicted on cave paintings in France, dated between 13,000 B.C. and 25,000 B.C. It is speculated that early humans probably discovered myriad uses for wild plants through trial and error. It even makes sense that civilization began about the time that humans first began cultivating plants.

Anthropologists believe that people began making healing ointments out of fragrant plants combined with olive oil and sesame oil as early as 7000 B.C. By the 28th century B.C., Egyptians were writing about herbs. The Sumerians followed with a written herbal record around 2500 B.C. By 700 B.C., bustling Greek merchants were tracking their heavy trade in marjoram, thyme, and sage in the markets of Athens. About 300 years later, Hippocrates used many plants to treat diseases, which led him to become known as the father of medicine. He catalogued about 400 herbs in common use in his day.

Greeks and others continued to study the medicinal uses of plants over the next several centuries. Aristotle requested that Alexander the Great learn how other cultures were utilizing the aloe plant. Alexander sent cuttings of new plant varieties to friends as he traveled the world. Herbs are also mentioned repeatedly throughout both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.

The European colonists who settled North America in the 1600s and 1700s carried seeds from their most useful plants to the New World. Their limited capacity for luggage is a testament to how important these herbs were to colonists that they carried them aboard ships for transport to their new homes. The herbs they introduced here included plantain, mint, lavender, parsley, pot marigold (also known as calendula), roses, dandelion, chamomile, thyme, and yarrow.

Both safety and convenience prompted the settlers to plant their herb gardens just steps outside their front doors. They continued their study of herbs by learning more from the Native Americans they encountered here. The Arawak introduced Columbus and his crew to cayenne on the Canary islands. Cherokees showed the new settlers how to use goldenrod to treat fevers, and the Sioux showed frontier settlers how to use echinacea to treat wounds and snakebites.

Herbs were extremely important in the times before clinics or hospitals. Doctors weren't available to everyone then, either, and medications as we know them today were nonexistent. The common people used plant parts for treating different ailments, and dried the most useful herbs to store and use during the winter months. There was little formal research other than trial and error, with the results passed on by word of mouth.

Thomas Jefferson was also a gardener who kept thorough records of his gardens at Monticello. Some of the herbs grown there were lemon balm, sage, mint, thyme, chamomile, rosemary, and lavender.

By the 20th century, the introduction of synthetic medicine spurred a decline in the use of herbs as health care treatments. Interest did not resume on a large scale until the self-sufficiency movement of the 1960s. Today, our culture is experiencing a resurgence of interest in everything natural, including herbal medicine.

What Is an Herb?

An herb is a plant that is used for its medicinal properties, flavor, or scent. Herbs are used for both culinary and medicinal purposes -- sometimes even spiritual ones. Their leaves are often the favored part of the plant, but herbal medicine also avails itself of herbs' roots, seeds, flowers, berries, and bark.

The definition of a medicinal herb is more expansive than that of a culinary herb. Medicinal herbs may be shrubs or other woody plants, but culinary herbs are limited to the leaves only of non-woody plants. Any portion of the plant may be considered herbs in medicinal and spiritual use, including the plants' fruits and vegetables.

In cooking, herbs are narrowly defined as the leafy green parts of plants. The seeds, berries, bark, root, and fruit are classified as spices, rather than herbs. All of these are distinguished from vegetables by usage. That is, herbs and spices are used in small amounts and are intended to provide food with flavor, rather than substance.

Herbs have been used to cover up unpleasant household odors, to enhance the flavor of dull foods, to disguise body odor, and to mask the unpleasant flavor of meats that were going bad.
Culinary Herbs

Herbs have been cultivated for thousands of years. Herb gardens around the world have helped shape the best known dishes of Arabia, China, Egypt, Greece, India, and Persia.The way these cultures used herbs has built culinary traditions that have lasted into modern times, creating the distinct flavors upon which their cuisines are based today.

Cooking With Herbs When you use fresh garlic to add flavor to a fresh tomato sauce, you're doing more than adding robust flavor. You're also protecting the health of your heart at the same time.

Learning to use herbs in your food can elevate cooking to another level. Cooking with specific recipes is a good place to start, but the only way to really get involved in your cooking is to experience the flavors. Begin by understanding the basic flavors that go well together. Dill is a natural with fish; basil and tomatoes are made for each other.

Taste what you're cooking and imagine which herbs will complement the dish. Will cilantro add a fresh taste to your pork stew? Is rosemary the right herb to bring out the flavor of your beef roast? Lemongrass could be the magic ingredient that makes your vegetables come alive. How will you know? Try them!

Flavored Oils

Once you've learned to cook with fresh and dried herbs, you may want to kick things into high gear with flavored oils. You can buy them at gourmet and specialty stores, or you can flavor oils yourself.

Buy or harvest fresh herbs in the summer, when they're readily available, and add them to extra virgin olive oil. Wash and dry the herbs well, and lightly bruise them to help release their essential oils (and thus their flavor). Place the herbs in a clean bottle and cover with the oil. Seal the bottle and leave it in a cool, dark cabinet for two weeks. Add more herbs and leave it to stand for another week for a stronger flavor. Try a few flavorings with your favorite oils to start with, then experiment with herb combinations.

When they're done, these aromatic oils are great for adding depth to salad dressing or in a meat marinade.

Herbal Tea

It seems that every country has its own traditions surrounding the service of tea. The teapot itself was invented in China. Japanese tend to support the Chinese belief that tea should impart its flavor and aroma au naturel (black). Moroccans stir in sage or mint, and cardamom is a favorite in Turkey. In England, it's popularly served with milk and lemon. Arab countries favor mint, sage and basil flavorings. In Britain, tea was served any time of the day until the seventh Duchess of Bedford began the tradition of serving afternoon tea.

Whatever your preference, proper brewing is essential. Use fresh, cold water brought to a rolling boil. Pour the water over the tea. Stir it and allow it to steep for three to five minutes. For iced tea, use twice as much tea so that the ice doesn't overly dilute the flavor.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online All About Herbs course?

Matching Foods With Herbs

ANISE – butter cookies, cakes, fish and shellfish, pancakes

BASIL – tomatoes and tomato sauce, fresh pesto, pasta sauces, peas, zucchini, fish, and shellfish

BORAGE – green salads

CARAWAY – butter cookies, cakes

CARDAMOM – cakes, coffee, rice

CAYENNE – scrambled eggs, soups and stews

CHERVIL – fish and shellfish, green salads

CHICORY – coffee

CHIVES - dips, potatoes and potato salad, tomatoes, butter, scrambled eggs, fish and shellfish, soups and stews

CILANTRO - Mexican, Asian and Caribbean cooking; salsas, tomatoes, chicken and poultry, rice

DANDELION – green salads

DILL - carrots, cottage cheese, cream cheese, fish and shellfish, green beans, potatoes and potato salad, tomatoes, biscuits, and rolls

FENNEL – biscuits and rolls, green salads, soups and stews

GARLIC – beef, butter, chicken and poultry, potatoes, soups and stews, tomatoes and tomato sauce

HORSERADISH – beef, potatoes, and potato salad

LAVENDER – cakes, fruit, soups

LEMON BALM – cakes, fish and shellfish, fruit soups, vanilla ice cream

LEMONGRASS – chicken and poultry, tofu

LEMON VERBENA – cakes, chicken and poultry, fruit soups, vanilla ice cream

LOVAGE – scrambled eggs, fish and shellfish, green salads, soups and stews

MARJORAM – beef, biscuits and rolls, chicken and poultry, scrambled eggs, soups and stews, tomatoes and tomato sauce

MINT - carrots, fruit salads, parsley, peas, tabouli, tea, lamb, chicken and poultry, fish and shellfish, potatoes and potato salad

OREGANO - peppers, tomatoes, beef, biscuits and rolls, chicken and poultry, scrambled eggs, soups and stews, tomatoes and tomato sauce

PARSLEY – potatoes and potato salad, tabouli, fish and shellfish, rice, soups and stews, tomatoes and tomato sauce

ROSEMARY – fish and shellfish, lamb, pork, chicken and poultry, roasted potatoes, soups and stews, tomatoes and tomato sauces, beef, biscuits and rolls, tofu

SAGE – chicken and poultry, stuffing, breads and rolls, tofu

SHEPHERD'S PURSE – cream cheese, green salads

SUMMER SAVORY – beans, scrambled eggs, fish and shellfish, soups and stews, tofu

SWEET CICELY – cakes, fish and shellfish, pancakes, fruit soups

TARRAGON – chicken and poultry, eggs, fish and shellfish, butter

THYME - eggs, beans, roasted potatoes, poultry, summer squash, tomatoes, biscuits and rolls, fish and shellfish

WATERCRESS – cream cheese, potatoes and potato salad, green salads

WINTER SAVORY - dried bean dishes, stews, beef

FUN RECIPE: For a tasty rub on your steak, try this combination of herbs:
1 and 1/2 teaspoon toasted and crushed cumin seeds
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Rub on uncooked meat and cover loosely. Store in the refrigerator for 15 minutes then broil or grill the meat.

Fun Fact:

Herbs were first introduced into cooking not to flavor foods, but to disguise flavors. That's because it was so common in the days before refrigeration for meat to be past its "freshness date" when it was served. Strong-smelling herbs worked hard to make these meats something close to palatable.