Since no self-respecting modern cookbook leaves herbs out of its recipes since courses in herbal medicine are springing up all over the place, and since cosmetics which rely on plants are taking the place of the synthetic beauty treatments what one might ask is a herb?

What is a Herb

Until recently the word has always conjured up pictures of food, which imposed an artificial limit on the range of plants. Now that herbal usage has been revived so much in other disciplines, the definition has expanded to include plants usually grown nowadays for garden ornament, such as the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger), marigold (Calendula) and the Florentine iris; plants which were regarded as weeds, such as tansy, comfrey, yarrow and herb Robert but are being treated with respect as their usefulness for all sorts of reasons is realized again; and plants which supply dyes, cosmetics, insect repellents and fragrances.

Strictly speaking a herb is any perennial plant who’s soft or succulent stems die down to ground level every year, but many herbs are shrubs and trees, such as hyssop, the sweet bay and rosemary. A modern definition of a herb could be any plant, generally aromatic or fragrant, whose parts whether leaf, flower, seed or root are of use in food flavoring medicine, household and cosmetics.

Herbs were, first and foremost grown primarily for healing and flavoring and as such, were grown in a place reserved for them, whether it was part of a monastery garden, or part of the vegetable patch of peasant or yeoman farmer. As times passed, inevitably, people began to arrange their herbs in patterns when they planted them, until eventually the herb patch became ornamental, and was a garden in its own right. The physic gardens of the monasteries were mostly formal, with rectangular or square beds, but the gardens attached to private homes were developed from these simple plans into intricate designs of curved beds edged with dwarf hedges of box, southernwood or lavender.

Propagation of Herbs

Since herb is an umbrella word covering all types of plant, it follows they can be propagated by most of the methods used for plant increase, but there are two commonly used; seed and division. A third sometimes used is cuttings, mainly for the shrubs or trees. Most of the herbs wich can be grown from seed are hardy and can be sown outdoors in temperate climates; some examples are dill, coriander, savory purslane and lovage. Spring is generally the season in which to sow, but some germinate better if sown in late summer or early autumn, that is, as soon as the parent plants have flowered and set seed, and the seed has ripened. The seed of such plants loses its viability ability to germinate more quickly, so that a spring sowing is likely to result in fewer seedlings. Some seed should not be covered with soil because it needs light to germinate, some needs an acid reacting soil, and some needs a period of cold between harvest and sowing. But most herb seeds germinate like weeds not surprisingly.

Division is a 2nd method which is perhaps more certain, provided the separated sections each have some root and some buds or potential shoots. It can be done in spring or autumn when the soil is moist, but not waterlogged or dry, and if it is still warm from summer, or beginning to warm up as the spring sun appears. Divided plants will take hold of the soil and grow new roots more quickly if they’re replanted so quickly that the plant hardly knows it has been out of the ground. By doing this its vitality is not completely stopped, it somehow goes on flowing, and the plant, as it were simply gulps a little, and gets on with expanding.

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Nurseries and Garden Centers

Division is all very well, but you must first catch your plant, and in order to do this, it means applying to nurseries or garden centers. Local outlets of this kind will have a choice of all sorts of garden plants and nowadays, a separate area is often reserved specially for herbs. Some garden centers make a point of having a particularly good collection of herbs and if they do it will have well-grown plants considerable variety and correct naming. If there is such an outlet in the neighborhood, it will be a more satisfactory source than a mail order nursery because you can see what you are buying, you can check that it is the plant was named on the label, and you can make sure of getting a strong healthy specimen free from pest or disease.11

Furthermore the herb can be planted without disturbance to the roots almost immediately after buying, whereas those sent through the post may spend many days travelling in inadequate packing having been dug up or removed from a container. Even plants which were well grown and vigorous to start with, are unlikely to do well after such treatment, and unfortunately the mail-order nurseries have no control over postal treatment or delays. As far as cost is concerned there is little difference between the two sources since the cost of postage I offset by the extra cost of the container plants from a garden center.

But it must be said, that even with the best garden centers, the range of herbs is not great, and consists mostly of the culinary type. For the widest selection, it is better to apply to a specialist herb nursery of which there are now a good many. If there is a local one, then that is far and away the best place to go, otherwise there is avoiding a postal order. A specialist nursery has the advantage that it can advise may be available on the various ways of using it. Some nurseries run short courses on cultivation, cooking with herbs, perfumery and other uses.44

As with any plant, when buying it look for a specimen which is undamaged and healthy, and with plenty of potential growth in the form of small new shoots and buds. Avoid those with broken or hanging stems, wilting leaves, dry compost, and any pest or leaf discoloration at all and preferably buy a plant not yet flowering, though the buds may already be visible. Tall lanky plants in small pots are not likely to be good buy. Be very careful if the herb has flowered and started to set seed, because if it is an annual, or a biennial, it will shortly die in the natural course of events. This is why it is worth finding out in advance what type of herb it is.

The correct naming of herbs is a third aspect which unfortunately is not yet as good as it should be. Mail-order plants that turn out not to be the ones ordered are tiresome enough, but when they are labelled as the plant ordered, and are not that plant, it is particularly irritating. Herbs to keep an eye on are the marjoram’s, of which there are at least three different kinds tarragon, dill and fennel, which hybridize very easily, garden mint which is often a cross with horse-mint or may even be that species, lovage which can look like ground elder while young, and French sorrel which is invariably confused with the inferior tasting English sorrel.

Besides mail-order herb nurseries, there are also seed firms supplying nothing but herbs and wild plants. These will be much less expensive on postage charges and are more likely to be true to name. For success in growing from seed, there is a book entitled, seed Growers Guide to Herbs and Wild Flowers by Helen McEwan available from Seed bank), which has detailed instructions on seed germination and seedling cultivation for herbs together with information on their eggs.

Many specialist herb nurseries are planned so that the visitor can inspect the plants and their condition at close range. Each herb is labelled with both its botanical and common name. The leaf pattern of fennel is similar to that of dill. When buying a fennel plant, check that it is true fennel. Well (Foeniculum Vulgare), which has a strong anise flavor. Coriander is easily grown from seed but should be planted outdoors and not in a confined space. Until the seeds ripen, it has a strong and disagreeable odour. French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) is one of the most distinctive and delicious culinary herbs. Its close relation, Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculoides) has a greatly inferior flavor and should not be substituted in the garden or the kitchen for true tarragon.33

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