Definition, Number & Types of Herbs Available
Adapted from Pub. NE 208 published by the Cooperative Extension Services of the Northeast States
Early herb gardens were the major source for food seasoning. The need for homegrown herbs, however, declined with the advent of modern stores. Today, many gardeners are rediscovering the joy and pleasure of producing their own herbs.
Definition of Herb
From the botanical viewpoint, an herb is a seed plant that does not produce a woody stem like a tree. But an herb will live long enough to develop flowers and seeds.
Number of Herbs Available
A true herb connoisseur can select from a wide variety of common and not-so-common herbs. For example, the E & A Evetts Ashfields Herb Nursery of Shropshire, England, lists 57 herbs, 16 mints, 17 onion-type herbs, 20 sages, and 17 thymes in a recent catalog.
The Brooklyn Botanic Garden Handbook on Herbs lists 73 different types of herbs.
Some herbs fit into one or more classifications according to use—culinary, aromatic, ornamental, and medicinal.
Culinary herbs are probably the most useful to herb gardeners, having a wide range of uses in cooking. These herbs, because of their strong flavors, are generally used in small quantities to add flavor. Parsley, produced in the largest amount, is used mostly as a garnish. Next in popularity is sage—an important flavoring in pork sausage. Other popular culinary herbs include chives, thyme, savory, marjoram, mint, and basil.
Aromatic herbs have some novel uses and are not as popular to grow. Most have pleasant smelling flowers or foliage. Oils from aromatic herbs can be used to produce perfumes, toilet water, and various scents. For home use, the plant parts are used intact, often to scent linens or clothing. When dried, many aromatic herbs will retain their aroma for a considerable period. Some common aromatic herbs include mint, marjoram, lovage, rosemary, and basil.
Ornamental herbs have brightly colored flowers and foliage. Many have whitish or light-colored flowers. Valerian has crimson blossoms while borage and chicory are blue-flowered. Such herbs as variegated thyme, mint, lavender, and chives produce variegated foliage.
Medicinal herbs have long been thought to have curative powers. But while present medical knowledge recognizes some herbs as having healing properties, others are highly overrated. Medicinal herbs should be used carefully. Some herbs are harmless while others can be dangerous if consumed.
Herbs also can be classified as annuals, biennials, and perennials. Annuals bloom one season and then die. Biennials live for two seasons, blooming the second season only. Once established, perennials overwinter and bloom each season.