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Definition and Explanation of Herbs

( Originally Published 1933 )



Digging and planting in the garden is one way man can engage in the satisfying experience of working hard with his body while planning the next move with his head. Perhaps the reason gardening is so healing to modern man who is speeded up almost beyond endurance by the pulsing beat of machinery is that it requires deliberate, loving hands, and cannot be done in a hurry. Seeds of cumin, anise, and coriander come up with the same gradual unfolding of stem and leaves in our present-day gardens as they did in Egypt and Mesopotamia five thousand years ago. Growing the herbs is an especially delightful form of gardening, for no other group of plants so strongly evokes our sense of smell. Although humble and modest in appearance, because of their potent aromatic, prophylactic, and medicinal qualities, they have been so important to man that he has woven legends and written books about them, and carried them with him in his migrations from India to Asia Minor, from Persia to China, and from Europe to America.

With few exceptions the herbs are not endowed with conspicuous or brilliantly colored flowers. Theirs is a modest beauty, appreciated by gardeners long at their work who have learned to enjoy the less obvious and more subtle qualities in plants, such as the patterns formed by the leaves and stems of burnet and lavender, the wrinkled surfaces in the leaves of the sages, or the silvery color of some of the artemisias.

According to the dictionary a herb is a plant the stem of which dies down to the ground after flowering, in contrast to the trees and shrubs that have woody and persistent stems. Herbs may be annual, biennial, or perennial, but the word as used in this book is applied to the class of plants some portion of which because of aromatic or healing properties has been used for medicine, perfume, or flavor. A few of the aromatic plants, such as Thymus vulgaris and Satureia montana, have woody and persistent stems, and are not herbs according to the dictionary but most decidedly so in their characters. The word HERB may be pronounced HURB or ŪRB and the first is given preference in my dictionary.

In compiling the list of herbs there have undoubtedly been serious omissions as well as frivolous inclusions and I admit unashamedly that my selection is characterized by an inconsistency generally considered feminine. No two people would choose exactly the same plants and my only hope is that what appealed to me will appeal to the public. A friend said, "You will begin to learn about the herbs when the book has appeared and your readers write to tell you about the ones you have left out and the stories and recipes you have missed." I hope very much my readers will send me any facts they think should have been included, so that if there is a second edition they can be added, for the subject is so vast it could not possibly be covered at a first attempt.

Herbs used for their medicinal qualities only were omitted because the subject of herbs in medicine requires far more specialized knowledge than could be expected of a mere gardener. Moreover almost every vegetable or fruit produces some effect on man and seems to have been employed for its healing properties at one time or another. The medicinal qualities as recognized in the pharmacopoeias of today have been included in the text, because it seemed advisable to tell as much about each of the plants as possible.

With every definition there are always some exceptions which, like the weeds along the edges, blur the clarity of the boundaries. In selecting certain herbs and discarding others therefore it was difficult to know when to exclude the vegetables. A vegetable, it seems to me, differs from a herb because it is eaten for itself, while a herb flavors other dishes. Unfortunately when it comes to classifying them many vegetables are herbs as well, such as fennel, onion, carrot, and celery. Portulaca and sorrel are some-times classed as herbs, but I felt they belonged over the fence in the vegetable garden and left them out.

The weeds were the next problem in elimination, although many of them are valuable medicinally. In our gardens we cannot grow the ones which increase at such a rapid rate as to crowd out quickly the less vigorous plants.

The dandelion has been excluded in spite of its medicinal and culinary properties and the charm of its fuzzy yellow blossoms against the fresh green of the spring lawns. Pennyroyal, Mentha pulegium, is another herb long used medicinally and to flavor the cooking, but it is a pushing plant which creeps along relentlessly on its rootstocks, and has an unattractive smell, so it, too, has been omitted. The leaves of the Malva rotundifolia were formerly given as a cathartic because of their mucilaginous quality, but since the plant is weedy and untidy looking it has been left out. The mustards are weeds in this country, but have been described here on account of their importance as condiments. It was difficult to know which of the artemisias to include. All of them have been used medicinally and many in cooking. I left out Artemisia vulgaris in spite of its importance in herb lore, because it is no longer useful, and too coarse and spreading to be handsome in the garden.

With a few exceptions such as lemon verbena, rose geranium, and laurel, Laurus nobilis, the plants chosen are all hardy and can live through severe winters. We have never tried to grow the Oriental spice-bearing trees, such as nutmeg, Myristica fragrans, allspice, Pimenta officinalis, or cloves, Eugenia aromaticus, all native to the tropics, but they might be worth trying some time. A greenhouse or orangerie filled with them ought to be a most delightfully scented place.

Strawberries and roses are not really herbs, but enter into so many recipes that they have been included. The sweet cicely, burnet, lovage, and fennel flower are all useful, and I was particularly keen on growing and describing them because they seemed to have been forgotten by the present generation of gardeners and cooks. Winter-green, fraxinella, and bee balm are described because their leaves make fragrant and unusual teas, and I am sorry I could not add the European linden and left it out, although we have the trees planted in many exposures on our place, because the blossoms are only faintly fragrant and like a sickly echo of the positively intoxicating perfume they exhale in France and England, and presumably in Germany, too.

Unless large quantities of violets, primulas, and clove carnations are grown there would not be enough flowers to make up the recipes, but they are included for their beauty, fragrance, and sentimental associations. Without the scent of violets or the presence of the golden cowslips, the herb garden in spring would be bereft of much of its poetry, as it would if the saffron crocus and Florentine iris were left out. Even if a sufficiently large crop of crocuses could be grown for practical purposes, it would not pro-duce as fine a quality of saffron as comes from Asia Minor, nor is it likely that the iris would ever yield as fragrant and delicate an orris powder in most American gardens as it does in northern Italy.

When we go into the garden to gather leaves for the salad, or to give a flowery note to the soup, as we touch the rosemary or basil they give off a perfume so tempting that we put a leaf in our mouths, to taste them. At first we experience only a general sensation because our senses have become atrophied and dulled from disuse, but after a while we detect the fruity, camphoraceous, piny, or spicy elements, and notice that some pucker the tongue while others have a cooling effect. We find some of the leaves taste delightfully and others unpleasantly bitter, and that a few of them taste quite differently when fresh and when dried. As we chew a leaf or smell it, we wonder what it is that gives us these sensations, and when the taste stops and the smell begins. In the mouth, we are told, we can only experience the sensations of hot, and cold, sweet, sour, bitter, and salt and all other sensations come from our sense of smell.

It seems strange that so comparatively small a group of plants should be so fragrant while hundreds of others are not. F. A. Hampton in his book, "The Scent of Flowers and Leaves, thinks the perfume is a protection against the browsing animals who dislike the hot, burning taste of most leaf oils, and in proof of his theory says, "the goats who have denuded most of the vegetation in the Mediterranean basin spare the aromatic plants which compose the scrubby growth largely composed of lavender, rosemary, myrtle, bay, cistus, sage, thyme, and various small aromatic labiates, which give off an unforgetable scent under the hot sun."

In some plants the fragrance acts as a lure to attract the insects so they will carry the pollen from one flower to another and so effect cross-pollination. The fragrance is not always in the corolla, but in the leaves, stamens, or in the calyx as in the lavender. Often at the time of flowering there is a slight elaboration of the leaf oil which gives the general inflorescence a scent, as in the rose geranium, the leaves of which acquire a more flowery character as the buds open. This is also true of many of the labiates such as hyssop, mint, and thyme, which are most fragrant just as the flowers open. This is therefore the precise moment when the leaves should be harvested, for as Charabot says, at fecundation, when there is a slight slowing up of growth, a certain amount of this fragrant oil is used up.

Hampton says the scent of all flowers and most leaves is caused by an essential oil which is well distributed through the whole plant. In the flowers it is sometimes known as an attar, or otto, and this is generally a delicate, complex mixture of substances with a similar but not identical scent, whereas the oil in the leaves is much simpler, has a pungent, sharp, refreshing, and rougher character and contains substances which do not occur in the flowers.



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