Herbs have many uses and require delicate care

Published: Sunday, April 22 2012 4:40 p.m. MDT

The herb garden is a popular feature at Red Butte Garden.

Larry Sagers, Larry Sagers

The National Garden Bureau want you to know more about growing herbs so they have designated 2012 as The Year of the Herbs. The name is used freely but when pressed for a definition, many are unsure how to define what plants really are herbs.

Holly Shimizu, director of the U.S. Botanic Garden, has coined this definition of what is really an herb.

"Herbs are defined as plants (trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, biennials or annuals) valued historically, presently, or potentially for their flavor, fragrance, medicinal qualities, insecticidal qualities, economic or industrial use, or in the case of dyes, for the coloring material they provide," Shimizu said.

Defining plants this way categorizes herbs by how they are used, rather than separating them by their appearance or botanical classification. This definition includes trees (such as witch hazel), bulbs (such as garlic) and shrubs (such as boxwood).

If the only way you know herbs is by a few dried leaves in a bottle, think again. Growing herbs is a great way to add a fresher, more pungent flavor to whatever dishes you might be preparing.

Many gardeners are reluctant to get into grow herbs because they do not think they have the time, space or expertise to grow them. If you feel that way and do not think you grow herbs think again. They don't take a lot of space and can mix in with the vegetables, flowers or in containers or window boxes.

While many of us think of herbs for cooking, they are very useful for ornamental displays, crafts, and even have many medicinal uses. They provide fragrance, flavor, spice and beauty through their interesting shapes, textures and colors.

No one knows exactly when people started using herbs. We know that the Egyptians were using medicinal herbs as early as 3500 B.C. Legend says that the Chinese emperor Shen-Nong (ca.2737 B.C.-ca. 2698 B.C.) tasted hundreds of herbs, even poisonous ones.

The Greek and Roman civilizations made extensive use of herbs. Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.), a Greek physician, classified herbs according to their usefulness for treating infirmities. Pliny the Elder (ca. 29 A.D-70 A.D.), a Roman author and naturalist, devoted several volumes of his works on natural history to how to use medicinal plants.

During the Middle Ages, some herb use was relegated to superstitions instead of factual information. Fortunately, there were many who understood how to grow and use them. They were very valuable for those who could not afford expensive, imported spices to season and make their food more palatable.

The Renaissance brought renewed interest in these plants including publication of many beautiful herbals that documented different plant collections and herb uses. In 1652, Nicholas Culpeper authored "Complete Herbal," which documented medicinal remedies used in Europe.

As Columbus and many other explorers set out on their quests throughout the world, they discovered many new plants that were unknown to the European world. Many of these were collected and used by Native Americans. Others were discovered in China, India, the Far East and Africa where they were used for landscaping, cooking, medicine and cosmetic uses.

As you select herbs, remember that there are annuals and perennials. Perennials will survive our winters outdoors while annuals must come inside to spend the winter. They make a nice windowsill garden if you have room, and that way you have some fresh herbs to clip out of season.

Most herbs need a minimum of four to eight hours of sunlight per day. Although herbs survive in poor soil, you get better quality and production with quality soil with adequate organic matter. Avoid excessive fertilization because soft succulent herb growth is not good quality.

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