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Culinary Herbs – Species Lost and Gained

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Happy HerbsAdapted from Culinary Herbs, Their Cultivation, Harvesting, Curing and Uses, by M. G. Kains, 1912.

It may be said that sweet or culinary herbs are those annual, biennial or perennial plants whose green parts, tender roots or ripe seeds have an aromatic flavor and fragrance, due either to a volatile oil or to other chemically named substances peculiar to the individual species. Since many of them have pleasing odors they have been called sweet, and since they have been long used in cookery to add their characteristic flavors to soups, stews, dressings, sauces and salads, they are popularly called culinary. This last designation is less happy than the former, since many other herbs, such as cabbage, spinach, kale, dandelion and collards, are also culinary herbs. These vegetables are, however, probably more widely known as potherbs or greens.

History
It seems probable that many of the flavoring herbs now in use were similarly employed before the erection of the pyramids and also that many then popular no longer appear in modern lists of esculents. Of course, this statement is based largely upon imperfect records, perhaps, in many cases only hints more or less doubtful as to the various species. But it seems safe to conclude that a goodly number of the culinary herbs, especially those said to be natives of the Mediterranean region, overhung and perfumed the cradle of the human race in the Orient and marked the footsteps of our ancestors. This idea seems to gain support also from the fact that certain Eastern peoples still employ many herbs which have dropped by the wayside of progress, or like the caraway and the redoubtable “pusley,” an anciently popular potherb, are but known in western lands as troublesome weeds.

Relying upon Biblical records alone, several herbs were highly esteemed prior to our era; in the gospels of Matthew and Luke reference is made to tithes of mint, anise, rue, cummin and other “herbs”; and, more than 700 years previously, Isaiah speaks of the sowing and threshing of cummin which, since the same passage (Isaiah xxviii, 25) also speaks of “fitches” (vetches), wheat, barley and “rie” (rye), seems then to have been a valued crop.

dried-herbs-in-paperPopular Herbs
The development of the herb crops contrasts strongly with that of the other crops. Whereas these latter have continued to be staples, and to judge by their behavior during the last century may be considered to have improved in quality and yield since that ancient time, the former have dropped to the most subordinate position of all food plants. They have lost in number of species, and have shown less improvement than perhaps any other groups of plants cultivated for economic purposes. During the end of the 18th century only one species, parsley, may be said to have developed more than an occasional improved variety. And even during this period the list of species seems to have been somewhat curtailed—tansy, hyssop, horehound, rue and several others being considered of too pronounced and even unpleasant flavor to suit cultivated palates.

With the exception of these few species, the loss of which seems not to be serious, this absence of improvement is to be regretted, because with improved quality would come increased consumption and consequent beneficial results in the appetizing flavor of the foods to which herbs are added. But greatly improved varieties of most species can hardly be expected until a just appreciation has been awakened in individual cultivators, who, probably in a majority of cases, will be lovers of plants rather than men who earn their living by market gardening.

Such lesser known varieties can be developed at least as readily as the wonderful modern chrysanthemum has been developed from an insignificant little wild flower not half as interesting or promising originally as our common oxeye daisy, a well-known field weed.

See how many of the following herbs you know, and if you don’t know some, why not explore?

These two herb families are known as the Labiatæ (leaf-based herbs) and the Umbelliferæ (seed-based herbs), the former including the sages, mints and their connections; the latter the parsleys and their relatives. With the exception of tarragon, which belongs to the Compositæ, parsley and a few of its relatives which have deserted their own ranks, all the important leaf herbs belong to the Labiatæ; and without a notable exception all the herbs whose seeds are used for flavoring belong to the Umbelliferæ.

Fennel-flower, which belongs to the natural order Ranunculaceæ, or crowfoot family, is a candidate for admission to the seed sodality; costmary and southernwood of the Compositæ seek membership with the leaf faction; rue of the Rutaceæ and tansy of the Compositæ, in spite of suspension for their boldness and ill-breeding, occasionally force their way back into the domain of the leaf herbs. Marigold, a composite, forms a clique by itself, the most exclusive club of all. It has admitted no members! And there seem to be no candidates.

The important members of the Labiatæ are:

Sage (Salvia officinalis, Linn.).
Savory (Satureia hortensis, Linn.).
Savory, winter (Satureia montana, Linn.).
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris, Linn.).
Marjoram (Origanum Marjoram; O. Onites, Linn.; and M. vulgare, Linn.).
Balm (Melissa officinalis, Linn.).
Basil (Ocimum Basilicum, Linn., and O. minimum, Linn.).
Spearmint (Mentha spicata, Linn., or M. viridis, Linn.).
Peppermint (Mentha Piperita, Linn.).
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis, Linn.).
Clary (Salvia Sclarea, Linn.).
Pennyroyal (Mentha Pulegium, Linn.).
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare, Linn.).
Hyssop (Hyssopus vulgaris, Linn.).
Catnip (Nepeta Cataria, Linn.).
Lavender (Lavandula vera, D. C.; L. spica, D. C.).

These plants, which are mostly natives of mild climates of the old world, are characterized by having square stems; opposite, simple leaves and branches; and more or less two-lipped flowers which appear in the axils of the leaves, occasionally alone, but usually several together, forming little whorls, which often compose loose or compact spikes or racemes. Each fertile blossom is followed by four little seedlike fruits in the bottom of the calyx, which remains attached to the plant. The foliage is generally plentifully dotted with minute glands that[Pg 52] contain a volatile oil, upon which depends the aroma and piquancy peculiar to the individual species.

The leading species of the Umbelliferæ are:

Parsley (Carum Petroselinum, Benth. and Hook.).
Dill (Anethum graveolens, Linn.).
Fennel (Fœniculum officinale, Linn.).
Angelica (Archangelica officinalis, Hoofm.).
Anise (Pimpinella anisum, Linn.).
Caraway (Carum Carui, Linn.).
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum, Linn.).
Chervil (Scandix Cerefolium, Linn.).
Cumin or Cummin (Cuminum Cyminum, Linn.).
Lovage (Levisticum officinale, Koch.).
Samphire (Crithmum maritimum, Linn.).

Like the members of the preceding group, the species of the Umbelliferæ are principally natives of mild climates of the old world, but many of them extend farther north into the cold parts of the continent, even beyond the Arctic Circle in some cases. They have cylindrical, usually hollow stems; alternate, generally compound leaves the basis of whose stalks ensheath the branches or stems; and small flowers almost always arranged in compound terminal umbels. The fruits are composed of two seedlike dry carpels, each containing a single seed, and usually separating when ripe. Each carpel bears five longitudinal prominent ribs and several, often four, lesser intermediate ones, in the intervals between which numerous oil ducts have their openings from the interior of the fruit. The oil is generally found in more or less abundance also in other parts of the plant, but is usually most plentiful in the fruits.

The members of the Compositæ used as sweet herbs are, with the exception of tarragon, comparatively unimportant, and except for having their flowers in close heads “on a common receptacle, surrounded by an involucre,” have few conspicuous characters in common. No further space except that required for their enumeration need here be devoted to them. And this remark will apply also to the other two herbs mentioned further below.

Read about How to Produce Great Herbs And Become a Public Benefactor

Adapted from Culinary Herbs, Their Cultivation, Harvesting, Curing and Uses, by M. G. Kains, 1912.

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