Herbs in general can be classified as a set of plants that are used for purposes of food, medicine, and flavoring or for their unique aromatic properties.
Herbs primarily refer to those parts of the plants which are green, leafy and flowering and they are usually vary from spices as the latter are the products of other parts of the plant and are usually dried.
Herbs can also be referred to as herbaceous plants.
In recent years, owing to the advances in botany and our understanding of the chemical and medicinal properties, herbs have become an important part of both the culinary as well as the medical science and are widely used for the same all over the world.
Historical perspective of Herbs
The earliest known recorded use of herbs is documented approximately around the period of 5000 BC during the Sumerian Empire.
Egyptian manuscripts have also shown that they commonly used herbs for both cooking as well as medicinal purposes. These specifically include the mention of coriander, fennel and thyme.
The Greeks were also known to have made good use of herbs especially as medicines and the great physician of the era Galen was known to make concoctions using the same by mixing upto 100 different herbs in one formulation.
Thus we see how herbs have been historically significant right from the ancient eras.
Uses of Herbs
Culinary herbs are those which can be differentiated from vegetables and spices as they are used in extremely small quantities to provide a particular taste or impart a particular flavor to the food.
These herbs are usually small plants which are shrubs and are found all through the year.
A few herbs used commonly for cooking purposes include coriander leaves and seeds, thyme, rosemary, lavender, basil and parsley.
Medicinal herbs find an important role and place in our medicinal sciences and have been used for the same for thousands of years.
The Chinese have been using herbs since the ancient times as a medicinal science and by mixing and consuming various herbs to obtain their health benefits and also treat certain disorders. The concept of Chinese herbal tea which involves the mixture of tea with various medicinal herbs is used till date and it helps treat a variety of disorders. A few herbs added to such tea’s include lavender, rosemary, peppermint and chamomile, each having their own distinctive property and health benefit.
The Indian system of Ayurveda has also made use of herbs to treat various anomalies. They have been used as combinations which have to be ingested, applied or massaged in the form of oil on the affected part of the body so as to obtain relief. Ayurveda is a popularly used method of treatment and is widely used in India even today, even though its principles date back to thousands of years.
Religion also applies the use of herbs in certain rituals and practices thus deeming certain herbs as sacred. In India, herbs such as the tulsi or holy basil or Ocimum tenuiflorum, neem or Adazirachta indica, bael or Aegele marmelos and haldi or Curcuma longa are widely used in religious ceremonies and practices and are considered as extremely sacred plants.
The recent spread of Ayurveda and the advances in botany and microbiology have enabled us to understand better the properties of certain herbs. These are now thus mixed with certain other plants and are used in the preparation of cosmetics owing to their properties of helping clear the skin and improving its tone as well as their antiseptic properties and anti inflammatory properties.
Herbal cosmetics now include herbal face creams, lip sticks, body oils and fragrances.
Thus we get a brief understanding of herbs and how they are widely used for a variety of purposes.