Herb plants and their uses
It is often difficult to know what herb plants to plant or buy for use in your kitchen or for medicinal purposes. You might find yourself in the herb section of your local nursery, not knowing what to choose to spice up your cooking or add nutrition to your diet. So here is a short description on some of the most common herb plants and what they are used for. It is by no means an exhaustive list but should be a good start.
Part of the onion family, chives are very high in vitamin C and used in herbal medicine to aid digestion as a mild stimulant. You can use both the flowers and leaves of this herb for summer soups and salads. Freeze the leaves for use in winter when the plant dies down. You can grow chives in containers in your kitchen. They are sometimes made into a herbal spray to prevent mildew in the garden.
Dill is a pretty plant with fine feathery leaves and flat yellow flower heads made up of many little flowers. The leaves are picked young and fresh and used for cooking in pickling and fish dishes. You can also freeze the leaves for use in winter. Medicinally dill is used to prevent nausea, to cure excessive gas and to treat hiccups. The plant likes fertile well drained soil and full sun.
Celery should be grown in the summer for pulling and eating in the winter for soups and stews, or for salads in summer. The seeds are also used in herbal medicine. They dissolve many of the harmful accretions of uric acid and a decoction made from the seeds is thought to help in rheumatic illnesses and to be diuretic. It is also used as a general tonic prescribed for arthritis and high blood pressure.
Coriander is a pretty plant in the garden and a favourite in the kitchen. The leaves, berries and roots are all used in a large number of dishes. The leaves can be picked and used fresh in salads or cooked in spicy dishes. After the flowers have died the seeds appear which can be harvested, dried and ground into spice. They are one of the main ingredients in curry powder. The herb is used medicinally to aid digestion and contribute to longevity and an improved love life.
The scented leaves of this long grass are used in oriental cooking, herbal medicines and cosmetics. In the kitchen, use then fresh or dried and ground into powder. The are used in many Eastern dishes especially meat or fish and Thai cooking. You can also infuse them as a tea that aids digestion. Medicinally it is used to cure minor fevers, to treat ringworm, lice and scabies. Lemon grass oil is used in cosmetics and for flavouring in the food industry.
Fennel is grown for the large bulb leaves. The bulb has an aniseed flavour and can be eaten cooked or raw. The leaves are used to flavour fish dishes and soups and the seeds are gathered and used in salami. You can also use them in tea. It is also widely used medicinally for all ailments of the stomach and as an antidote for poison mushrooms. It is good for the blood and helps asthmatics or those with shortness of breath. It also treats colic and indigestion, sore gums and sore throats.
The bay tree can reach 12m or more. It has smooth pointed leaves which are dried and used to flavour stews and sauces. Bay leaves have been used medicinally on sprains, bruises, ulcers and skin complaints and can be used as an antiseptic.
Lavender is a wonderfully scented plant. The flowers are loved by honey bees. Lavender can be used in potpourris, scented pillows and herbal sachets. You can use the flowers in the kitchen to flavour jams or ice cream. An oil made from the flowers was used to treat stomach complaints, fits, fainting and dropsy. Today it is used in herbal medicine to treat depression, coughs, indigestion, burns, rheumatism and skin complaints.
Mint is a large family of plants – including watermint, peppermint, spearmint, apple mint and garden mint - used in the kitchen and medicinally. All forms of mint are perennials and have very invasive roots that spread vigorously so you need to contain them. They do best in fertile, well-drained soil in semi shade. Mint can be used to make mint sauce and mint jelly, and for flavouring drinks in the summer. It can also flavour sausages and pates. The oil is used in soaps and shampoos and medicinally it is still used to treat indigestion, colic and other childhood illnesses.
Cumin is grown for the black aromatic, nutmeg-flavoured seeds used in curries and baking and it has been used as a spice for two thousand years. It is now used in herbal medicine to stimulate the uterus during childbirth and to improve lactation.
Basil is a favourite herb in the garden. Basil is a tropical herb from Asia that likes a hot, sunny place out of the wind. It is used in many popular dishes as a main ingredient, including pesto, and is used in summer salads and pasta sauces. Medicinally it is a restorative herb that is used to treat colds, indigestion, gastroenteritis, depression and exhaustion. It can also be used on stings, bites and skin conditions.
This is another favourite Mediterranean herb for flowering stews and many pasta dishes. It is a bushy perennial that attracts bees and insects. The flavour of the herb depends on the soil it grows in and the amount of sun it gets. Oregano from sunny areas is stronger than that found in colder regions. Today it is used in herbal medicine to treat colds, indigestion and other minor complains.
Parsley is widely grown for use in the kitchen. It can garnish boiled potatoes and vegetables and is used in parsley sauce and many other dishes. It is one of the main ingredients in a herb mix, and you can fry it and sprinkle it on fish dishes. There are two main types, the curly-leaf parsley and Italian parsley. The first is more for decoration and the other is hardier with a stronger flavour. Parsley is rich in vitamin C and is used to cure bad breath and garlic breath.
Rosemary is a very important herb for the kitchen and medically. It is the herb of remembrance and friendship and is supposed to stimulate the mind. In the kitchen it can accompany roast lamb, but you can also use it to flavour a number of other dishes, particularly fish. Today the plant is used to treat depression, headaches, apathy and migraine. It is applied externally to help rheumatism, muscular injuries and dandruff.
Sage is an upright plant with violet-blue flowers in summer and evergreen, pale hairy leaves oval in shape. Sage is an antiseptic, anti-inflammatory herb and is used to treat fever, perspiration and excessive salivation. It is good for the digestive system liver and bile. Infusion of the leaves and young sprigs it can be used as a mouthwash to cure sore throats and gums.
Garden thyme has been used in the kitchen to flavour meat, fish and vegetable dishes for centuries. There are a number of types that can be used in the kitchen. All thymes are rich in volatile oil, mainly thymol which is a powerful antiseptic. The essential oil is used in the perfume industry and as an insect repellent.