Chapter 2 : Why Herbs?

Answering the question why you want to grow herbs inevitably leads to which herbs you grow.

Stop!  Before you take the shovel, before you plant a single herb. Stop to consider why you want an herb garden.  What are your intentions for planting these marvelous plants?

Are you planning on using them both fresh and dried for culinary purposes -- to add to your meals to enhance the flavors?  Are you planning on making flavored oils or vinegars to present to friends and family members as gifts (while keeping a couple stashed for yourself?)

Or have you discovered the many natural health benefits of herbs and would like to grow your own to brew teas, infusions, pastes to use to help your minor health conditions?

Oh, yes, it does matter!  First, you may be planting totally different plants if your aim is to embolden your entrees than to empower your health. 

But beyond just the uses of herbs, you must at some point decide on a size of your garden.  As you travel through this book, I'll show you some lavish designs of herb gardens that consume entire back yards.  Perhaps you don't want to start quite that big (can't say that I blame you!). 

I'll also show you smaller container gardens grown both indoors or out.  And I'll also show you an alternative where you can grow just a few herbs -- keeping them modestly small and manageable and well within reach -- right on your kitchen windowsill.

Whatever you choose, just be prepared to make choices.  And it appears plenty of them.  Of course, this sounds overwhelming at first.  But you arrive at this place knowing your intentions, perhaps well armed with the names of a few herbs hoping to include some of your favorites.

And hopefully, as we travel together -- you and I -- you'll discover a few more herbs you hadn't initially considered.  After all that's the true joy of herb gardening -- watching something unexpected spring up.

Culinary herbs.

For many people, this class of herb is the most recognizable and the most useful.  Even those who have never used an herbal supplement in their life, know what some fresh basil can do to a meal ... the difference some oregano can make in spaghetti sauce ... or how some fresh chives can make a baked potato come to life.

But, then when asked to define a culinary herb, many of us are quite loss.  "Why of course, you know what an herb is," you say, "trying to back out of reciting a strict definition.  Here let me help you out.

Culinary herbs -- sometimes referred to as sweet herbs - are those plants, whether they be annual, biennial or perennial, that have tender roots or ripe seeds.  They also possess an aromatic flavor (yes, they smell darned good!) and they have a great flavor.

If you think that you're among the first generation to discover some of these herbs -- I hate to disappoint you.  As long as mankind has been eating, womankind (not to be sexist now though) has been literally spicing up cooking with herbs. Paleontologists have discovered the ancient Egyptians used herbs even before the pharaohs ordered the building of the pyramids.

Similarly, the ancient Chinese naturally turned to the plants in their gardens in order to enhance the flavor and appearance of the meals.

And of course, you need look no further than the Bible to see how herbs were not only used, but actually prized by many.  Read through the gospels of Matthew and Luke.  You'll find references to tithes paid in herbs like mint, cumin, and other herbs deemed valuable. 

Now take a quick look at the Old Testament.  More than 700 years before the birth of Christ, Isaiah talks about sowing and threshing cumin.  And since its used in the same reference -- and grown in the same fields as -- barley and wheat, you just take for granted that its used for culinary purposes.

Unfortunately, the use of these specialty herbs have lost the general appeal that have kept the wheat, barley and even rye staples of cooking.  And that's a shame.

Perhaps only one herb has really kept its status among cooks as a must-have -- and that's parsley. Today few of us use, or are even aware that such herbs as hyssop, rue or horehound exist, let alone use them daily in our cooking.

And this is a shame. If mankind in general had kept pace seriously cultivating some of these herbs, then the flavors of them could have been remarkably improved throughout history.  And would make cooking today even more exciting.

But mankind's loss is your gain.  Since some herbs are so difficult to find, growing them yourself is really your only option.  And now, you have the wonderfully thrilling chance of growing these in your own back yard -- or even right on your windowsill.

Aromatic herbs.

While some of these may include culinary herbs, aromatic herbs usually are grown to be used as additives in products such as perfumes, toilet water and other items needing a radiant fragrance.

If your reason for growing herbs is for this, you're not distancing yourself from many other herb growers.  Few herbalists cultivate for this reason.  But that's not to say that results won't create a stunning effect in your garden -- because they absolutely will.

Aromatic herbs, just like their culinary cousins have a long, rich history that goes just as far back as the culinary plants.  The ancient Egyptians, perhaps were the most well known of peoples to use herbs.  And they are especially known for the creation of a fragrance called Kyphi.  Today, we would classify it as an "incense."  This fragrance was widely used in religious services as part of an overall purification ceremony.

Today you may be growing them to use them intact perhaps to scent your linens or items of clothing.  Consider drying these plants -- like marjoram, lovage, rosemary and even basil -- and you'll discover that their precious scents linger for a thankfully long time.

Ornamental herbs.

Then again, your desire to grow herbs may simply be make create a bright environmental.  No doubt, you've seen the brightly colored flowers and foliage of many of these gorgeous plants.  Some have less color and more pastel or even whitish looking flowers. 

These are classified as ornamental herbs, whose sole purpose is to be decorative.  Of course they may be some overlapping.  Some culinary herbs are very beautiful as they grow.  Many medicinal herbs are also stunning to behold.

Ornamental herbs may be beautiful not because of their colors, but simply for the texture of the leaves.  These plants make perfect accents for a balcony or to line your flower bed.

And if your main purpose is for ornamental -- or decorative -- reasons you may never harvest these plants.

If you're considering adding herbs to your world for this reason valerian -- also a very valuable medicinal herb -- is a perfect choice.  It carries crimson blossoms.  Borage and chicory are also good choices here, with their blue flowers.  But don't overlook other herbs that could add delightful color including variegated thyme, mint lavender and even chives.

Another perfect example of an ornamental herb is one called the Dittany of Crete.  It's a type of oregano.  Forming a low mound and producing leaves with fine silvery hairs, this plant wasn't made to add flavor to any meal -- it was created to be admired!

Medicinal herbs.

Perhaps of all the classifications of herbs, no history is more interesting than that of medicinal herbs.  Our ancestors at one time prized these plants.  Sometimes they were the only tools that stood between them and death.  In eras gone by, when medical knowledge was either nonexistent or in its infancy, every family had at least on amateur herbalist in its family tree.

Herbal medicine is, without a doubt, the oldest form of "healthcare" known to the human species.  You can't find one culture throughout history -- and you can travel as far back in time as you like -- that didn't use some plant to treat the ill members of its society.

Even primitive humans at the very least observed and appreciated the many different kinds of plants that were available to him to help heal his family and relatives.  It's a shame we don't have some record of how the first man (or perhaps more appropriately woman) realized that plants possessed that healing power.

However they discovered it, paleontologists have found evidence of their use.  Along side the bones of a Stone Age-era man in Iraq, for example, some thoughtful relative had tucked a few herbs.  Most notably marshmallow root, hyacinth and yarrow were buried with him.

Today marshmallow root is used to soothe inflammations --like a sore throat. Hyacinth is used as a diuretic encourages tissues to release any excess water they may be retaining.  And yarrow is a cold a fever remedy that was just about ubiquitous in its use prior to the synthesis of aspirin.

The ancient Chinese knew their herbs!

As testimony to our great debt to our ancestors' amazing knowledge of herb stands on treatise, written by the Chinese emperor Shen Nong circa 2735 BC (when you talk about history that long ago sometimes its difficult to be extremely precise!).

In this treatise, still used to this very day, he recommended a herb called Ma Huang.  You may be more familiar with it in its Western name -- ephedra.  This herb, he explained more than 2300 years before the birth of Christ, is an excellent remedy to alleviate the signs of respiratory distress.

Today, we have a medication called Ephedrine, extracted from this herb, that's widely used as a decongestant.  In its synthetic form it's called pseudoephedrine and you can find it in many allergy sinus and cold-relief medications today.  Imagine that nearly 5,000 years ago this plant was recognized as a potential healer.

It's very possible, from the little historians know and piece together, our ancestors deciphered the plants' healing powers by simply watching the actions of the animals around them.

While for the most part the passing on of this information is strictly oral in nature you'll find several herbalists who recorded some information.  This is especially true in the monasteries.  Surprisingly, many monks, priests and nuns were very adept at medicinal herbalism.

More likely than not, the specific knowledge of these herbs were passed down from one generation to another.  You can hear a grandmother instructing her granddaughter now, as they stand in the herb garden,

 "You want to be sure to pick this plant when it's at its greenest.  And this one here you'll want to use when you get a headache.  And they you'll only want the leaves and stems.  But this herb, you see this dear," you can hear grandma talking, "take the flower of this one."

If you're a budding herbalist then you probably already know, depending on the plant, the health problem and the remedy, you'll use various parts of your homegrown plants.  You may use the leaves, flowers, steams, the fruits from certain plants and especially their roots to relieve symptoms or to even prevent certain health conditions from ever occurring.

Many a prescription drug derived a from herb.

While some in the medical community may look down on the use of herbs as foolish at best and dangerous at its worst, remember that many of today's most effective prescription drugs began as herbs.  The active ingredients in these herbs were then isolated and duplicated synthetically.  Some of today's most effective heart medications owe their success to their direct "herbal ancestor."

Even the revered -- and most versatile -- aspirin began as the bark of the white willow tree.  Scientists then isolated what exactly made the willow so remarkably effective, reproduced the ingredient synthetically -- and the world's most popular over-the-counter drug was developed:  aspirin.

Before the discovery and widespread use of antibiotics, the herb Echinacea -- which may know better as the purple coneflower -- was one of the most widely prescribed medicines in the United States. 

Today it's making a comeback for its outstanding ability to help boost the immune system.  Many individuals take this herb in a capsule or tablet form in order to fend off colds and flu throughout the rough, winter months.  And, today's modern research has confirmed this plants ability to bolster your immune system.  Active ingredients in this herb actually stimulate the production of the much-needed disease-fighting white blood cells.

So what's the bottom line to all of this?  If you plan on growing herbs for their medicinal or healing qualities, you'll not only want to know which herbs can help alleviate specific symptoms, but you'll want to learn exactly how to use these herbs.

We've already mentioned the herb Echinacea as a healing herb.  This is in fact one of the easiest of all medicinal herbs to grow -- and perhaps one of the prettiest.  This flower, native to the central and eastern United States, resembles a daisy in structure.  They have an extended period of blooming making them a nice resident in your garden.

The Echinacea plant begins to bloom in the spring, and continues to spread joy throughout the summer, even lasting into to fall months.  And it's a hardy plant.  It can survive droughts as well as handle the very hot summer. 

And they look gorgeous just about anywhere you want to plant them.  Either in the middle of a garden, along its border, in with a rock garden or even in containers.

If you choose Echinacea, just keep in mind it's a tall plant growing to a maximum height of a little more than two to four feet.  But, if you'd prefer a shorter version, then the Pixie Meadowbrite Coneflower grows only to a height of a foot and half or so. A true dwarf, you'll love its profusion of pink flowers.  You may want to mix that strain with another dwarf, Kim Knee High Coneflower, which has purplish-pink flowers and dense foliage.

Other than admiring their beauty and fragrance, how do I use medicinal or healing herbs I'm growing?  If you're interested in growing herbs you may already have an idea of what are the best ways to prepare them in order to receive the maximum amount of natural healing.

If you're not quite that far in your research or you've just stumbled upon this while reading about other uses of herbs, read about some of the really nifty ways you can use herbs to help improve your health -- sometimes without resorting to harsh chemically based prescription drugs. 

Once you're growing your own herbs, then you have that delightful freedom of using them in a variety of ways.  I've included an appendix in the back of the book on how to effectively use your newly grown medicinal herbs.  In that you'll find step-by-step procedures for preparing your plants in a variety of ways.

Tea Time!

If you're a lover of a nice, quality cup of tea, then you've no doubt dreamed of growing your own plants to steep and enjoy in the mid-afternoon, or a relaxing cup before bedtime. 

If you decide to plant herbs to enjoy a "tea garden" you can rest assured that you are continuing a treasured, historic pastime.  The tradition dates back not just centuries, but literally thousands of years.  The Chinese and Japanese cultures have been doing this for as long as anyone can remember.

There's just something about the composition of the Orient that tea is a part and parcel of the meditative process.  Not only did they drink tea, but these cultures created niches to enjoy this beverage undisturbed.

But that doesn't mean the Europeans didn't have their share of tea gardens.  The most well known of the tea drinkers, the English, have created formal and cottage gardens exclusively for the growing of various teas. 

But if you love tea, then without a doubt, you've wanted to experience what it would be like if, for once, your tea leaves didn't come packaged in a box, surrounded by a bag.

Now that you have a better idea of why you'd like to start an herb garden you can then continue your thoughts with why herbs you'd like to grow.  It seems like only a logical transition.  And it's the topic of the next chapter.

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