Where do I start, as I sit here on a rainy weekend listening to Dvorak Symphonies 6-9 in the background. Well lets start by defining ‘Herb’; according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary Herb is 1. ’any non woody seed bearing plant which dies down to the ground after flowering - 2.’any plant with leaves, seeds or flowers used for flavouring, food, medicine, scent’ etc
Brief History of Herbs
It is believed herbs have been used since prehistoric times. In the Dordogne region of France there are a network of caves called Lascaux where there are over 600 wall paintings some of which depict herbs. Carbon dating traces those drawings back to between 13,000 and 25,000 B.C. I am sure all around the world there are such pictures derived from indigenous people of the land.
The ancient Greeks & Romans understood the benefits of herbs, culinary and medicinal and used them frequently. Althaea, the botanical name for Marshmallow came from the Greek, Altho ‘to cure’ which is very apt as the whole plant is used to help soothe inflammations and soreness, wounds, stings etc. Parsley was also held in high esteem by the Greeks and they would make wreaths to put on tombs and is still a staple in Greek cooking today along with many other common herbs we know today.
In the Middle Ages, herbs were used all the time to help preserve meat and to disguise the taste of any rotten meat! Personal hygiene was not the best and herbs were used to mask odours. This was also a time when many herbalist were burnt or drowned in rivers as they were seen a witches and witchcraft was not tolerated. In reality they were generally just wise women who understood the properties of herbs and their benefits.
As the world opened up and early settlers in the Americas and such like would grow herbs for not only food but medicinal properties and for dyeing cottons, leathers etc. This was also done by American Indians who had great knowledge in the properties of herbs and how best to use them.
While many of our herbal remedies today derive from Ayurvedic, Chinese, Roman and Greek sources all ancient civilisations, including the Mayans, Aztecs, and Egyptians, employed herbs in treating illness.
Botanically speaking a herb is a plant that lacks woody tissue that is characteristic of trees and shrubs, but a herb is so much more and I will attempt to enlighten!
So with all plants you have annuals, biennials and perennials and this is the same with herbs. Lets me just explain the difference of the three titles:-
Annuals mean plants that only last one year, they grow and then die, such as basil, coriander, dill.
Biennials can grow for two years such as parsley although it can grow for longer but does become tired and looses flavour and the stalk becomes very woody.
Perennials last for some years usually in the form of a shrub or small bush, such as Chives, Lemon Verbena, Lemon Balm, Marjoram, Oregano, Rosemary, Thyme, Sage. These should all be cut back after flowering to prevent them from becoming woody and leggy (too much wooden growth which is thin and long without much green growth)
This is what a woody, leggy plant looks like, it has been left for some time without being cut back and then it forms the long woody stems and branches
The best time to cut back is in winter when the plant is dormant and is unlikely to pick up any diseases.
In the height of the growing season spring/summer keep the plant regularly pruned, just a few centimetres at a time and this will help keep it in good shape.
Late autumn it is best to cut back all your perennial herbs. I chop back all my Mediterranean herbs, thyme, marjoram, oregano as they have worked hard over the spring and summer and now in need of rejuvenation so by chopping them back low and I mean to about 6 cm, this will give them a great start in spring. My rosemary plants are now bushes but they still need a good hair cut so don’t be afraid to give them one and the same applies with sage. Sage also appreciates being cut back after flowering in in late spring early summer. Given the right conditions both sage and rosemary can become a bit thuggish in the garden and start to take over, so feel free to chop them back and keep them in check!
Lemon balm is another plant that likes to spread itself and takeover, so again if you are not cutting it back all the time like me, as I dry it and use it for my herbal teas then you will need to keep a close eye on it in summer as it can bush out. It does produce tiny white flowers which are rich in nectar so wonderful for bees and hence a great plant to have in the garden just for this and its aroma. But once the flowers a finished give it a good chop back.