HERBS – MEDICINAL OR CULINAR

Barbara Porsch, Master Gardener and Herb Enthusiast

I love herbs and love to grow and use them in my culinary adventures.    In fact, I hardly thought of them as being advantageous medically.  But more and more today I see references about certain herbs being helpful to combat medical problems.   Looking back, I have always seen a historical use of herbs for medicinal purposes.  It is hard to know which use came first…… the culinary or the medicinal.

Let’s look at Lavender.  In ancient times, the Greeks and Romans used it to perfume their baths.  During the renaissance it was overshadowed by the medicinal herbs of the day.  Then later it was rediscovered to have a soothing effect on sore joints, throats and teeth.   The oil has a strong antiseptic power and was used during WW II by the British in field hospitals.

Fennel was valued by the Greeks as a slimming herb and used to treat almost 2 dozen ailments.  They also considered it a cure for eye disorders and blindness.

Chives was valued by the Chinese since 3000 BC and used to counteract poison and stop bleeding.   It was not introduced to Europe until the 16th century.  In ancient days, everybody must have been fearful of assassins because so many herbs were used as poison antidotes.  Oregano is one of those.  It was also used to combat sea sickness.

French Tarragon is one of the oldest herbs recorded, hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. In the middle ages, the slender leaves were hidden in shoes to increase the stamina of the wearer.  Lambs Ear is not now considered a culinary herb but is a native of Europe and Asia and was collected for a favorable brew said to equal the best teas of China.  They also tucked a leaf in a pocket or purse as they believed the plant purified those who carried it.  In medieval Europe the plant’s downy leaves were used on cuts to stop bleeding and used as bandages.

Dill was used as a digestive aid by Egyptians.  It comes from the norse word which means “lull” because it quieted a colicky baby.  Basil has been cultivated in Europe for over 2000 years.  In Italy it is a symbol of love. It is sacred in India where it is grown in temples and homes.  In Egypt it is planted in cemeteries and in Africa it is eaten to mask the hot sting of scorpions.

Garlic was recognized by the Babylonians as early at 3000 BC.  One thousand years later, it was recorded in China.   Garlic was part of the diet of the pyramid builders. In Rome, athletes ate it before competition to give them strength.   It has been used to treat whooping cough, to cure rheumatism and restore hair growth.   Garlic’s antiseptic properties were valued during WWI when pads of sphagnum moss were soaked in garlic juice and applied to soldier’s wounds.

Aloe Vera has been harvested and put to use since the days of the Roman Empire initially for medicinal properties.  In the middle ages it was an ingredient in compounds used by witches and charlatans. In Egypt it was tied above the door of a new house to bring long life, health and success.    And, we all know its super powers to treat burns, abrasions and sunburns.

So whether you want to cook or just enjoy the many stories of their medicinal history, there should be an herb that you must plant in your garden.  Or two.   Or three.  Be brave and adventurous when cooking.   You won’t regret it.

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