In general use, herbs are plants with savory or aromatic properties that are used for flavoring and garnishing food, in medicine, or as fragrances. Culinary use typically distinguishes herbs from spices. Herbs refer to the leafy green or flowering parts of a plant (either fresh or dried), while spices are usually dried and produced from other parts of the plant, including seeds, bark, roots and fruits.
Herbs have a variety of uses including culinary, medicinal, and, in some cases, spiritual. General usage of the term “herb” differs between culinary herbs and medicinal herbs; in medicinal or spiritual use, any parts of the plant might be considered as “herbs”, including leaves, roots, flowers, seeds, root bark, inner bark (and cambium), resin and pericarp.
The word “herb” is pronounced /hɜːrb/ in Commonwealth English, but /ɜːrb/ is common among North American English speakers and those from other regions where h-dropping occurs. In botany, the word “herb” is also used as a synonym for “herbaceous plant”.
Culinary herbs are distinguished from vegetables in that, like spices, they are used in small amounts and provide flavor rather than substance to food.
Herbs can be perennials such as thyme or lavender, biennials such as parsley, or annuals like basil. Perennial herbs can be shrubs such as rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, or trees such as bay laurel, Laurus nobilis – this contrasts with botanical herbs, which by definition cannot be woody plants. Some plants are used as both herbs and spices, such as dill weed and dill seed or coriander leaves and seeds. Also, there are some herbs such as those in the mint family that are used for both culinary and medicinal purposes.
As far back as 5000 BCE, evidence that Sumerians used herbs in medicine was inscribed on cuneiform. Ancient Egyptians used fennel, coriander and thyme around 1555 BCE. In ancient Greece, in 162 CE, the physician Galen was known for concocting complicated herbal remedies that contained up to 100 ingredients. Emperor Charlemagne (742-814) compiled a list of 74 different herbs that were to be planted in his gardens. The connection between herbs and health is important already in the European Middle Ages–The Forme of Cury (that is, “cookery”) promotes extensive use of herbs, including in salads, and claims in its preface “the assent and advisement of the masters of physic and philosophy in the King’s Court”