Herbs have been used long before written history. Aboriginal man probably learned to use them by watching animal behaviour. They gathered wild forms from rocky ledges, hillsides and meadows.
Herbs became so important that tribal bands carried plants with them as civilisation spread farther a field. Magical properties were attributed to them because of their medicinal potency.
Later they learned to plant them from seed and roots near their permanent camps. Earliest Biblical writings show that mint, lavender, rue, wormwood, anise and cumin were common. Coriander seed has been found in the most ancient Egyptian tombs. A wide variety were in use by Greek and Roman times. By the Middle Ages herbs were an essential part of the
garden primarily for medicinal use as people had to be self-reliant at home.
Sage was for sore throat. Balm leaves induced sweating. Chamomile stopped indigestion. Anise water cleansed the complexion. Oils of lavender and rosemary were considered essential to treat a wide variety of complaints. Over time different cultures learned to appreciate the culinary flavour of various herbs leading to the vast variety of ethnic dishes. Greeks brought us sages. Italians loved basil.
The French appreciated fine herbs like chives, savory and thyme. Peppers were Spanish while nasturtium and lemon balm came from South America. North American Indians gave use wintergreen and monarda. Aromatic herbs are a special class of plants selected for the
fragrant properties contained in their roots, stems, leaves, flowers or seeds. Sweet herbs like basil, savories and chervil have pleasant tasting leaves, seeds or roots.
Bitter herbs like wormwood, coriander and rue taste sharp or bitter. They differ from vegetables in that herbs are used primarily to flavour
dishes and add fragrance although some herbs like onion, celery, carrot, fennel, angelica and lovage are eaten out right. Most herbs are of easy culture. They germinate quickly and grow rapidly. Most prefer well draining, loose soil but not too rich.
Full sun is essential to bring out the most fragrant oils. Warm, dry conditions speed oil
production but some herbs like mints and balm prefer damp soils. Almost all thrive in containers or in the garden. Herb beds should be prepared the same as for vegetables butwithout the addition of manures. Overly rich soil will lead to sappy, vegetative growth at the expense of oil production and flavour.
When planting into containers use a somewhat course potting soil like a tree and shrub mix adding only a little blood and bone and slow release fertiliser. Many herbs grow easily from seed. Included here are: anise, balm, basil, borage, calendula, chamomile, chives, dill, fennel, hyssop, marjoram, nasturtium, oregano, parsley, summer savory, and much more.
Others can be started from seed but increase faster from root or stem cuttings. This group
includes: balms, geraniums, lavenders, mints, rosemary, sages, tarragon, thymes, violet and more. Sow seed thinly then cover lightly with soil and firm down. Water lightly and keep lightly moist. Do not over water! Thin seedling out once a few centimetres tall. Most thinnings can be transplanted.
When possible pinch back central growing tip to encourage compact, bushy plants. Root cuttings or divisions usually come from established dormant plants during the late winter and early spring. Stem cuttings are often more successful when started during warmer weather. Fresh condiment herbs like mints, nasturtium and parsley are best harvested just before they are to be used as they quickly loose fragrance and freshness once picked.
Those being used for drying, teas and oils are best harvested when richest in essential oils. This is best done by picking on sunny mornings of hot days just as buds are about to open or the first flowers come into bloom. Take indoors, wash well, strip leaves and flower buds and spread thinly on mesh trays to dry. Stir daily for three or four days or until thoroughly dry then store in air-tight jars or bags.
Fresh herb bunches can also be hung in a cool, dark, dry, airy spot to dry and then store. If dried outdoors they may shrivel and blacken. Most herbs retain their flavour for longer when the leaves are stored whole rather than crushed.
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