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Nature Bulletin 471-A  November 18, 1972
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

An herb, to a botanist, is a plant with tender stems -- they are not permanently woodly like those of a shrub. To most people, herbs are plants with fragrant stems and leaves, or pungent seeds, used in cooking, pickling, perfumes, or medicines. Their use for such purposes, particularly the latter, is as old as the hills and in every country there is a wealth of folklore, legends and superstitions about them. The early American colonists had herb gardens. They included several kinds of plants used to flavor foods and, especially, to disguise the taste of old half-spoiled meat. They also included many medicinal plants called "simples", or "Physio Herbs", used in home remedies for all sorts of ailments.

The pioneers who settled the Middle West had no time for such folderols as herb gardens. They could kill plenty of wild game for fresh meat; and there was a great variety and abundance of wild native plants which, from the Indians or by experiment, they believed to be efficacious for home remedies -- and many of them were. Medicine men traveled around the country selling liniments, "pain killers", and "roots, yarbs and squills". As late as 60 years ago, only a few herbs were commonly used here for flavoring food: Sage, in homemade sausage and the "stuffing" in a Thanksgiving turkey or goose; Summer Savory, for the same purposes: Dill, in cucumber pickles: Caraway seeds in sauerkraut and rye bread; and Thyme, which was a favorite among people from New England, England and northern Europe.

During the past 20 years, herbs and many kinds of herbs have become increasingly popular with American cooks. Packaged herbs, and their seeds for planting in gardens or window boxes, can be purchased in stores. Recipes notable for their use of various herbs are published in magazines, pamphlets and cookbooks. Housewives may now give flavor and variety to everyday dishes that tickle our palates and rival the specialties of famous chefs. Further, because some herbs are better when green and fresh, many epicures and gardeners now grow their own and there are excellent publications with directions for doing so.

When you study the culinary or "kitchen" herbs, a curious fact appears: most of them are natives of southern Europe or the Mediterranean region, and most of them belong to the Mint Family. Further, with the exception of chives, garlic, and other relatives of the onions, the rest belong to the Parsley or Carrot Family. The mints have square stems with opposite or whorled leaves, and their fragrance comes from aromatic volatile oils in tiny glands on the leaves. Those in the parsley family, aside from a characteristic type of flower clusters, known as an umbel, mostly have compound leaves with a distinctive taste but not much odor, because the aromatic oils are contained in the seeds.

The parsley family includes caraway and anise, of which the seeds are used for flavoring; and dill, parsley, celery, fennel and chervil -- whose leaves are used in soups, salads and other foods. The mint family includes such familiar herbs as sage, summer savory, several kinds and flavors of bail, marjoram (most versatile of herbs), thyme, rosemary, tarragon (used mostly in pickles and vinegar), oregano (used sparingly in pizza and other Italian dishes), and spearmint, peppermint, curly mint, apple mint, pineapple mint, and so weiter.

Caution: when only dried herbs are available, use half the recipe quantity for fresh herbs. Add them during the last stages of the receipt because many herbs, if cooked too long, will give a bitter taste to the foods.

The English sound the "h" and say "a herb". We say "urb".

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