Today, the first Saturday of May, is National Herb Day, to bring awareness to the importance of herbs and herbalism.
The scientific definition of herbs goes something like this: small plants that bear seeds and have non-woody parts. In the everyday world of human-plant relationships, an herb is any plant that has leaves, seeds, roots, or flowers used as food, to flavor food, or for medicinal purposes, including aromatherapy. This includes not only small herbaceous plants, but many trees and bushes; perennials as well as annuals; plants that are wild crafted (collected in the wild) as well as grown in gardens or on commercial farms.
I think of herbs as those plants that we have developed friendly and beneficial relationships with, a rather broad definition since many plants that aren’t herbs by other definitions fit that criteria, but herbs are probably the most beneficial of all plants. And they have always been a part of my life…..and yours.
Growing up during the depression, my mother’s parents divorced when she was a young teenager. Mom was often unable to join with girl friends to go to a movie or other such activity due to lack of money. But as a Girl Scout she had experiences that were affordable and contributed to who she became as a grown-up. Well into her elder years she remembered the badges she earned, especially the one about wild plants. A walk in the woods with her meant her pointing to plants and telling me their names. She didn’t do this much when we lived on the east coast, and I didn’t know the extend of plant information she had stored away from her youth until walking with her in the woods of Washington. There she had come home to the plants of her youth. From her I learned about eating the citrus-flavored flowers of the Oregon grape plant, about wild ginger and miner’s lettuce, and in summer she made a pie-to-die-for from red and blue huckleberries.
As a child we picked wild blackberries and mint always grew in the garden. Though Mom wasn’t “into” herbs and edible wild plants, she didn’t study it, have lots of books about plants (she had a few identification books), her knowledge was not vast, it was simple, about the plants she was familiar with. She used parsley, knew about mint, occasionally used spices in food. The knowledge she had was part of her general food and plant knowledge learned in her youth.
Humans have been using the plants around them for food, flavor, and medicinal purposes for as long has they have coexisted. Without this relationship humans would not likely have thrived. It is, in many ways, odd there needs to be a National Herb Day to bring awareness and education to people about herbs, the very plants that make their lives possible in so many ways. But sadly, too many people have lost that relationship. They eat garlic flavored corn chips without knowledge of the powerful medicinal properties of garlic (but not as flavoring in fried, processed chips!). They enjoy a chocolate mint cookie unaware of the variety of mints, the number of other herbs and spices in the mint family, or how fresh mint tea might relief that indigestion caused eating that cookie after a big meal! Nor are many people aware of how many medicinal plants are studied by pharmaceutical companies, that they may extract, patent, and make artificially the components that can heal. Why not use the whole plant!?
Fortunately, down through the ages there have always been wise folks who have written books about the healing, preserving, and culinary properties of herbs and other plants. Modern herbalists keep that tradition alive with books, courses, and research into the modern, scientific explanations of the ‘old ways.’ (Two excellent sources for more information is the American Botanical Council and The Herb Society of America.)
It’s odd to say I am now “studying” herbs. A glance at my book shelf, loaded with identification books, herb and edible plant books, and garden books that include herb gardening, one would think its all I’ve ever studied! This life-long, casual relationship I’ve had with plants, no doubt inherited from my mother’s interest, nurtured in her Girl Scout days, has gone ‘formal’ through a delightful, exciting, two-year course entitled The Herbal Immersion Program from the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine. This is serious (yet fun) stuff. I might even learn a few scientific names of the plants I live with, but best of all, I have an “excuse” to spend more time with those plants, analyzing their parts, learning more deeply of their personalities, getting serious about new ways of “using” those plants.
I’m grateful, this Mother’s Day week-end, to my Mom who planted the seed that became my love and appreciation for plants. It’s a seed that has grown and gone through many cycles, and now might fully ripen….at least it will take me in new directions. It’s my second Mother’s Day without my mother, but I’ll celebrate by hanging out with some plants I know she would have loved.
Happy Mother’s Day to all the wonderful women who mother and nurture children, both human and plant….and animal! Take time this Herb Day to become better acquainted with a plant in your yard or a nearby forest, or give yourself a herbal gift for Mother’s Day! (The Mountain Rose Herb Company has a free Herb Day gift, a little downloadable booklet on herb preparations: Herbal Gift.)
Below are a few good resources for plant identification and information about herbs, their uses, and growing them. (This is a short list, there are many wonderful books, I’d list all my favorites, but I want to go out and play with my herbs!) I’ve also included a list of some the herbs we grow here in our partially shaded, woodsy yard. These are easy to grow, friendly plants with many wonderful uses.
Herbs, by Jessica Houdret (very inclusive, small book, about a wide variety of plants, including history, how to use them, growing conditions, etc. The author has written several books about growing and using herbs, any of them would be a good resource to have.)
Botany in a Day, Thomas J. Elpel (wonderful book to learn about plants, their parts, families, etc.)
Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West, Gregory L. Tilford (specific to western USA)
Plants of the Pacifc Northwest Coast, Pojar & Mackinnon (specific to NW Washington and Britich Columbia)
The Cabaret of Plants, Richard Mabey (a new book, published in March 2016, about the history of human plant relationships)