Spices and Herbs

Spices and herbs have been around for a long time. Early records in the Bible as well as other ancient scripts document their existence. Most people lump food flavorings and whatever else can be found in the spice cabinet above the stove into the category of "spices". But the term herb came about long ago for a reason. What essentially is the difference between and herb and a spice?

The Difference Between Herbs and Spices

Generally herbs are the flavorful (and edible) elements of plants that are grown primarily in temperate regions. Herbs, in the west have also had attributed to them the dual purpose of flavoring and medicinal use. Meanwhile spices are generally grown in tropical regions and are imported to western countries. Although wondrous medicinal qualities have been attributed to spices at various times, they have been primarily used as flavoring in the West. Because of their origin, herbs are traditionally inexpensive. They can be grown by the average gardener. While spices have traditionally been quite expensive, and for much of history could only be used by the wealthy.

Interestingly enough, almost any spice (with the possible exception of saffron) is easily affordable by a person living in a developed country. Several hundred years ago, this was inconceivable. As technology advanced and capital markets influenced the production and distribution of spices, they became more widely available at much lower prices. Yet while the market for them was restricted they sparked several wars among the British, French, Portuguese, and Dutch.

Many would argue the nature of the difference between herbs and spices, which is on a par with the question of whether food from any particular plant is a fruit or a vegetable. However, there is some botanical justification for positing that herbs are generally green and do not have woody stems or trunks1. However, rosemary would be an exception, perhaps the one to prove the rule. Spices are considered aromatic, but anyone who has had herbs in their garden knows that many of these can be aromatic as well, especially mints. Ultimately, the distinction is blurry on the edges, but probably should be attributed to the climate in which the spice is produced.

Uses of Herbs and Spices

Before clinical medicine was developed, herbs and spices were one of the few even remotely effective ways to treat health problems. Even today, many spices and herbs have shown ability to help alleviate health problems. From cilantro's ability to leach heavy metals from human cells, to cinnamon's anti-microbial and anti-clotting properties there is so much they can do. Most of the health benefits associated with herbs and spices have not been proved by rigorous scientific study. However, a considerable body of anecdotal evidence has been amassed, and thousands take supplements of these items on a daily basis.

Spices and herbs in food is probably the most common use. Food would be pretty bland without a sprinkle of this or a dash of that. Yet many spices or herbs are considered savory, while others are thought to be primarily for sweet dishes. A typical savory spice would be oregano. Few would even venture a taste of an ice cream or cake featuring a healthy dose of this spice. Meanwhile, vanilla, is not likely to be found in meat stews or topping a roast.

Many spices are used in perfumes, for aroma therapy, and were at one time commonly used in embalming. Spices can be used as food preservatives as well. The oils of various herbs and spices are also extracted for other purposes in manufacturing and even as a weapon (as in pepper spray - actually from the habanero pepper plant).

A Compendium of Spices and Herbs

There are many spices commonly used around the world in various combinations. The following is a partial list:

  • Allspice is the dried, unripened fruit of a small evergreen tree, the Pimenta Dioica.
  • Anise is the flavor that give licorice its distinctive taste.
  • Basil comes in several varieties, including sweet and lemon.
  • Bay leaves are often put into a savory dish for flavor, but not eaten.
  • Black Pepper is one of the most commonly used spices in the world.
  • Caraway seeds are said to taste like a cross between dill and anise.
  • Cardamom is common in Danish pastries and many North African and Asian dishes.
  • Celery seed comes from a plant that is related to the celery plant we commonly use in dishes.
  • Chervil is frequently used in French and European cuisine, generally for savory dishes.
  • Chives taste like a mild and crispy green onion, but they can also be used dried.
  • Cilantro is a leafy plant related to parsley that is a common ingredient in Mexican and Asian cooking.
  • Cinnamon graces many western desserts and candies. It is also thought to be a very healthy spice.
  • Cloves come from little flowerettes, and get their name from the French who thought they looked like nails.
  • Coriander comes from the seed of the cilantro plant.
  • Cumin is a spice that is a common ingredient in chili powder.
  • Dill can often be found flavoring pickles.
  • Though once native only to the Mediterranean, fennel is grown over much of the world. It is valued for its seeds.
  • Ginger comes from a root and is often classed as both an herb and a spice. It is a vital ingredient in pumpkin pie.
  • Mace comes from the same plant that produces nutmeg and can be used as a substitute in the absence of nutmeg.
  • Marjoram is a species of oregano, but has a milder, sweeter flavor.
  • Mint is a leafy perennial that finds its way mainly into sweet dishes.
  • Mustard comes from the seed of a bush and is often made into a sauce.
  • Nutmeg is a popular spice for sweet desserts.
  • Oregano was an import to the United States from Italy after the United States fought the Germans over the mountainous country-side in World War II.
  • Paprika is made from dried and crushed sweet red peppers.
  • Parsley is a ubiquitous herb and is often used as a garnish.
  • Poppy Seeds come from the seed of the poppy flower. They are often used on rolls and lemon cakes and muffins.
  • Red Pepper is made from dried and crushed hot peppers.
  • Rosemary is the leaf of a small evergreen shrub. It is often used to spice chicken and other fowl.
  • Saffron is the dried yellow stigmas of a crocus plant. Harvesting of this spice is very labor intensive making it expensive.
  • The sage that we use as a spice is not the same as the sage that is found in the American west. It is only a distant cousin.
  • Savory has a peppery flavor and blends well with other spices.
  • Legend had it that tarragon could heal the bites of dragons.
  • Thyme comes from the mint family. It is often used in chicken and fish dishes.
  • Turmeric is a bright yellow spice and is a common and distinctive ingredient in curry.
  • Vanilla has only recently been considered a bland spice. It is a common flavoring in many products and dishes from ice cream to tapioca pudding.


1. US National Arboretum


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