The Culinary Herbs – Their Definition and History

An Excerpt from The Better Days Books Origiganic Guide to the Culinary Herbs: Their Cultivation, Harvesting, Curing and Uses by M. G. Kains



It may be said that sweet or culinary herbs are those annual, biennial or perennial plants whose green parts, tender roots or ripe seeds have an aromatic flavor and fragrance, due either to a volatile oil or to other chemically named substances peculiar to the individual species. Since many of them have pleasing odors they have been called sweet, and since they have been long used in cookery to add their characteristic flavors to soups, stews, dressings, sauces and salads, they are popularly called culinary. This last designation is less happy than the former, since many other herbs, such as cabbage, spinach, kale, dandelion and collards, are also culinary herbs. These vegetables are, however, probably more widely known as potherbs or greens.



It seems probable that many of the flavoring herbs now in use were similarly employed before the erection of the pyramids and also that many then popular no longer appear in modern lists of esculents. Of course, this statement is based largely upon imperfect records, perhaps, in many cases only hints more or less doubtful as to the various species. But it seems safe to conclude that a goodly number of the herbs discussed in this volume, especially those said to be natives of the Mediterranean region, overhung and perfumed the cradle of the human race in the Orient and marked the footsteps of our rude progenitors as they strode more and more sturdily toward the horizon of promise. This idea seems to gain support also from the fact that certain Eastern peoples, whom modern civilization declares to have uneducated tastes, still employ many herbs which have dropped by the wayside of progress, or like the caraway and the redoubtable “pusley,” an anciently popular potherb, are but known in western lands as troublesome weeds.

Relying upon Biblical records alone, several herbs were highly esteemed prior to our era; in the gospels of Matthew and Luke reference is made to tithes of mint, anise, rue, cumin and other “herbs”; and, more than 700 years previously, Isaiah speaks of the sowing and threshing of cumin which, since the same passage (Isaiah xxviii, 25) also speaks of “fitches” (vetches), wheat, barley and “rie” (rye), seems then to have been a valued crop.

The development of the herb crops contrasts strongly with that of the other crops to which reference has just been made. Whereas these latter have continued to be staples, and to judge by their behavior during the last century may be considered to have improved in quality and yield since that ancient time, the former have dropped to the most subordinate position of all food plants. They have lost in number of species, and have shown less improvement than perhaps any other groups of plants cultivated for economic purposes. During the century just closed only one species, parsley, may be said to have developed more than an occasional improved variety. And even during this period the list of species seems to have been somewhat curtailed—tansy, hyssop, horehound, rue and several others being considered of too pronounced and even unpleasant flavor to suit cultivated palates.

With the exception of these few species, the loss of which seems not to be serious, this absence of improvement is to be regretted, because with improved quality would come increased consumption and consequent beneficial results in the appetizing flavor of the foods to which herbs are added. But greatly improved varieties of most species can hardly be expected until a just appreciation has been awakened in individual cultivators, who, probably in a majority of cases, will be lovers of plants rather than men who earn their living by market gardening.

Until the public better appreciates the culinary herbs there will be a comparatively small commercial demand; until the demand is sufficient to make growing herbs profitable upon an extensive scale, market gardeners will devote their land to crops which are sure to pay well; hence the opportunity to grow herbs as an adjunct to gardening is the most likely way that they can be made profitable. And yet there is still another; namely, growing them for sale in the various prepared forms and selling them in glass or tin receptacles in the neighborhood or by advertising in the household magazines. There surely is a market, and a profitable one if rightly managed. And with right management and profit is to come desire to have improved varieties. Such varieties can be developed at least as readily as the wonderful modern chrysanthemum has been developed from an insignificant little wild flower not half as interesting or promising originally as our common oxeye daisy, a well-known field weed.

Not the least object of this volume is, therefore, to arouse just appreciation of the opportunities awaiting the herb grower. Besides the very large and increasing number of people who take pleasure in the growing of attractive flowering and foliage plants, fine vegetables and choice fruits, there are many who would find positive delight in the breeding of plants for improvement—the origination of new varieties—and who would devote much of their leisure time to this work—make it a hobby—did they know the simple underlying principles. For their benefit, therefore, the following paragraphs are given.


This is an excerpt from The Better Days Books Origiganic Guide to the Culinary Herbs: Their Cultivation, Harvesting, Curing And Uses, by M. G. Kains, which is available in hardbound, paperback and e-book download edition from Better Days Books, starting at just $3.95.

First published in 1912, M. G. Kain’s The Better Days Books Origiganic Guide to the Culinary Herbs: Their Cultivation, Harvesting, Curing And Uses is at once a down to earth guide to the “Origiganic,” chemical free cultivation, preparation and savory use of the 36 herbs most essential to every great cook’s cupboard, and an inspiring and poetic love song to the culinary charm of these tantalizing “masters of the kitchen.”

“Origiganic” is a new word we have coined at Better Days Books to describe time-tested “original” methods of growing food naturally in our backyards, gardens and farms. Only since the 1960s have petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides have been in widespread use, so any “how to” treatise published prior to 1960 will quite “naturally” exclude their use. The old-fashioned, “original” method, it turns out (as is so often the case), is simply a better, healthier, safer, and even generally less expensive way to produce bounties of fabulous, poison-free food – for our families, and for the marketplace.


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