What is an herb? The correct answer is both.
The dictionary gives two definitions for “herb.” The first one, the more technical, is “a seed producing plant that does not develop persistent woody tissue but dies down at the end of the growing season.” The second definition is more general, the one most commonly used, and the one that I am referring to when I use the word. An herb is “a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savory, or aromatic qualities.”
A “plant or plant part” means that an herb can be a single-celled algae, the bark of a tree, the leaf, root, fruit, seed, flower, or any other part of any plant, as long as it is used for its medicinal, savory, or aromatic qualities.
“Medicinal” means for health purposes, including the treatment and prevention of disease. “Savory” means herbs that are used to season food, such as garlic, rosemary, basil, etc. And “aromatic” refers to herbs, plant parts, or flowers that are used for their odor or aroma, as in perfumes, fragrances, incense, etc. There are numerous other uses for herbs that do not easily fit into these three categories. For example, herbs are used in the preservation of food, for dying cloth, pest control, decorating, and for many other purposes. Did I forget to mention that herbs are often used for food?
“Let your food be your medicine, and let your medicine be your food.” —Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine
There is of course considerable overlap between the categories of herbs mentioned our dictionary definition. Most savory herbs, like garlic, cayenne and ginger to name just a few, have medicinal uses as well. And the science and art of aromatherapy has certainly taught us much about the health benefits of aromatic herbs. So keeping this overlap in mind, for the purposes of this course, we are more interested in herbs that are used for health purposes, or medicinal herbs. This brings us to a question that I am often asked:
What is the difference between a drug and an herb?
Herbs are derived from plants, drugs are not.
Drugs are prescribed by physicians, herbs are not.
An herb is a plant part in its entirety, while a drug is a synthesized copy of one chemical component, such as a component found in an herb.