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Jekka's tips for understanding herbs: what is a herb, how herbs are named, common herbs and the main herb families.

by Alistair McVicar |

Herbs are the most wonderfully diverse and useful plants, coming in all shapes, sizes and textures, colours and perfumes. Their aromatic leaves and scented flowers can be enjoyed by all, making them the most generous of plants.

But what is a Herb? 

At Jekka's we believe that 'all useful plants are herbs'

The Oxford English Dictionary defines them as 'any plant with leaves, seeds, or flowers used for flavouring, food, medicine, or perfume.'

The RHS describes Herbs as 'versatile garden plants. Pretty enough to grow in an ornamental border, many will also thrive in containers. You can also grow tender herbs, such as basil, indoors or in a greenhouse.'

Finally, Wikipedia, states that herbs are 'plants with savoury or aromatic properties that are used for flavouring and garnishing food, medicinal purposes, or for fragrances'.

In conclusion, we prefer our definition, if it is useful, it is most probably a herb.

Bananas are useful, so is a Banana a Herb?

Yes, banana trees are technically regarded as herbs, or more specifically a herbaceous perennials as the stem does not contain true woody tissue. Therefore, they should be called Banana Herbs

In Jekka's Herbetum we group herb plants by family so you can understand similarities between different herbs. The Banana Herb is from the from the family Musaceae from the tropics which are characteristically large herbs with very big leaves; the lower parts of the leaves form a false stem so they look like trees. Unfortunately the Herbetum is too cold to grow Bananas.  

How are Herbs named?

Walking around Jekka's Herbetum you will see a lot of different but sometimes similar names; but what do they mean? Plants are assigned to a family and their name is comprised of their genus and botanical name. This allows horticulturists, and anyone interested in plants, around the world to understand the plants they are looking at and determine their uses and how to maintain and grow them. This is why at Jekka's, and in the Jekkapedia, we are Latin led.

Here are some basic tips for understanding Latin and plant names:

  • 'x' indicates a hybrid. Some species, when grown together in the wild or in cultivation are found to interbreed and form hybrids.  These rarely set viable seed.
  • vulgare this is the common variety of herb
  • officinalis this indicates that  it was officially used by the ancient apothecaries
  • AGM  these initials after the botanical name indicate that the plant has been awarded the RHS' Award of Garden Merit.

An example of a Hybrid mint is Mentha x piperita (Peppermint), which in the past has been known as Menta d'Angletterre, Mentha anglais, pfefferminze and Englisheminze. The hybridisation (x) to create this mint was between water mint, Mentha aquatica and spearmint, Mentha spicata.

We understand that Herbs are any useful plants and that using Latin names allows herb enthusiasts to understand what they are looking at. 

What is the difference between annual and perennial herbs?

Annual and perennial are some of the common names for the describing the life evolution or stages of herbs. The main terms are:

  • Annual - a plant that lives for just one season.
  • Biennial - a plant that produces leaves in the first season and flowers in the second year then produces seed and dies. 
  • Perennial - a plant that lives for a number of seasons, most flower annually once established. 

Five common examples of annuals, biennials and perennials are shown in the table below.

 Annual Biennial Perennial
Anethum graveolens Anthriscus cerefolium Allium schoenoprasum
Borago officinalis Carum carvi Chamaemelum nobile
Calendula officinalis Digitalis purpurea Mentha sativa
Ocimum basilicum 'Cinnamon' Oenothera biennis Lavandula angustifolia 'Munstead'
Tropaeolum majus 'Empress of India' Petroselinum crispum French Rosmarinus officinalis

 

What are the main herb families?

The next thing to consider is the plant families and how different species actually relate to one another (like your cousins). When reading a plant name, the family name is easily recognised as it ends in -aceae. The main herb families are listed below and form collections in Jekkapedia and the the Herbetum.

Alliaceae

This family includes herbaceous monocot plants  that are generally perennial but not evergreen. Most are native to dry or moderately moist regions and other open areas. The family includes bulb or corm-forming plants as well as plants without bulbs or corms. Leaves may be round, flat, or angular in cross section and are alternately or spirally arranged. The leaves of most species in the Alliaceae are aromatic, frequently smelling like onion. Flowers are generally organised into ball-or umbel-shaped clusters, all the Alliaceae we sell have edible flowers. Herbs of the Allium family such as Allium schoenoprasum (Chives) and Allium sativum (Garlic) are well known examples of this family.

Apiaceae

This family is more commonly known as the celery, carrot or parsley family, or simply as umbellifer. The herbs in this family are flavourful and aromatic and include Foeniculum vulgare (Fennel), Levisticum officinale (Lovage), Petroselinum crispum (Parsley) and Anthriscus cerefolium (Chervil). Their leaves are of variable size and alternately arranged, or with the upper leaves becoming nearly opposite. Plants in this family have flowers that nearly always aggregated in terminal umbels. 

Asteraceae

This family is commonly referred to as the daisy family and mostly contains herbaceous herbs that have taproots. For example, Calendula Officinalis (Pot Marigold), Echinacea (Cone Flowers) and Achillea millefolium (Yarrow). This family is used in herbal infusions, herbal medicines and salads. Nearly all members bear their flowers in dense heads in what appears to be a single flower when it is actually a cluster of much smaller flowers. The name Asteraceae comes from the type genus Aster that is Ancient Greek for star, and refers to the star-like form of the flower.

Brassicacea

Brassicaceae is an economically important family of flowering plants commonly known as the mustards, the crucifers or the cabbage family. They are comprise of annuals, biennials, perennials and herbaceous plants and can be found growing throughout the world.  The important vegetables in this family include, cabbage, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, kale and radish to name a few.  The herbs of this family are Armoracia rusticana (Horseradish), Brassica juncea (Mustard) and Brassica rapa (Mizuna and Purple Flowering Choy Sum). 

Lamiaceae

One of the largest families that is commonly called the mint or dead-nettle family. It includes the most widely used culinary herbs, such as, Origanum (Oregano), Hyssopus (Hyssop), Lavandula (Lavender), Mentha (Mint) and Thymus (Thyme). Most members of the family are perennial or annual herbs with square stems. The leaves are typically simple and oppositely arranged; most are fragrant and contain volatile oils. These herbs are readily propagated by stem cuttings.

Myrtaceae

This amazing family can be found growing throughout the world in the tropics, subtropics and Mediterranean. It contains, trees and shrubs, many of which are important herbs and spices including Syzygium aromaticum, Cloves and Pimenta dioica, All spice. The family takes its name from the shrub Myrtus which is found near the Mediterranean. 

How do you find out more?

I hope that this short introduction into the way that herbs and plants are categorized will help you enjoy your next visit to Jekka's Herbetum. For more information check out Jekka's Complete Herb Book and Jekka's 'A Pocketful of Herbs'.