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Extension: What makes an herb an herb?

By Samuel Shafritz, For the Forsyth County News

“Your Majesty, what is an Herb?”

This question was to King Charlemagne, “King of the Franks,” around the 8th Century. His famous reply underscores the multifaceted perception of herbs. He replied, “Herbs are the friend of physicians and the praise of cooks.”

An herb is classified many ways. Botanists classify herbs as plants which are soft throughout their entire life cycle, meaning they don’t grow wood or bark. 

Their name is derived from “herbaceous,” a botanical term used to describe an entire plant or any part of a plant that is soft and succulent. For instance, a tree is not herbaceous; however, new branches extending from the tree which are soft and succulent are considered herbaceous.

To the herbalist, an herb is a plant that can be used for its beneficial properties. The “benefits” of herbs have not always been wielded for compassionate purposes. A medical school was founded in Alexandria, Egypt, in 100 A.D. which focused primarily on crafting and strong poisonous cocktails as well as antidotes for poisons. The practice of crafting poison cocktails has happily faded since. 

Thankfully, herbs are still being studied and used for treating toxins from insects, snakes and plants. A poultice is a technique of grinding herbs and wetting them, forming a clump of plant tissue. This tissue is applied to the affected skin for its proposed treatment of rashes, infections, burns, inflammations, bumps, and many other skin conditions.

Herbal remedies applied to skin are topical. Infused oils are another form of topical remedy. To create oil infusions, the procedure is to first dry and powderize the herbs. This can be done with a coffee grinder. The powder is placed in a jar and filled with oil, such as olive or avocado oil. The jar is heated at 95 degrees for seven days. This heating process breaks down and infused the plant residue within the oil, which acts as a preservative for the oil.

Salves are created by following the same procedure used to formulate infused oils. However, a final step is added to create a salve from in infused oil: After the infusion process is complete, beeswax is added in and heated with the infused oil. The beeswax makes a salve solid at room temperature. Salves and infused oils are both popular skin care products in the cosmetic industry.

Teas and infusions are similar herbal creations that are ingested. Infusions are heated for a few hours or more, whereas teas are heated often for 15 minutes or less. In most casual and social situations, teas are preferred. The infusions have been used historically for treating conditions, since infusions are more concentrated with plant residue than teas.

Decoctions are created by boiling woody tissue of trees for hours to extract residue from the bark. Again, and herbalist may classify a gingko as an herb if they choose to work with the bark to create decoctions. A botanist, however, would be present to remind the herbalist that wood is not soft and succulent.

I consider myself an herbalist and a horticulturalist, and I respect the vernacular of both fields, even if they are used in contradiction with one another. To avoid a confusing headache, I use the adjective herbaceous to a certain softness and succulence of a plant, and woody to describe a coarse and firm texture. Yet, as soon as it ends up in my tea, it’s an herb, regardless of where it came from.

If you’d like to learn more about herbs, I’ll be giving a three-part Lunch and Learn webinar series on herbs. Each session will start at noon and run for 45-55 minutes. Dates and topics are:

• Wednesday, July 3 – The History of Herbs

• Thursday, July 11 – Herb Cultivation for North Georgia

• Thursday, July 18 – Preparations and Uses of Herbs.

To join in the webinar, visit the UGA Forsyth County Extension website for the link.

Samuel Shafritz is the UGA Extension Summer, UGA Extension Forsyth County.