Friday, December 26, 2008

Herb or Spices?

Herb or Spices?
What is the difference between and herb and a spice? Many people ask that question, but almost nobody likes the answer. The truth is the words herb and spice are not well defined, and very attempt to spell out a distinction between them soon runs into exception to the rule.

Generally we know that herb is a plant native to the temperate regions of the earth. Our word derives from Latin herba, meaning “grass,” and most herbs come from soft green leafy plants; unlike shrubs and trees these do not develop woody stems.

We know that the herbs are aromatic and flavorful, with possible medicinal or even aphrodisiac properties, and several definitions specify the present of some fragrant essential oil in the leaves that gives them their potency.

Spices, on the other hand are the precious commodities of tropical regions. The spices are plant parts other than leaves such as bark, roots, seeds, sap or flower buds; they are often dried. They too have outstanding fragrances and strong tastes and often serve additionally as dyestuffs, cosmetics or magic charms.

These distinctions work well enough in general, but many exception immediately spring to mind: Rosemary, for example, is a fine temperate zone herb, but in suitable conditions it can form an enormous woody-stemmed hedge bristling with spiky little leaves, penetrating in its perfume and buzzing with bees; anything but soft! And is lavender an herb? Certainly not tropical – it is decidedly unhappy in too warm a climate - it develops persistent woody stems; and we use both it flowers and its leaves.

Many soft temperate-zone plants, such as anise, caraway, cumin and fennel, are valued not for their leaves but for the aromatic small fruits, which we call seeds. And then there are poppy seeds, which contain no essential oil at all. Our definitions of herbs clearly have both gaps and overlaps.
Herb or Spices?
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