Aromatic herbs – the green magic

Herbs are often confused with herbaceous. Generally, herbs are plants that are valued for their flavor, scent, or medicinal properties due to the presence of the volatile compounds. Herbaceous, however, is a botanic term referring to perennial plants that are non-woody foliage and flower in each growing season. Herb usually has a succulent and soft texture, but with exceptions such as rosemary have woody stems with soft sprigs. As one of the essentials in our daily life, herbs are diverse in the wild, multifunctional, and widely used in many aspects throughout the world. In culinary herbs give a special flavor or preserve food by reducing awful and fishy smell. They are also used as natural remedies for their anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anticarcinogenic properties. A few herbs serve for religious purposes because of their unique inspirational aromatic properties. Herbs are harvested mostly for their essential-oil-filled aromatic leaves but could be other parts such as the stems, fruits, roots, and seeds. The major phytochemicals in herbs are mainly alkaloids, anthraquinones, essential oils, flavonoids, glucosinolates, mucilage, phytoestrogens, and tannins, which are the magics components behinds each uniqueness.

Can you imagine how bland food would be without the extra condiments and how dull is the cooking would become in the absence of herbs? Herbs are always a welcome addition to any kitchen. It plays a magical role by adding personality to your dishes. Herbs are widely used in cooking as freshly cut, or processed into flavored butter, herbal vinegar, oils, and dressings that commonly used in basting grilled, baked fish, biscuits, bread, and salad, or added in herbal pickles making pesto, and herbal sauces. It is always recommended to survey the acceptance level of herbal taste or smells.  For example, people who love cilantro will accept it in everything from fish, salsa to rice, but for those cilantro-haters, the plant tastes awful and smells like bugs. Also, beware of what to bring from the garden to the table as most herbs can have dangerous side effects if not consumed properly. Some herbs are safe to take in small amounts but poisonous if taken in large or excess amounts. For example, fish mint (Houttuynia cordata) has aristolochic acids which are commonly found in the flowering plant family of Aristolochiaceae and are proved as nephrotoxic phytochemicals. So avoid chewing raw leaves and use roots instead and cook thoroughly. It is always recommended to consume known herbs as there are some herbs such as foxgloves and lily-of-the-valley, which must never be ingested.

Herbal sweets such as herbal muffins and candies are popular gifts exchanged among loved ones. Certain kinds of herbs also bring particular meanings. For example, the forgot me not flower represents long-lasting friendships, and when sent as a gift, it carries the message that there is a strong connection between the person involved. Herbs in potpourri preservation will keep your favorite summer fragrances all year round. Herb sachets and pillows are lovely gifts, especially for their calming effects. Many weddings used herb sachets as door gifts for the guest. It also widely used as bouquets and wreaths as decorations or for ritual purposes. Herbs can be processed into herbal candle crafts that create a refreshing or tranquil atmosphere. Dried and pressed herbs can be used as natural materials for cards, tags, and bookmarks as well as keychains. Herbs are widely processed into dried herbal bags and used to make herbal teas that often function as a remedy for common ailments.

Essential oil is the most common usage of the herbs. Large quantities of herbs are required for making a handful amount of essential oil. Home-made essential oil often uses vegetable oil that steeps with the dried herbs for a day, the storage usually lasts about a month. Some essential oils are useful in repelling insects when applied on skins for its strong scent. Pregnant and nursing women should avoid using thyme, yarrow, and ylang-ylang which are known to contraindicated with internal balancing. In aromatherapy, professional aromatherapist often combines several therapeutic oils at a specific ratio to stimulate the olfactory nerves that eventually affect the workings of bodily functions as a response of the brain reaction towards the fragrance. Some massage involved wrapped herbal stamps for aromatherapy massage. Herbal remedies are widely consumed as an infusion by soaking a towel with few drops of essential oils or a wooden stick partially soak in the bottle containing essential oils. Infusers or humidifiers are an alternative to humidify the air with refreshing smells. To relieve stress, tiredness, fatigue, depression, and anxiety while improving memory and concentration which indirectly involved in insomnia, headache, and migraine treatment. Besides, it can be made into bath bags for a bath that can soothe the nerves, ease aching limbs, soften the skin, lull us to sleep, or stimulate us into action.

The cosmetics industry often processes herbs into products such as cleansers, toners, skin creams, lotions, moisturizers, deodorants, body scrubs, perfumes, soaps, and masks to give refreshing properties and nutrients for the skin. Herbs also can be used in cleaning for the house by mixing herbs flowers that posse’s strong fragrance like lavender for cleaning purposes that leaves a refreshing smell after cleaning.

The most mysterious property of herb is to function as medicinal herbs which sound old-fashioned. Still, many modern medicines are derived from the plants through the extraction of the active compounds. Humankind has been known using herbal knowledge for at least sixty thousand years. Western herbal medicine was recorded more than two thousand years ago, whereas, eastern herbal medicine such as Chinese herbalism has a history that can be traced back thousands of years ago and may have been written in about one hundred BCE. Until now, many countries such as China and India (Ayurvedic medicine) still using traditional medicines as an alternative or incorporate with modern medicinal treatments. Nevertheless, modern science is improving the effectiveness of the extracts by validating and purifying the active plant compounds to avoid any adverse effects.

There are several processes to ensure the long storage of the herbs without the risk of growing mold in the containers. The wet and succulent leaves require a longer drying process before storing. Most herbs are dried and keep to retain their aroma with a better flavor. Drying of herbs can be done quickly by ventilating the bunch of herbs in a dark or shaded area. It is suggested to turn or stir the herbs regularly to ensure all parts of the herbs are dried evenly. It can be dried in ventilated areas such as an attic, on top of a refrigerator, or even dry in an oven at one hundred Fahrenheit. Once the herbs are entirely air-dried, can be stored in airtight containers or frozen as decorative ice cubes. It is good practice to crush the culinary herbs, keep them in canning jars with rubber seals or plastic bags followed by squeezing out the air before sealing. Proper labeling with the name of the herb and date of production on the container ease the time when you use them.

Further readings:

The Reader’s Digest Association. Inc. (2009). The Complete Illustrated Book of Herbs – Growing, Health & Beauty, Cooking, Crafts.

Tobyn, G., Denham, A., & Whitelegg, M. (2011). The Western Herbal Tradition – 2000 years of medicinal plant knowledge. Churchill Livingstone Elsevier.