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October 24, 2013

Herbs are full of potential and provide us with much more than a pretty plant to look at.

Herbs are defined as aromatic leaves from plants of a temperate origin, while spices are defined as aromatic fruits, flowers, bark, seeds or other plant parts from a tropical origin. Commonly, herbs and spices are associated with cooking but have also been used in medicine, as natural dyes, and in perfume and cosmetics. The volatile substances/oils in these plants are what contribute to the essence or aroma. These essential oils are most commonly found in the leaves and flowers and are meant to attract pollinators, but have caught the attention of all who cross their path!

herbsHerbs provide such a natural sensory experience that they are a perfect introduction to plants, especially for children. Some of the sensory herbs recommended for children’s gardens include lemon balm, lavender, lamb’s ear and mint varieties. They provide tools for teaching about plants. One can focus on asking questions regarding how the plant looks, feels, smells and tastes. Other areas that can be explored with children and their families are the pollinators attracted to herbs and their medicinal uses.

The harvest season is coming to a close but there is still time to cut fresh herbs from your garden. All herbs should be harvested before the first hard frost. After harvest, you can either use the fresh herbs or dry your herbs for teas, seasoning, herb butters or potpourri. There is also the option of continuing to grow your herbs indoors. Some herbs can be grown successfully indoors in a pot or herb box. Herbs, especially herbs in the mint family, fare fine in a south-facing windowsill. Growing herbs like basil, oregano, and rosemary provide the opportunity for you to add the fresh-picked flavor to your meals all winter. Some tips for growing herbs indoors include placing the potted herbs in your sunniest window; a room with a ceiling fan is ideal for air circulation and do not overwater. The Herb Society found here  has great resources about herbs.

Using Herbs

Gather herbs early in the day, after the dew has dried but before the sun bakes the plant’s essential oils. To prepare leafy stems for use in cooking, strip the leaves off the stems by sliding your thumb and forefinger from top to bottom.

Drying Herbs

Drying herbs is done in one of two ways; either by gathering small bunches of 10 to 15 stems and hanging them in a warm, airy place to dry or placing herbs on a drying rack (these herbs are often covered with cheese cloth). Drying can take up to three weeks, depending on the plant. Herbs should always be stored away from light and heat.

Once herbs are dry, keep them in an airtight glass or ceramic container. This will protect their flavor and fragrance. Keep the leaves whole until use (crushing the leaves releases their flavor).

Herb Butter

Herb butter can be the perfect addition to veggies, as a rub on your Thanksgiving turkey, for corn on the cob, or on your favorite warm bread.

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1/4 cup finely chopped mixed herbs, fresh or dried (such as basil, thyme, sage, parsley, dill, chives, tarragon, oregano, marjoram or rosemary)
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In a small bowl, combine all ingredients. Mix well until herbs are distributed evenly. Place onto a piece of waxed paper, shape into a cylinder or disk and seal ends by twisting. Chill in refrigerator until firm, for at least an hour. The herb butter will keep in the refrigerator for about 2 weeks and in the freezer for a few months.

Also: See our post on herbal tea.

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