What is the difference between an herb and a spice?

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D.Bell

Desiree Bell is inspired by botanicals and natural materials. She is a vegetarian who has a certificate in herbal studies and a certificate from Australasian College of Health Sciences in Aromatherapy. When she isn't in her suburban garden, hiking or crafting, she is teaching pre-k with an emphasis on nature and gardening. For more ideas on Simple Living With Nature you can visit her blogs at www.beyondagarden.blogspot.com and www.kidsnaturespot.blogspot.com.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of an herb is a seed-producing annual, biennial or perennial that does not develop persistent woody tissue but dies down at the end of a growing season. They are plants or plant parts that are valued for their medicinal, savory, or aromatic qualities.

The Herb Society of America says an herb is “any plant that may be used for pleasure, fragrance, or physic.” Historically, most plants categorized as herbs make it on the basis of some medicinal concoction derived from the root, leaf, bark, flower, or fruit. There are very early records of herb cultivation and use of them in Egypt, China, India, Arabia, Persia, and Greece.

Spices originated from the Asian tropics, the Americas, the Mediterranean countries and Europe. There was a time when spices were so precious they were locked in special boxes. Oxford’s Dictionary says spices can be any various aromatic, vegetable product used to season or flavor foods; a small portion, quantity, or admixture; something that gives zest or relish; a pungent or fragrant odor like perfume.

Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening (Rodale Books, 2009) gives readers the following rules of thumb for telling spices and herbs apart:

• "Leaves, both fresh and dried, are normally called herbs, while seeds, roots, fruits, flowers or bark are spices.

• Herbs more frequently grow in temperate regions, while spices come from the tropics.

• Herbs are green and often have more subtle tastes; spices tend to be shades of brown, black or red, with dramatic pungent flavor."

An example of these differences is the coriander plant (Coriandrum sativum). Its fresh or dried leaves are referred to as Chinese parsley or the herb cilantro. The brown seed from the same plant is known as the spice coriander.

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Photo by bricolage.108/Courtesy Flickr
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Jeanne Rose writes in her book, Herbal Guide for Food (North Atlantic Books, 1989), “that any plant used for aromatic, culinary, medicinal or cosmetic purpose is an herb. This naturally takes into account any plant, tree, shrub, weed, flower, fungus, etc. In cooking, the word when used in the ingredients of recipes usually means the top of the plant as apposed to its root. There is such a thing as fennel herb, fennel seed, and fennel root.

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Photo by the queen of subtle/Courtesy Flickr
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She states that, “spices are the dried parts of very aromatic plants that usually make their home in the tropics. Spices are usually hard parts of plants such as pieces of bark (cinnamon), roots (ginger), flower buds (cloves), or berries (pepper).”