Fresh Clips: The Difference Between Herbs and Spices

While herbs and spices can both have medicinal properties, there are some key differences between them.

| December/January 2012

Q: What is the difference between herbs and spices? 

A: Many people use the words “herb” and “spice” interchangeably, but there actually are subtle differences that distinguish one from the other. Herbs are obtained from the leaves of plants that do not have woody stems. They tend to thrive in more temperate climates, and can be used fresh or dry. Spices, on the other hand, can be obtained from woody or non-woody plants and are always dried before use. Except for the leaves, all other parts of the plant are spices, including the seeds, fruits, flowers and bark. Spices are usually native to hot, tropical climates. Additionally, while herbs sometimes seem to have more medicinal properties than spices do, most herbs and spices have both flavoring and healing properties.

All these definitions mean that the same plant can, in fact, be an herb and a spice. Take cilantro, for example. Cilantro is the Spanish word for coriander leaves, and because of this, cilantro could be classified as an herb. However, dried coriander seeds (a spice) are frequently used in cooking, making it completely legitimate to refer to coriander as either an herb or a spice, depending on what part of the plant you’re using.

Sarah McCabe is an editorial intern at The Herb Companion.

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