What exactly is a herb? Is it simply a plant that we eat?

 Hummingbird hawk moth on red valerian: Ernie Janes (rspb-images.com)

It’s actually more specific than that because vegetables, fruits and legumes are also plants that we eat; a herb is a plant with fragrant or flavoursome leaves that are also used for medicinal purposes. They are not usually the main dish, they tend to be added to dishes for flavour. Herbs also differ from spices in that it’s not the leaves,  but the other parts of the plant like bark, berries, bulbs, roots and seeds that are processed to make flavoursome culinary additions.

Britannica dictionary online states:

Herbs are leaves, and although most come from herbaceous plants (plants that lack woody stems), a few do come from woody plants, such as bay leaves, basil, and rosemary and are often found in a kitchen’s spice rack but actually qualify as herbs because they are aromatic leaves.“

Lavender is often grown in herb gardens due to its potent fragrance but interestingly is usually referred to as a perennial rather than a herb. … classification for debate perhaps!

Many flowering herbs are loved by our garden pollinators and butterflies and their seeds can provide food for birds in the autumn. When searching for “herbs for wildlife”, time and time again wild marjoram comes up as a favourite. It flowers from July through to October with dark buds opening to clusters of tiny pale pink flowers and doesn’t look out of place planted amongst the other cottage garden plants in a sunny border. It’s a bit late in the year for sewing marjoram from seed but you can buy established plants from garden centres.

 Common blue butterfly on Wild Marjoram: Nick Upton (rspb-images.com)

Fennel can produce stunning, tall stems of yellow umbellifer flowers and looks wonderful amongst other loose planting schemes, especially as a pop of contrast between blue and purple flowers.

Leave your chives, sage and mints to flower to produce pretty pink blooms that bees and lemon balm (delicious in salads, drinks and to flavour chicken and fish) produces little purple stems that look similar to cat-mint,(also loved by pollinators!)

You can find out more about the top ten herbs to grow from Gardeners World and Friends of the Earth and enjoy sharing these fragrant, pretty plants with your garden wildlife!


For more inspiration on wildlife gardening, the Flatford Wildlife Garden, is currently open every day until October from 10.30am – 4.30pm. Entrance to the garden is free and well-behaved dogs on leads are welcome. Car parking is £5 at the Flatford National Trust car park and this gives you access to the stunning countryside walks around Dedham Vale in Constable Country.

 

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