The Ultimate Guide to Herbs

Depending on the preparation and culture, a single herb can season a dish and cure an ailment. Here are 26 of the most helpful, versatile herbs that you can integrate into your daily routine.

Types of Herbs

Herbs are common ingredients in recipes, so most of these will sound familiar. Explore more than just how they taste by learning more below!

Basil

Both tasty and healthy.

Basil is native to Asia and Africa, but its widespread popularity has led to worldwide consumption. It tastes almost like licorice, with a clove-like smell. Thanks to its warm, almost spicy flavor, it's used in various meats, soups, salads, and pasta. It can be used in dishes or to garnish.

Basil is used to treat many different stomach ailments, including constipation, gas, loss of appetite, spasms, diarrhea, and more. In addition, it's thought to play a role in many spiritual traditions, including the Greeks and Egyptians, who believed it would open the gates of heaven if placed in the mouth of the dead.

Bay Leaves

Added during cooking for their flavor, they're rarely actually eaten - the leaves are removed from the food before serving.

Bay leaves may taste and smell minty, but they are not part of the mint family. They mix the best properties of mint, balsam, and cloves with a sharp, almost peppery taste. They go well in stews and soups and come in different varieties that impact the taste and smell.

Bay leaves have historically been used to treat rashes, earaches, and sore joints. They can also be used to treat bad breath.

Chervil

A common addition to soup.

Chervil is similar to parsley, with fine green leaves that are good fresh or dried. It's even known as French parsley, though it was the first native to the Caucasus before spreading throughout Europe. Chervil has an anise, almost licorice-like smell and taste that is used to help season chicken, eggs, fish, and vegetables.

It's used to help promote digestive health, cure hiccups, and lower blood pressure. In some cases, it's used as a mild stimulant.

Chives

Watch your breath!

Chives are part of the onion, garlic, and leeks family, but don't confuse this herb for a vegetable. It's a highly sought-after herb around the world, paired well with many different egg and vegetable dishes, even mixed with sour cream for additional flavor. Chives have been used for more than 5,000 years to help treat sunburns and sore throats. They were thought to help impact blood pressure and even infuse strength into those who ate them.

Cicely

Used medicinally more than culinarily.

Sweet Cicely is another herb that has a licorice-like taste. They resemble ferns, with feathery light leaves with white patches. They are very aromatic when crushed and are native to Europe. Sweet Cicely is eaten cooked or raw and has been used to treat breathing problems, digestive issues, and urinary tract disorders. It's been called the blood purifier for its medicinal properties.

Cilantro

For adding a sour tang.

Cilantro is an herb used for its flavorful leaves, but it will be called coriander if you only harvest the seeds. They are part of the same plant species but vary in how they are used.  Some people claim that cilantro tastes like soap, but it has a lemon-like flavor that's tart instead of sour. It's used in many different types of dishes, including meats, vegetables, salsas, and salads.

Cilantro can provide health benefits for your liver and reduce inflammation and help with digestive issues. It's native to Africa, Europe, and Asia and has become a staple in Central and South American cooking.

Culantro

Use only with moderation.

Culantro has long leaves with a serrated edge, almost looking like lettuce. They taste similar to cilantro, though it has a more pungent odor and a stronger, bitter taste likened to crushed stink bugs. You'll want to moderate your use when cooking to prevent overwhelming your dish. They are often used dried instead of many other herbs that are preferred fresh.

Culantro has been used to treat the flu, constipation, colds, fevers, and chills.

Dill

Often used to season meats, but Dill is a delicious addition to many other dishes too.

Dill has a bitter taste that is very popular in many eastern European dishes, particularly from Ukraine, Scandinavia, Finland, Russia, and other eastern European countries. It's tall, with delicate thin dark green or bluish-green leaves often used in conjunction with chicken, lamb, fish, potatoes, and sour cream. In addition to its sharp taste, Dill is used for those who have insomnia, treats diarrhea and gas, lowers cholesterol levels, and more.

Fennel

Despite looking onion-like, this is closer to a carrot.

Fennel is part of the carrot family, native to the Mediterranean and growing all year long. It has a sweet, spicy, and earthy flavor, which is excellent for any meal. Its roots date back to Greek and Roman times as an aromatic and flavorful herb. Fennel is rich in iron, magnesium, calcium, protein, and other beneficial vitamins. It has been known to increase metabolism, improve bone health and inflammation, and affect your blood pressure.

Lemongrass

A strong, medicinal herb.

Lemongrass may look like plants, but it has a strong, citrus-like flavor like lemons. It's used in Asian cuisine, especially in curries, soups, and stews. It's also used in herbal teas throughout the world. Lemongrass is used to help treat sore throats and coughs and digestion issues, and anxiety. The stalks contain antioxidants known to promote eye health and protect against cancer.

Lemon Verbena

For those times when you need lemon but have no lemon.

Lemon verbena is another herb with a powerful lemon scent and taste. It's used as a lemon substitute in many meals and drinks, including marinades, dressings, beverages, teas, and sorbets. It was native to South America before being exported to Europe. Lemon Verbena has been known to treat inflammation, help digestion, promote weight loss, and relieve nasal congestion. It can also promote relaxation and prevent muscle injury and damage.

Parsley

A true basic herb.

Parsley is grown worldwide, but its roots are in the Mediterranean, including Greece, Spain, Cyprus, Italy, Morocco, and Portugal. It has a mild, bitter flavor when added to meals. The moss curled variety is used to garnish, while the flat leave variety is more flavorful and used in meals. Parsley has natural anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties, so it's also used to increase your immune system, help with digestion, and cure bad breath.

Stevia

A healthier alternative to sugar.

Stevia is a natural sweetener that's native to Paraguay and Brazil. It's often used as a natural substitute for sugar, which is nice because it contains zero calories.  This herb is part of the sunflower family and has been used in cooking and medicine for years. Stevia can also help treat stomach issues, obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. It's also used to treat burns and colic.

Tarragon

Essential for many fancy dishes.

Tarragon is a part of the sunflower family, growing yearlong in North America and Eurasia. It tastes almost like licorice and is used to season all types of dishes, including chicken, egg, seafood, vegetables, soups, and more. It can also be called Estragon, and it's a key component of high French cuisine, including their well-known béarnaise sauce.

Tarragon is high in minerals and vitamins, including iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and vitamins A and C. It can be added to teas as a stress reliever and even chewed on to lessen mouth pain and freshen breath.

Thyme

Another classic.

Thyme has roots as far back as the Egyptians and Greeks, who used it as part of their embalming process to infuse courage into their bodies before battle and purify their rooms. This multi-functional herb was then introduced into meals, especially when paired with garlic and parsley in French, Mediterranean, and Italian cuisine. You can use it dried or fresh.

Thyme has antioxidant, antibiotic, and antiseptic properties to treat allergies, colds, and minor coughs. It's also a great source of vitamin A, which promotes good skin, eye, and nail development.

Let’s Talk about Mint

Mint is one of the most commonly searched for herbs, growing all year long. It's frequently used for its aromatic properties in perfumes and essential oils, and also drinks because of its fresh and relaxing taste. When using mint, it's best to use it fresh over dried, as it impacts the taste.

Mint's health impacts include treating nausea, stomach aches, and even chest pain. Some research suggests it may be used to treat irritable bowel syndrome, though more research is needed to confirm.

There are herbs that are members of the mint family that provide different tastes and health benefits, and some may surprise you!

Lemon Balm

For a touch of freshness.

Lemon balm is a bushy plant native to Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Once called the elixir of life by the Greeks and Romans, now it's most commonly used to flavor ice cream and tea and scent perfumes and flavor pasta. Lemon balm is thought to reduce anxiety, alleviate insomnia, and treat stomach issues. There's also research that suggests it may help treat Alzheimer's disease.

Marjoram

Reserved, quiet.

Marjoram is part of the oregano family, but it tastes sweeter and more delicate than its counterpart. It's used in light and mild dishes, where oregano is heartier. Marjoram is native to Turkey and Cyprus and was once even used as a key component of love spells. Marjoram has antimicrobial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties. It's beneficial for women regarding their hormonal health.

Oregano

A jackhammer of a spice.

Oregano is part of the mint family, native to the Mediterranean and Eurasian regions. It is a staple in Italian cooking, especially in pizza and pasta. It has a gold and earthy taste, with a slight bitterness. Oregano can also be called wild marjoram. Oregano has been used to treat fungal infections, skin conditions, respiratory illnesses, and indigestion.

Peppermint

Add to your drinks during the hot seasons for some freshness.

Peppermint is the perfect mix between spearmint and water mint, with the benefits of both! While it can garnish salads, it's more often used to flavor drinks. This hybrid mint is indigenous to Europe and the Middle East. Peppermint is used to freshen breath, and you'll find it as a common mouthwash or gum flavor. In addition, it can help with stomach issues, including irritable bowel syndrome. It's most typically used in oils and teas.

Rosemary

Not to be overused.

Rosemary looks like a miniature evergreen tree, but its similarities end there. Native to the Mediterranean, it has a strong, distinct flavor, brought out through cooking and roasting. It's used with chicken, turkey, lamb, and vegetables to add to their complex flavors. Rosemary is often used in oils to relieve stress and anxiety while promoting calmness. It's also used for pain relief and to treat stomach problems.

Sage

It does not give sagely advice unfortunately.

Sage is part of the mint family, native to the Mediterranean region, but its history only just begins there. Sage can be fresh or dried, adding a rich, warm taste to any meal. It's often used in salads, seasonings, pasta, and various sauces to help add flavor and is brewed in tea. Sage can treat stomach issues, oral infections, and even brain problems. It also has spiritual uses, as sage is traditionally burned to ward off harmful spirits and cleanse an area.

Spearmint

The spear in the name indicates sharpness.

Spearmint can help freshen breath, lower blood pressure and sugar, aid with digestive issues, improve your memory, and provide a whole host of other antioxidant-related benefits. It's primarily used in tea and oil outside of flavoring personal care products.

Winter Savory

Savory all year long, despite the name.

Winter savory has an earthier, more subdued flavor. It's part of the mint family and can add great flavor and spice to any meal, with a fresh taste that pairs well with drinks and dressings and meats, soups, sauces, and beans. They grow in walls, mountain slopes, hillsides, dry banks, and alkaline soils. Winter savory is often used to treat gas, nausea, sore throat, colic, diarrhea, congestion, etc. It has many aromatic, digestive, and antiseptic properties.

Teas and Essential Oils

Some herbs are primarily used in teas or essential oils, so you'll reap the benefits in different ways.

Chamomile

First line of defense against a simple cold.

Chamomile tea is the most popular herbal tea throughout Europe and North America. Its harvested from flowers that look like daisies and has almost a fresh, apple-like scent. It has a smooth flavor that's easy to drink, warming up and calming the body while providing many medicinal benefits.

Chamomile has been used to treat fevers, inflammation, stomach issues, cancer prevention, heart health, blood sugar, etc. It's also thought to help with insomnia. With so much packed into this herb, it's no wonder it's popular.

Lavender

Known both for its color and scent.

Lavender is a prevalent essential oil scent with naturally calming properties. This purple plant is very recognizable worldwide, blooming throughout the year. It can be used to help flavor different types of meals and for decorative garnishing purposes; however, most people will either use it as part of their essential oil routine or brew it in teas. Lavender has been known to help treat insomnia and anxiety. It also has anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties.

Myrtle

Medicine first, flavoring second.

Myrtle is an herb with a powerful fragrance that's native to Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. It's most commonly used as an essential oil to help treat skin conditions and in herbal medicine to help with fevers and pain. It can be used as a tea to lower blood pressure. Myrtle leaves are similar to bay leaves and can be used in cooking because of their intense, spicy taste. However, it's more common to use this herb medicinally.

History of Herbs

It's believed that humans started using herbs for their medicinal properties anywhere between 7,000 BC and 500 BC, depending on the records. They used them to make ointments and oils for healing purposes. Throughout the world, different cultures had different remedies. As new areas became colonized, the settlers brought with them their herbs, which changed local traditions.

North American settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries brought with them mint, parsley, calendula, lavender, chamomile, and thyme – all of which are tasty and helpful. They add flavor and texture to any meal, especially when combined. You can even crush the leaves and drink them. Herbs are multi-functional and great to add to any diet for health, wellness, and taste purposes.

Posted by Melissa Jackson

Melissa is passionate about all things home and garden, helping others to fashion their dream home one space at a time. An avid reader, when she’s not writing, you can find her nose deep in a book, cuddling with her two dogs.