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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Is it an Herb or a Spice?

We grow our own herbs whenever possible, and enjoy the fresh herbs in season, as well as dried herbs throughout the year.

Growing herbs can be a fun and satisfying way to add a little extra to your cooking, as well as an addition to your garden.

Often at the markets we will have someone come to our table and ask for Cinnamon, or Cumin, or Nutmeg. They will look at our display and then ask if we have a spice blend for making chili.

When I do presentations, it is not uncommon to have several question arise about how to use one spice or the other.

Hardest of all for me, and the one that makes me bite my tongue, is when a family will walk past our stand at the market and I hear a child ask "What is this" and the parent replies, "Those are spices."

We really grow very few things that can be classified as a spice, although there are a few that are right on the border. To complicate things a bit, we do add a small amount of spices to some of our blends.

"So," I hear you asking, "What is the difference between an herb and a spice?"

Well, I'm glad you asked that question.

In a very broad sense, any plant is an herb, animals that eat plants are herbivores. But in a more specific sense, the dictionary defines Herb as a useful plant. And finally, we have the culinary distinction.

Ever since Colonel Sanders started using his secret recipe of '11 herbs and spices', the words 'herb' and 'spice' have become interchangeable in many minds.

But herbs and spices are actually very different.

The seasonings that we generally classify as HERBS are usually those that are derived from the leaf of a plant.

The seasonings we generally classify as SPICES are usually those derived from the bark and seeds of a plant.

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."

Of course, even in this definition, there is wiggle room. Note use of the words 'normally', 'usually', 'frequently'. Take garlic, for example, a member of the onion family. The great Garlic Controversy over whether it is an herb or a spice is filled with self proclaimed experts who will tell you it is one, the other, both or neither. Which one is right is anybody's guess.

Horseradish, a plant that has very limited application for anything except the root, was designated the Herb Of The Year for 2011 by the International Herb Association. (Horseradish leaves are edible and can be used in salads when young and tender, but become tough, woody and stringy as they mature.)

So even the best rules of thumb are made to be broken.

But generally, if it comes from a part of a tree, the odds are pretty good that we don't grown it, or produce it here at DTL Herbs LTD. We are currently focusing on the low growing leafy plants most commonly referred to as herbs.

Allspice, basil, mace, thyme, peppercorn, anise, paprika, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, and cardamom are examples of spices.

Parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, marjoram, tarragon, mint, cilantro, chervil, lavender, savory, and chives are some examples of herbs.

I hope that helps!


  1. I love this! While I somehow knew what was an herb and what was a spice, I had no idea what made them fit where. Thanks! I'm going to teach this to my Girl Scouts during one of our cooking classes :)

  2. Great post, but can basil be in both lists?