Herbs are a popular choice for indoor gardens, but they can also be found outside in the wild. Identifying a plant as an herb can be different, depending on your use for the herb. The definition for herbs in the culinary world differs from how botanists and horticulturists define herbs; not all horticultural herbs are edible, and not all culinary herbs are technically herbs.
For horticulturists, the herb is a plant growth form characterized by qualities of herb-type plants, which have tender foliage with no wooden material. A growth form is the shape in which a plant grows; other common growth forms include shrubs and trees. Inedible or potentially toxic herbaceous plants that fit the traits of an herb growth-form include hyacinth, iris, hemp, nightshade and hemlock.
In cooking, an herb is a tasty or fragrant plant you use for adding fresh flavor to food. Types of herbs commonly used in cooking include basil, mint, garlic, chives and rosemary. Rosemary is an example of a cooking herb that is not an herb but an evergreen shrub.
Identifying herbs can tell you more about what will make them grow best. Once herbs are identified, you can determine which herbs would thrive when planted together in a companion planting arrangement. Identifying herbs can also tell a culinary gardener which type of flavor each herb plant will impart into a disk made with garden-grown herbs.
Some herb plants are difficult to identify because they are similar in appearance to other plants. The agricultural or botany program at your local college will most likely be willing to help you identify any wild herb plants that perplex you. To positively identify a wild herb as edible, it is important to contact an expert to make sure the plant is the safe, edible herb that it seems to be.
In natural medicine disciplines like traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), herbs are prescribed by herbal medicine practitioners to heal a variety of maladies. The term "herb" in natural medicine is not reserved for plants only; an herb can be a mineral, a fruit, a seed, a tree or even parts of an animal. Though some healing herbs are edible culinary herbs, many other medicinal herbs can have ill effects if they are ingested without the help of a qualified and reliable professional.