When is a spice a herb?

Thymus citriodorus variegata (varigated lemon thyme) citrus thyme

Thymus citriodorus variegata (varigated lemon thyme)

When it is used for medicinal purposes.

That is the short and sweet answer to the confusion about common kitchen spices and reference to them as herbs.

The longer answer is that the general population is familiar with the term ‘spice’ in the context of culinary purposes and nothing more.

In the Kitchen

The term spice – in the culinary sense – is understood to be the seed, dried and/or ground bark, stem or root of a plant that may or not be piquant.  A herb refers to that part used of a plant that is above the ground and dies back either seasonally or eventually (as in rosemary).

The term herb – in the culinary sense – is understood to be the leaf of a non-woody aromatic plant such as oregano, marjoram or thyme or even the fresh or dried flowers such as the use of lavender or thyme flowers though the later often used more for colour or to garnish salads.

Interestingly, rosemary IS a woody plant, but even according to the above accepted definition, is always referred to as a herb.

Out of the Kitchen

…and in your garden or at the herbalist, it is a different story.

In herbology, naturopathic, alternative or (herbal) botanical medicine, all of it is referred to as herb because one is not considering the culinary use, but the plant as a plant and not as a seasoning.  Hence, turmeric, cayenne, ginger etc are correctly referred to as herbs when used in this sense.

In the kitchen, they are correctly called spices because one is talking about their seasoning value.

The confusion comes from not understanding the context one is reading about or referring to…or simply not being aware of any other use.

Kitchen or Cure Mode?

So, a herbalist who cooks and shares her/his recipe with a friend will talk about using spices such as turmeric, cayenne and ginger.  Shift the conversation to a health problem said friend may have (digestion, blood pressure etc) and the herbalist friend goes into ‘herbal medicine talk’ mode.

Then the conversation will be about the various herbs that can help such as the above mentioned plant matter that in the curry recipe two minutes ago were spices but now are the healing herbs.

Being a pretty good cook and sometimes herbalist, I know the conversational shifts well.  But I can sure tell from some emails I get, that the writer is ONLY a cook or ONLY a herbie.  May the twain meet, merge and live happily ever after!

Hey, I had to learn it.  And now you know.


talk recipes and some plants and their parts will be correctly referred to as spices…talk healing and they are quite correctly all herbs – be it leaf, bark, stem or root.  Even during the early spice trade to Europe in the Middle Ages, master herbalists and botanists documented their writings referring to herbs.  Cooks spoke about spices and herbs. A herbalist or botanist makes no distinction.  It’s herb.

For the purpose of this site, and the majority of search engine surfers who are more familiar with the ‘spice’ term – and so that they can find my site – that is how my articles on such are titled.

Got it?

Great.  No more emails nasty or kind informing me of ‘the error’. Ok?  ;>D

(Have a really nice day R.B from Arizona. )

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