In general use herbs are any plants used for food flavoring medicine or fragrances for their savory or aromatic properties. Culinary use typically distinguishes herbs from spices. Herbs refers to the leafy green or flowering parts of a plant while spices are produced from other parts of the plant including seeds berries bark roots and fruits.
Herbs can be perennials such as thyme or lavender biennials such as parsley or annuals like basil. Perennial herbs can be shrubs such as rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis or trees such as bay laurel Laurus nobilis this contrasts with botanical herbs which by definition cannot be woody plants. Some plants are used as both herbs and spices such as dill weed and dill seed or coriander leaves and seeds. Also there are some herbs such as those in the mint family that are used for both culinary and medicinal purposes.
Some plants contain phytochemicals that have effects on the body. There may be some effects when consumed in the small levels that typify culinary spicing and some herbs are toxic in larger quantities. For instance some types of herbal extract such as the extract of St. John's-wort or of kava can be used for medical purposes to relieve depression and stress. However, large amounts of these herbs may lead to toxic overload that may involve complications some of a serious nature and should be used with caution. Complications can also arise when being taken with some prescription medicines.
Herbs have long been used as the basis of traditional Chinese herbal medicine with usage dating as far back as the first century CE and far before. In India, the Ayurveda medicinal system is based on herbs. Medicinal use in Western cultures has its roots in the Hippocratic elemental healing system based on a quaternary elemental healing metaphor. Famous herbalist of the Western tradition include Avicenna Galen Paracelsus Culpepper and the botanically inclined Eclectic physicians of 19th century/early 20th century America. Modern pharmaceuticals had their origins in crude herbal medicines and to this day some drugs are still extracted as fractionate isolate compounds from raw and then purified to meet pharmaceutical standards.
Certain contain psychoactive properties that have been used for both religious and recreational purposes by humans since the early Holocene era notably the leaves and extracts of the cannabis and coca plants. The leaves of the coca plant have been chewed by people in northern Peruvian societies for over 8,000 years while the use of cannabis as a psychoactive substance dates back to the first century CE in China and northern Africa.
The indigenous peoples of Australia developed herbal medicine based on plants that were readily available to them. The isolation of the indigenous people meant the remedies developed were for far less serious diseases this was from not contracting western illnesses. Herbs such as river mint wattle and eucalyptus were used for coughs diarrhea fever and headaches.
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