Those readers who delight to delve among pedigrees, genealogies and
family connections, may perhaps be a little disappointed to learn that,
in spite of the odorous nature of the herbs, there are none whose
history reveals a skeleton in the closet. They are all harmless. Now and
then, to be sure, there occur records of a seemingly compromising
nature, such as the effects attributed to the eating or even the
elery; but such accounts, harrowing as they may appear, are
insufficient to warrant a bar sinister. Indeed, not only is the mass of
evidence in favor of the defendant, but it casts a reflection upon the
credibility of the plaintiff, who may usually be shown to have indulged
immoderately, to have been frightened by hallucinations or even to have
arraigned the innocent for his own guilt. Certain it is that there is
not one of the sweet herbs mentioned in this volumes that has not long
enjoyed a more or less honored place in the cuisine of all the
continents, and this in spite of the occasional tootings of some
Like those classes of society that cannot move with "the four hundred,"
the herbs are very exclusive, more exclusive indeed, than their
superiors, the other vegetables. Very few members have they admitted
that do not belong to two approved families, and such unrelated ones as
do reach the charmed circles must first prove their worthiness and then
hold their places by intrinsic merit.
These two coteries are known as the Labiatae and the Umbelliferae, the
former including the sages, mints and their connections; the latter the
parsleys and their relatives. With the exception of tarragon, which
belongs to the Compositae, parsley and a few of its relatives which have
deserted their own ranks, all the important leaf herbs belong to the
Labiatae; and without a notable exception all the herbs whose seeds are
used for flavoring belong to the Umbelliferae. Fennel-flower, which
belongs to the natural order Ranunculaceae, or crowfoot family, is a
candidate for admission to the seed sodality; costmary and southernwood
of the Compositae seek membership with the leaf faction; rue of the
Rutaceae and tansy of the Compositae, in spite of suspension for their
boldness and ill-breeding, occasionally force their way back into the
domain of the leaf herbs. Marigold, a composite, forms a clique by
itself, the most exclusive club of all. It has admitted no members! And
there seem to be no candidates.
The important members of the Labiatae are:
Sage (Salvia officinalis, Linn.).
Savory (Satureia hortensis, Linn.).
Savory, winter (Satureia montana, Linn.).
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris, Linn.).
Marjoram (Origanum Marjoram; O. Onites, Linn.; and
M. vulgare, Linn.).
Balm (Melissa officinalis, Linn.).
Basil (Ocimum Basilicum, Linn., and O. minimum, Linn.).
Spearmint (Mentha spicata, Linn., or M. viridis, Linn.).
Peppermint (Mentha Piperita, Linn.).
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis, Linn.).
Clary (Salvia Sclarea, Linn.).
Pennyroyal (Mentha Pulegium, Linn.).
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare, Linn.).
Hyssop (Hyssopus vulgaris, Linn.).
Catnip (Nepeta Cataria, Linn.).
Lavender (Lavandula vera, D. C.; L. spica, D. C.).
These plants, which are mostly natives of mild climates of the old
world, are characterized by having square stems; opposite, simple leaves
and branches; and more or less two-lipped flowers which appear in the
axils of the leaves, occasionally alone, but usually several together,
forming little whorls, which often compose loose or compact spikes or
racemes. Each fertile blossom is followed by four little seedlike fruits
in the bottom of the calyx, which remains attached to the plant. The
foliage is generally plentifully dotted with minute glands that contain
a volatile oil, upon which depends the aroma and piquancy peculiar to
the individual species.
The leading species of the Umbelliferae are:
Parsley (Carum Petroselinum, Benth. and Hook.).
Dill (Anethum graveolens, Linn.).
Fennel (Foeniculum officinale, Linn.).
Angelica (Archangelica officinalis, Hoofm.).
Anise (Pimpinella anisum, Linn.).
Caraway (Carum Carui, Linn.).
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum, Linn.).
Chervil (Scandix Cerefolium, Linn.).
Cumin or Cummin (Cuminum Cyminum, Linn.).
Lovage (Levisticum officinale, Koch.).
Samphire (Crithmum maritimum, Linn.).
Like the members of the preceding group, the species of the Umbelliferae
are principally natives of mild climates of the old world, but many of
them extend farther north into the cold parts of the continent, even
beyond the Arctic Circle in some cases. They have cylindrical, usually
hollow stems; alternate, generally compound leaves the basis of whose
stalks ensheath the branches or stems; and small flowers almost always
arranged in compound terminal umbels. The fruits are composed of two
seedlike dry carpels, each containing a single seed, and usually
separating when ripe. Each carpel bears five longitudinal prominent ribs
and several, often four, lesser intermediate ones, in the intervals
between which numerous oil ducts have their openings from the interior
of the fruit. The oil is generally found in more or less abundance also
in other parts of the plant, but is usually most plentiful in the
The members of the Compositae used as sweet herbs are, with the exception
of tarragon, comparatively unimportant, and except for having their
flowers in close heads "on a common receptacle, surrounded by an
involucre," have few conspicuous characters in common. No further space
except that required for their enumeration need here be devoted to them.
And this remark will apply also to the other two herbs mentioned further
Marigold, Pot (Calendula officinalis, Linn.). Tansy (Tanacetum
vulgaris, Linn.). Tarragon (Artemisia Dracunculus, Linn.).
Southernwood (Artemisia Abrotanum, Linn.).
Rue (Ruta graveolens, Linn.).
Borage (Borago officinalis, Linn.).
Fennel-flower (Nigella sativa, Linn.).
Before dismissing this section of the subject, it may be interesting to
glance over the list of names once more. Seven of these plants were
formerly so prominent in medicine that they were designated "official"
and nearly all the others were extensively used by physicians. At the
present day there are very few that have not passed entirely out of
official medicine and even out of domestic practice, at least so far as
their intrinsic qualities are concerned. Some, to be sure, are still
employed because of their pleasant flavors, which disguise the
disagreeable taste of other drugs. But this is a very different matter.
One of the most notable of these is fennel. What wonders could that
plant not perform 300 years ago! In Parkinson's "Theatricum Botanicum"
(1640) its "vertues" are recorded. Apart from its use as food, for
which, then, as now, it was highly esteemed, without the attachment of
any medicinal qualities as an esculent, it was considered efficacious in
cases of gout, jaundice, cramps, shortness of breath, wheezing of the
lungs; for cleansing of the blood and improving the complexion; to use
as an eye-water or to increase the flow of milk; as a remedy for serpent
bites or an antidote for poisonous herbs and mushrooms; and for people
who "are growen fat to abate their unwieldinesse and make them more
gaunt and lanke."
But let us peep into the 19th edition of the United States Dispensatory.
Can this be the same fennel which "is one of our most grateful
aromatics," and which, because of "the absence of any highly excitant
property," is recommended for mixing with unpleasant medicines? Ask any
druggist, and he will say it is used for little else nowadays than for
making a tea to give babies for wind on their stomachs. Strange, but
true it is! Similar statements if not more remarkable ones could be made
about many of the other herbs herein discussed. Many of these are spoken
of as "formerly considered specific" for such and such troubles but "now
known to be inert."
The cause is not far to seek. An imaginative and superstitious people
attached fanciful powers to these and hundreds of other plants which the
intervening centuries have been unable wholly to eradicate, for among
the more ignorant classes, especially of Europe, many of these relics of
a dark age still persist.
But let us not gloat over our superior knowledge. After a similar lapse
of time, may not our vaunted wisdom concerning the properties of plants
look as ridiculous to the delver among our musty volumes? Indeed, it
may, if we may judge by the discoveries and investigations of only the
past fifty years. During this time a surprisingly large number of plants
have been proved to be not merely innocuous instead of poisonous, as
they were reputed, but fit for human food and even of superior