10 Culinary Herbs & Their Medicinal Uses

Over the past few weekends, the snow has cleared from the high country (yes … it takes thatlong for winter to recede up here), and what time I’ve had that hasn’t been occupied by the online cooking class (there’s still , you stragglers …), I’ve spent planting my new herb garden.  My porch is littered with fragrant terra cotta and glazed ceramic pots, bursting with charming herbs: rosemary, rose geranium, sweet bay, peppermint, spearmint, curly parsley, flat leaf parsley, dill, sweet basil and violetta basil, thyme and chives and nasturtiums.  I think wistfully about finding French tarragon, stevia for teas, marjoram and sweet cicely (for its charming name alone).

My herbs are too young to harvest just yet, but I rub my forefinger and thumb along their leaves to release their volatile oils and sniff their herbaceous perfumes.  How I love rose geranium the best – its scent like a combination of rose, lime and pineapple.  I dream of mixing it into chilled melon soup, or infusing dessert wine with its beautiful perfume.  I think about mixing fresh cuttings of mint with the first strawberries of the season and how I can’t wait for the chives to bloom so that I might make chive vinegar.  I love my herbs, and I love how tenderly my son helped me to plant them and how gently he waters each one for me.

But common culinary herbs not only bring culinary pleasure to the table, they also can be gently medicinal and have been used traditionally for purposes that range from stomach upset and headaches to colic and liver ailments.  So, in many ways, my little garden of flavor is also a medicinal garden as well.  Here’s ten common culinary herbs, how to use them and their medicinal qualities.

1. Curly Parsley

Characteristics: Deep green, slightly serrated leaves that curl up from the stem with a potent fragrance reminiscent of carrot leaves and parsnips.

Flavor: Parsley offers a mild, but very clean flavor similar to that of parsnips.

Use it in: Fresh in tomato and other salads, as a garnish to soups and light poultry and fish.  Take care not to overcook it lest the herb lose its potency and color.

Pairs with:  Carrots, parsnips, tomato, onion, garlic, mint, thyme, chives.

Medicinal Uses: Parsley’s medicinal effects rest in its volatile oils and flavonoids:  apiole, myristicin, terpinolene, appin and others.  These components also account for parsley’s notable flavor.  Parsley is thought to offer therapeutic uses in the treatment of the urinary tract and is approved by Germany’s Commission E – a therapeutic guide to herbal medicine – for use in the treatment of urinary tract infections as well as kidney and bladder stones.  Traditionally, parsley was not only used for treatment of urinary tract and bladder infections but also as an treatment for gastrointestinal distress.  Moreover, parsley is also used as a way to stimulate menstruation.

2. Bay Laurel

Characteristics: Native to the Mediterranean, bay laurel or sweet bay is tree with deep  olive-green, oblong leaves that offer an unmistakable aroma.

Flavor: Sweet bay is rich and deep, faintly spicy.

Use it in: As a flavoring for soups, stews, pilafs and with seafood.

Pairs with: parsley, peppercorns, allspice, fennel, thyme, mustard seed.

Medicinal Uses: Bay is used medicinally as a stimulant for the skin, and, due to its volatile oils, may cause reddening in sensitive individuals.

3. Tarragon

Characteristics:  Tarragon is a low-lying plant with long stems and thin oblong leaves.  It has a flavor reminiscent of anise and is used often in French cooking.

Flavor: Tarrgon offers a faintly anise- or licorice-like flavor – sweet and slightly stringent.

Use it in: Classic French sauces, vinaigrettes and vinegars.  Add it to roast chicken.

Pairs with: Parsley, chives, chervil, anise, lemon balm, sweet cicily, cream, vinegar.

Medicinal Uses: In folk medicine, tarragon has been traditionally used to treat toothaches, upset stomachs and some parents even used it to stave off intestinal parasites in their children.   Much like parsley, tarragon has also been used as way to induce menstruation.

4. Basil

Characteristics: There are many varieties of basil, and basil can include many color variations, but most can easily identify the low-growing plant by its large, thin oval and easily bruised leaves.

Flavor: Basil is sweet, peppery and offers a slight anise-like aftertaste.

Use it in: Fresh in salads and dips, in soups or sauteed with greens and, classically, in pasta sauces.

Pairs with: tomato, garlic, onion, cilantro, mint and fennel.

Medicinal Uses: Basil has strong antioxidant and antimicrobial activity.  It is traditionally thought to stimulate the appetite and ease stomach upset.  In Chinese medicine, basil is thought to support kidney function and ease gum ulcers. In classic Indian medicine, basil has been used to treat everything from earaches and itching to malaria, arthritis and anorexia.  Like tarragon, one of basil’s major volatile oils is estragole.

5. Dill

Characteristics: Dill can grow quite tall with beautiful, fragrant flowering heads and feathery, fragile leaves.

Flavor:  Dill’s flavor is slightly licorice-like, deeply fragrant and unmistakable.

Use it in: pickles, beet soups, fish stews and chowders, with cream cheese.

Pairs with:  fish, cream, garlic, mustard seeds, coriander, parsley.

Medicinal Uses:  Dill and parsley share a commonality: apiole, that volatile oil that accounts for so much of their individual flavors.  Dill is traditionally used to ease stomach upset and to treat gastrointestinal disorders.   In folk medicine, it is also used to treat sleep disorders – particularly insomnia. Some parents give a dill infusion or tea to their young babies as a treatment for colic.

6. Lavender

Characteristics: Lavender is a low-lying bushy flower with long stems and many tiny, pale purple buds.

Flavor:  Lavender is faintly floral and very herbaceous with green overtones.

Use it in: Teas, cookies, scones and sweets.

Pairs with: Honey, oats, mint, rose.

Medicinal Uses:  Lavender is approved by Germany’s Commission E for loss of appetite, insomnia and circulatory disorders.  In folk medicine, it is often used to treat migraine, cramps, restlessness and sleep issues.

7. Oregano

Characteristics:  Oregano is a short, shrubby herb with small, deep-green leaves.   The leaves have a kind of soft and almost fuzzy texture.

Flavor:  Oregano is bold, deep and strong and the fresh herb is considerably stronger than in its dried form.  It is deeply herbaceous and slightly similar to thyme with faint mint-like undertones.

Use it in: To flavor olive oil, in tomato sauces, to season lamb, in chilies, to season sheep’s milk and goat’s milk cheeses.

Pairs with: Goat cheese, olive oil, lemon, saffron, garlic, tomato, marjoram, thyme.

Medicinal Uses:  Oregano is traditionally used to treat respiratory issues such as stuffy noses and coughs and is an expectorant. In folk medicine, it is also used to treat menstrual cramping and it has very potent antimicrobial activities.

8. Sage

Characteristics: Sage is a low-lying, silvery bush with oblong, soft and fuzzy leaves.

Use it in: Roast poultry and as a rub for pork.

Flavor: Sage has a slightly medicinal flavor that is very herbaceous with slight grassy undertones.  It is deeply fragrant.

Pairs with: Roast meats. Beets. Cheddar and other sharp cheeses.

Medicinal Uses: Sage is approved by Commission E to improve appetite and to ease inflammation, particularly of the mouth.   For nursing mothers who may be experiencing over-production, sage can help to slow milk production.

9. Rosemary

Characteristics: Rosemary is a pine-like shrub with long stems and short, needle-like leaves.

Flavor:  Rosemary is pine-like in its scent with almost floral undertones.  It is deeply aromatic.

Use it in: Roasts and herbal vinegars.

Pairs with: Roast meats, potatoes and root vegetables,

Medicinal Uses: Rosemary is traditionally used for digestive upset and to ease headaches and migraines.   It’s also used to treat menstrual disorders and, externally, is used to speed healing in wounds and to treat eczema.  Germany’s Commission E has approved rosemary for use in blood pressure problems, digestive upset and rheumatism.

10. Peppermint

Characteristics:  Peppermint is a bushy plant characterized by its long stems, and bright green, slightly fuzzy leaves.

Flavor:  Peppermint is very aromatic and one of the most loved of the mint family.

Use it in: Sweets and confections, whipped cream, fruit salad, tabbouleh, in lemon aoili, and as a garnishment to roast lamb.

Pairs with: fruit, lamb, lemon, yogurt, marjoram.

Medicinal Uses:  Mostly taken as a tea or in infusions, peppermint is traditionally used to treat colic and digestive upset, but it’s also been popularly used in the treatment of colds, flus and stuffy noses thanks to its ability to open the sinuses and, in combination with honey, to ease a sore throat.   Peppermint essential oil, when applied to the temples, is thought to help with headaches and migraines.  Peppermint leaves have been approved by Germany’s Commission E in the treatment of liver and gallbladder complaints.

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What people are saying

  1. Alex at A Moderate Life says

    Very cool Jen Jenny! Having been raised by a mother and grandmother who knew all about herbs and remedies, I love to see the information resurfacing again, only this time backed with research science! Yes! Our grannies did know best! Will be sharing this with my readers as well!

  2. says

    Susun Weed loves sage as a tea, which she also claims can help soothe and heal the body of the effects of external stress, ease asthma, improve immune response, and help sleeplessness and anxiety. Sage tea with a little raw honey is my favorite “I had a bad day” tea.

    Peppermint tea is the only thing that makes my migraines remotely bearable when they happen (they happen less often since switching to a more nourishing diet). Rosemary (along with any of the others that stimulate menstruation) are very contraindicated during pregnancy.

    Love herbs, love this post!

  3. Darcy says

    I love this post and it comes a the perfect time. I just planted Sage, Thyme, Dill and Sweet Basil. Having never thought to pair sage with beets, I’m now on a mission for recipes that combine the two. Both are big favorites. You even have me thinking of adding Oregano to the garden. Thanks again Jenny.

  4. Jana says

    Just purchased several culinary herbs myself! And I’m looking forward to using them in these ways. Thanks for the info!

  5. tina says

    I planted some herbs for the first time a couple weeks ago. I’m definitely excited about having fresh herbs as is my husband and older son.

    It’s been super hot here in Littleton that last few days. I envy those of you who live in the mountains!

  6. says

    I loved your informative post. There is so much that can be done with herbs, and they are so easy to grow. Even their scents are therapeutic, and I always grow some indoors. Cilantro is also a wonderfully medicinal herb. Right now I working on my own herbal post, and will be sure to link to this.

    • Kim says

      Would be interested in the medicinal info for Cilantro. Just love it and wonder if my love is connected to some need in my body. Thanks!

  7. Alex at A Moderate Life says

    Just wanted to let you know I linked to this article in my Thoughts on Friday piece. Thanks for the wonderful indepth article! I love it cause i am so herby! :) Happy weekend!

  8. Taylor says

    I’ve read that Parsley, and presumably the others that stimulate menstruation, are not recommended for lactating women.

  9. says

    I use sage, thyme and peppermint a lot medicinally, but some of the others were new to me! Thought you & your readers might be interested in the grow-a-long I’m running this summer where we all grow some herbs and then use them in fun projects over the summer months (for food, medicine, beauty products etc). You can find more info here: http://www.vintagesavoirfaire.com/classes-events/

  10. says

    Great info. You might want to add that peppermint will aggravate acid reflux.
    Also, have you tried turmeric for healing? In the ayurvedic diet it is used for many ailments. The recipe for golden milk is wonderful, I drink a cup every evening, helps relieve the effects of arthritis (and many other ailments). Google golden milk and you will find the recipe.

  11. says

    What do you know about myrtle? I was in Italy recently and tasted a myrtle liqueur that was delicious and very soothing after a big meal. I’ve never heard of it used this way before and am curious.

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