Some of the oldest trade networks in history were built around luxury goods like spices, incense and other herbs. Starting with the dawn of agriculture and permanent settlements, the community or castle or homestead herb garden rapidly became a medical necessity, and the international trade in medicinal herbs and plants is still brisk today.
Today, we have the luxury of walking into a grocery store and buying a bottle of preserved herbs, but they still command a hefty price tag. And while modern medicine is no longer completely dependent on plant products, much of our modern pharmacopeia is directly plant derived, like Tamiflu and Taxol, or synthesized versions of plant chemicals, like aspirin, pseudoephedrine and any of the opium-derived painkillers. With other plants, like feverfew, researchers are still trying to isolate and duplicate their effective chemical components.
Unlike most of our vegetable and fruit crops, herbs grown for culinary or medicinal use are only just barely domesticated. That means they are tough plants that survive in a wide range of conditions. Many do quite well in shady conditions or odd spots. For those living in neighborhoods where front yard food production is frowned on or forbidden, many herbs easily fit into existing landscaping, from large evergreen shrubs like rosemary (which can be pruned into a formal hedge) to low groundcovers like thyme.
It also means that many of them can out-compete more domesticated ornamental plants and vegetables, so care should be taken to give them room to grow and they should be kept in check via harvesting and pruning unless you have space for them to expand at will. For some of the worst thugs, like spearmint, a sturdy pot may be the best method of control. Don’t even think about those tiny “kitchen herb garden” kits with their thimble-sized pots; they are utterly inadequate to the task.
I’ve already profiled parsley and in the coming few posts I’ll be blogging on a few of the more common culinary herbs that are easy to grow. Most herbs can be easily propagated from cuttings or air layering, and the commons ones are often for sale as transplants. Compared to $4.75 for a bottle of old dried herbs, your own plants will pay for themselves quickly and pay you back dividends for years to come.