Definition for Spice and Herb
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Ann C. Lin
Posted on: November 22, 1999

Would you please give me the definition for spice and the definition for herbs?

Surprisingly, this question is not simple to answer. The problem is that there are several notions of "herb" that mean very different things.

The etymological roots of the two words do not clarify the distinction between the two. "Spice" comes from the Old French "espice" which is from the Latin "species". "Species" in late Latin means "kind ... wares, spices, drugs, etc." (Consolidated Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary). "Herb" comes from the French "herbe" which came from the Latin "herba" or "herb", meaning "a root ... to eat or nourish."

To the botanist, "herb" means any plant that has a soft stem that dies to the root every year. For example, lemon balm is a perennial but every winter its stems die down to the ground. In contrast, rosemary is an evergreen bush with woody stems that persist for years; it is not a "herb" (or "herbaceous perennial") by the botanists’ definition.

Of course, in common everyday language, "herb" means a plant that is used in food or medicine. The common usage does not include vegetables or fruits (usually) because herbs do not include plants used primarily as foods, only those used to flavour or otherwise modify foods.

Spices would fit the foregoing notion of herbs (as plants used to flavour or otherwise modify foods), but common language usage often excludes them from herbs in a rather unclear way. It seems that "spices" refers to plants that are "aromatic to the smell and pungent to the taste." But the definition as it stands is too general and requires examples to distinguish "spices" from "herbs". As "The Consolidated Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary" definition goes, "spice" refers to plants "such as pepper, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves, used in sauces and in cookery."

Despite the common notion that "spices" are separate from "herbs", we, at Richters, include the "spices" with the "herbs". We regard "spices" as a subset of "herbs" referring to plants that are tropical, for flavouring food and drink, and are pungent.

So, our working definitions are:

"Herbs" – plants used as flavouring in food, in medicine, or for aroma.

"Spices" – tropical plants, aromatic to smell and pungent to taste; included in "herbs".

But these are not adequate because they do not include plants used for natural dyeing, cosmetics, insect control, etc.

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