What Is The Difference Between A Herb And A Vegetable

I say Foeniculum vulgare and you say Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum


During a debate about the herb fennel Foeniculum vulgare and the vegetable fennel Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum, I realised that I didn’t know the difference between a herb and a vegetable. I asked my neighbour who is a seasoned professional gardener, but he didn’t know either. After some extensive research, I have worked it out, but it did take a bit of unravelling. The confusion arises because the term ‘herb’ is not a botanical term.

Most people who have an interest in gardening will know what a herb is and will also be familiar with the concept of herbaceous plants. However, herbs are not always herbaceous in true botanical terms.

Herbs are plants that are defined purely by the way that they are used, whereas a herbaceous plant is a plant that has leaves and stems that die down at the end of the growing season to the soil level. They have no persistent woody stem above ground. Herbaceous plants may be annuals, biennials or perennials. Just to make it more complicated, botanists sometimes call herbaceous plants ‘herbs’!

Common Definition of a Herb

There is much debate about the true definition of a herb. However, in general, a herb is usually a plant that is used in medicine, cooking, in sacred rituals or for perfumery purposes. They are not used as a main ingredient, rather to enhance the flavour of a dish. Herbs have leaves, flowers and seeds.

Botanical Definition of a Herbaceous Plant

A herbaceous plant on the other hand, is an annual, biennial or perennial plant with flowers and/or leaves. The leaves of the plant die at the end of the growing season. Annual herbaceous plants die completely at the end of the growing season or when they have flowered and fruited, and they then grow again from seed.

Herbaceous perennial and biennial plants have stems that die at the end of the growing season, but parts of the plant survive under or close to the ground from season to season (for biennials, until the next growing season, when they flower and die). New growth develops from living tissues remaining on or under the ground, including roots, a caudex (a thickened portion of the stem at ground level) or various types of underground stems, such as bulbs, corms, stolons, rhizomes and tubers.

Examples of herbaceous biennials include carrot, parsnip and common ragwort; herbaceous perennials include potato, peony, hosta, mint, most ferns and most grasses.

Types of Herbs

220px-Ninon_de_Lenclos_2Herbs are generally categorised by the way that they are used although many herbs are used for more than one thing.

Herbs used in cooking include: rosemary, thyme, parsley, chives, sage, dill, fennel, tarragon, sorrel

Herbs used to bathe with include: rosemary, thyme, lavender, comfrey and many more. Ninon de Lenclos, a remarkable French courtesan and author in the 1600s, bathed daily in a concoction of mint, lavender, thyme, rosemary and comfrey, keeping her skin smooth until old age.

Herbs used for sacred rituals include:  sage, basil, frankincense and cannabis.

Most (if not all) herbs have medicinal uses.  

Herbs can also be used to make tisanes or teas as well.  Mint, chamomile, sage, marjoram, lemon verbena, fennel, borage and jasmine all make brilliant teas.

So to conclude, a herb is something that flavours food where a vegetable is a plant that can be eaten as a main ingredient.  Hence one variety of fennel is just a herb where the other is both a herb and a vegetable.  Clear as mud.


Mom of 3, keeper of mad collies and chickens, in search of lost perennial veg and into all thing permaculture. Writer, thinker and blogger. Maker of WordPress websites and internet geek.

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