The chemical compounds in herbs and spices make them powerful gifts for our minds and bodies. They nourish our senses and provide wonderful memories. Think of the aroma and taste of eggnog with nutmeg during the holidays, for example, or the pungent flavor of garlic on pizza for a relaxing night.
But herbs and spices do much more than delight our taste buds and jog our memories: They also provide a valuable array of health benefits. Here’s a look at two popular, nutritious herbs that can be added to a variety of dishes. Both are easy to grow at home and can readily be found at markets and grocery stores.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) entered my life during my first round at college, on a study date with a fellow student. We were both struggling on a student budget, and salad bars were a huge phenomenon in the 1970s. I was a vegetarian, but adding herbs to vegetables was still new to me, so my food-savvy friend took charge of my plate. He added chives, a dash of cayenne, and ground pepper to a baked potato.
“Wow!” I exclaimed after taking a bite bursting with flavor. My date smiled and quoted the well-known author Louisa May Alcott: “Money is the root of all evil, and yet it is such a useful root that we cannot get on without it any more than we can without potatoes.” These words resonated with me because of my time spent pinching pennies and eating potatoes and salads.
This flavorful herb has visited me again and again throughout the decades, like a long-lost love – a prodigal perfect plant to enhance simple dishes. Fresh chives (homegrown or from the organic produce aisle) are my favorite herb sprinkled over potato skins or salads made with baby spinach. Dried chives suffice on a solo baked potato with crucifers and a dollop of European-style butter. I’ve learned that a chiveless potato is like a slice of hot apple pie without a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Chive Herbal History
Chives are native to Europe, Asia, and North America. They’re a species of plant in the Amaryllidaceae family, and they’re related to garlic, onions, and shallots. This relation makes sense to me, since I adore all three for many reasons. My relationship with chives goes back decades, but the plant itself has a much longer history.
This flavorful herb has been around for centuries and has been used as both a medicinal and a culinary plant. Records indicate that chives were used in China as early as 3000 B.C., and they’ve been cultivated in Europe since at least the Middle Ages. Although not as popular as garlic, chives were used in Roman medicine to aid in curing various ailments, including sore throats and sunburns.
Chive Health Benefits
Given their various health benefits, it’s no wonder chives have such a long history. The herb is rich in phytonutrients, including bioflavonoids that can help maintain healthy blood pressure. Chives also contain anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, antiviral, and anti-fungal properties, and they provide antioxidants in the form of vitamins A, C, and E. Chives can be good for bone health, because they contain vitamin K, calcium, iron, and zinc. Additionally, scientific lab tests have shown chives and other alliums to have potential anti-cancer properties, although research is still ongoing.
Chives can be incorporated into countless dishes, giving you plenty of opportunities to reap their health benefits. Try adding them to a vegetable casserole, for example. (Both the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association recommend consuming fruits and vegetables daily.) I’ve used dried chives for convenience in baking scones and cornbread, and they make a tasty topping on shepherd’s pie. Chives also produce edible flowers that can be separated into florets and added to fresh salads, eggs, and soups.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare) has graced many dishes served in my home, both past and present. My dad, a widower in his 70s, once planned a home-cooked fish dinner with his new girlfriend and me as a grad school gift. I planned the movies, and she brought the food. I was surprised that her cooking included oregano – just like my mom’s cooking had. She served lobster oreganata, which is a split lobster topped with breadcrumbs and seasoned with oregano. It was a night of comfort, bringing back memories of my childhood. The familiar oregano aroma and flavor reconnected me to my mom’s spirit and bonded me and my new surrogate mom.
Now, if I make a semi-homemade pizza or any Italian dish, I often use either dried or fresh oregano. The plant nourishes my body, but it also feeds my heart and soul, because it connects me to my dad and two mothers, who both fancied the art of cooking with herbs.
Oregano Herbal History
Oregano is a plant species in the Lamiaceae family. It grows throughout most of the world, but it likely originated in the Mediterranean. Since the herb grew in the mountains, Greek people called it “mountain joy.” According to mythology, the Greek goddess Aphrodite cultivated oregano in her garden on top of Mount Olympus, and the herb was believed to bring about blessings of happiness.
Oregano didn’t become a popular culinary herb in North American cooking until the end of World War II, when soldiers returned to the United States after eating Italian food in Europe. In the ’50s and ’60s, I recall my family sprinkling it in spaghetti, ravioli, soups, and stews to give the dishes that flavorful panache.
Oregano Health Benefits
Oregano is perhaps best known medicinally for its potent antioxidant properties. It’s one of the herbs with the highest amount of antioxidants, including carvacrol and thymol. These chemicals provide antibacterial, anti-fungal, and antiviral benefits. Additionally, research on carvacrol revealed it could have potential for the treatment and prevention of cancer. Oregano also contains rosmarinic acid, which has been found to have anti-mutagenic and anti-carcinogenic properties. Additional research is needed before we can qualify oregano as an anti-carcinogen, but past results show promise.
This herb has also long been renowned for its antiseptic properties, and people have taken oregano to help ease colds, congestion, the flu, and sore throats. Oregano has been used to treat digestive ailments, including flatulence, and herbalists say Hippocrates utilized the herb for respiratory issues. Additionally, oregano contains vitamin A, vitamin C, niacin, calcium, tryptophan, copper, iron, manganese, magnesium, iron, potassium, and zinc.
Oregano’s flexibility in the kitchen makes accessing its health benefits easy. It’s popular in Italian dishes, and it also goes well with fish, tomato-based foods and sauces, and meats. Dried oregano is often used, but fresh oregano leaves are an option too. Oil of oregano supplements are also available, but you should consult with your health-care practitioner before consuming them.
Cal Orey is the author of The Healing Powers book series. This is excerpted from her book The Healing Powers of Herbs and Spices (Kensington Books).