One of my favorite ways to help people connect with nature and health is to take them out on medicinal herb walks. Often, as we walk around in a wild space, someone will point to something and say “is that an herb or a weed?” Well, the difference is really just semantics: when we decide that a plant is valuable to us personally, we call it an herb. When we decide we don’t like it, it’s in the way of something else we’d prefer to have in that spot, or we just don’t know what to do with it, it’s a weed.
The dividing line between medicinal and culinary herbs can also often be thin. On a broad level, the differences are obvious: medicinal herbs serve a health promoting purpose and culinary herbs taste good. Also, many medicinal herbs have potential toxicity so they must be taken in specific dosages to avoid causing problems. However, on the other hand many culinary herbs have potent medicinal properties of which we are often unaware. Often these herbs are dried, concentrated, or distilled to create medicines, but they also have value fresh from your backyard or the fridge.
For many culinary herbs, they are medicinal for the same reason that they are delicious. Their flavoring properties come from volatile oils contained in the seeds or foliage of the plant. Those oils can also be medicinal. Oregano and thyme oils are quite good at killing yeasts, and lavender and garlic are useful for killing bacteria. Rosemary oil has been found to be an excellent antioxidant and is actually used as a preservative in many natural foods.