Herbs...the green flecks in spaghetti sauce, the soothing late night teas, the dried mixtures that keep the bathroom air fresh. But did you know that many prescription medicines contain drugs derived from natural herbs? Or that many perfumes and other fragrances are made from the oils in herbs?
Herbs have been used for at least 5,000 years by all cultures for cooking, medicine, crafts, and cosmetics. Many herbs are easy to raise in the classroom. Herbs have such rich histories and so many uses that they can provide an enticing, multi-sensory theme for learning science concepts and skills, studying other cultures, and tying in subjects across the curriculum.
Commonly, "herb" refers to any plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savory, or aromatic qualities. In many cases, herbs' oils and compounds that cause healing, good flavors, or aromas, are merely adaptations that help the particular plant survive in its environment. Humans take advantage of these plant adaptations for our own uses much as we take advantage of flowers (adaptations for pollination) for their beauty.
Consider doing some activities to engage your students in identifying some of the characteristics that make an herb an herb. Some examples follow:
Many herbs can be easily grown in a classroom light garden or windowsill, started from seeds, cuttings, or plants. Local nurseries, friends' gardens, and catalogs are good sources for herb seeds and plants.
...from seeds... Plant herb seeds in the same soilless potting mix you use for other indoor plants, or plant them in a mixture of 1/3 sand, 1/3 peat moss, and 1/3 soil. Most herb seeds are small, and should be planted no more than 1/4-inch deep in moist soil or sprinkled on the top of soil and covered lightly with potting mix. You can have children mix tiny seeds with a small amount of sand to make them easier to sprinkle over the soil. Mist the soil, and cover containers with plastic to keep seeds moist until they germinate. To give herb plants room to grow to maturity, thin seedlings to one per 4" container or 2 plants per 6" container.
...from cuttings... Some herbs are quicker and easier to start from cuttings than from seeds. To take cuttings, snip healthy stems 3-4 inches from the growing tip. Remove leaves from the lower half of the cutting, and plant the cutting in a soilless mix. Water gently and cover the container with a plastic bag until new top growth appears.
...from plants... Many herbs can be purchased from nurseries as young plants, or dug, particularly in the spring, from the new shoots emerging from mature plants outdoors.
Each fifth grader in Vermont teacher Pat Pierce's class got to adopt-an-herb to raise in their GrowLab. Students read seed package directions to discover how to plant and care for their herbs, made ongoing observations, and drawings, and researched history, folklore, medicinal, and culinary uses. "The kids were so personally attached to their herbs," said Pat. "They'd want to keep them on their desks, and were intrigued with the smells, textures, flavors." The students then went through a series of recipe books to find recipes with their particular herbs. Each student created a book which included drawings, observations, research reports, and a variety of recipes for his or her herb. The books and plants made informative, aromatic Mothers' Day gifts.
There are endless opportunities to tie language arts, math, social studies, science skills, art, and more in with an herb unit. Reflect on some of the varied uses, past and present, for herbs and consider how you might incorporate them into engaging cross-disciplinary activities. Some examples follow: