Herbs vs Shrubs: The 5 Differences (Examples and Pictures)


Herbs and shrubs are not the same things? No, they are not, and here why.

Despite herbs and shrubs are both plants, they differ for a large variety of aspects, both biological and cultural such as:

  • Size: herbs are generally shorter
  • Ground-level woody stems: shrubs have them.
  • Lifespan: shrubs last more
  • Religious use: herbs more often used
  • Culinary use: herbs more commonly adopted

Hence, how does this affect you? Growing a herb is the same as growing a shrub? Most of the time, no!

Size

Herbs are generally way shorter than shrubs. A shrub can have the appearance of a small bush and cover a large area up to tree size. On the opposite, an herb (most of the time) is way smaller and thinner.

Shrubs can go from half a meter to 5 meters (as stated by RHS) against the most common herbs that barely reach a meter.

Think about the small basil plant you have on your windowsill. Of course, if you put effort into it (here a great article with 21 tips), you can get gigantic basil. However, it will shy in front of a Lilac (Syringa Vulgaris for the botanist among you).

However, be ready for exceptions. One of the tallest herbs is dill, that can easily reach 36 inches (90cm, here for more) against the well used Japanese Spiraea (not worry about names, surely you saw it around) is a small cute bush used in the outdoor garden that reach, at most, 2ft in height(60cm), hence shorter than dill!

What is the takeaway for you?

Shrubs, due to their size, are not for indoors. None prevents you from growing a shrub in a pot in a sunny living room for a few months. However, then they need to be (gradually) introduced to the outdoor garden as they will not fit in your house.

Ground-Level Woody Stems

Shrubs come out from the ground with multiple woody stems. This is not the case of herbs that have only green and soft (sometimes woody) long stems coming out from the ground. From that very stem, then multiple branches are formed.

Herbs might have wood stems, but it is only one that sticks out from the soil. Of course, after a few centimeters, you might encounter some branches (hopefully!), but shrubs have multiple stems almost from the ground level. Rosemary is the perfect example in this case.

Lifespan

Shrubs last way longer than herbs. Shrubs can last easily up to 10 years against three of four for the most common (long-lasting) herbs.

You need to know that, depending on their lifespan, a plant can be an annual, biennial, or perennial.

  1. Annual plants like basil (herb) last only one season (hence a few months depending on how well you prune it and maintain it);
  2. Biennial, as the word suggest, are plants that last 2 seasons like parsley (herb);
  3. Perennials are those that last at least 3 seasons (think about rosemary). This can be a very long time!

The majority of the perennial herbs, at most, last a couple of years (and some perennial can actually turn into annual if the weather is too cold). Of course, there is always an exception, as some gardeners are still enjoying rosemary after 20 years, as mentioned in this article discussing other 18 unknown rosemary facts. However, this is (way) more the exception than the norm.

Shrubs, on the other hand, can easily last more than 5 years (often more than a decade if well treated), as discussed in this broad study from the University of Regensburg. Think about Hydrangea, extremely common in many outdoor gardens (including mine!).

No surprise than one of those hydrangeas you might have seen around might be older than you! Indeed, it can easily last up to 50 years if treated well. And this is not a unique case in the shrub world.

What is the takeaway for you?

If you want a low maintenance plant for your outside garden, then shrubs should be your choice. They last many years, and they do require way less maintenance when compared to herbs.

Religious Use

Herbs seem to be part of our religious culture way more than shrubs. Why is that? Well, herbs are small and can be easily picked and used in ceremonies. Moreover, many of them are edible and taste great (someone said basil?). This is one of the reasons that made them, over the centuries, part of rituals in many countries around the world. In addition, many cultures associate them with medical properties (some proven whilst others not).

Herbs

Holy basil (a famous basil variety, here for more) is used in the Hindu religion. The leaves are able to cure toothache and fever. These and similar practices are also widespread in South East Asia.

Rosemary had an important role in the Romans religious practices, as discussed in this article. In Spain, rosemary was also used as a deterrent for evil spirits.

Thyme was associated with the goddess Venus at the time of the ancient Romans (source).

Several species of banana plants like Musa balbisiana (yes, as strange as it sounds banana is an herb, on this more later) are also widely adopted as a health body remedy in India (this scientific article here for more details).

Mandrake is another herb that covers a role as a magic plant for the ancient Greeks due to the sleep-inducing capabilities of some parts and ancient Hebrews as associated with fertility, as discussed here.

Shrubs

On the other hand, shrubs appear to be less involved in religious practices. The few that see them used are mainly from East Asia. One of them is the shrub called Calotropis gigantea. This is associated with the goddess Shiva. Another shrub well known around the world for its beauty is the lotus. This plant has a divine connection for Hindus and Buddhists as a representation of purity and/or fertility.

For more on plants used, especially in Indian culture, have a look at this interesting article.

Culinary Use

No doubt that herbs are way more adopted than shrubs in the majority of the cuisine around the world. At the end of the day, who would like to chew some woody shrubs stems!

Herbs

The plates that use herbs are endless. So for simplicity, here is a quick list of my favorites (a lot of Mediterranea entries as you would expect from an Italian at).

  • Pesto: who does not enjoy the unique flavor of some basil leaves, pinenuts, Padano cheese, salt, and pepper (with some optional garlic). By far, my favorite sauce. Check the video below. As Italian, this is on my of the top (and truly passionate) food Youtuber
How to make Pesto | Gennaro Contaldo | ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡น ๐Ÿ™โค๏ธ
  • Rosemary steak: I am a fan of rosemary. I grow a massive plant indoor, and its strong scent is a pleasure every time I water it. It is the perfect match for a red steak (perhaps with some wine for dinner in?). Below a good recipe
Steak Cast Iron Skillet Butter-Basted with Garlic Rosemary (Perfectly Cooked Steak) - Gordon Ramsay

There are way too many recipes that can be listed here. If you are interested, check the BBC recipes using basil, rosemary, thyme, and mint. These are just the most common herbs used in national and international cuisine, but surely there are many more that I am not aware of.

Shrubs

Regarding shrubs, to be honest, I found massive difficulties in finding savory/salty recipes using them. Shrubs are used mainly for their fruits, and flowers are eaten raw or converted into tasty jams. A list of shrubs that you might want to grow to nip on some tasty berries are:

  1. Shadbush (or Juneberry): this shrub, cousin of roses, produces purple edible berries. They are quite known in Canada (under the name of โ€œsaskatoonsโ€) however they can also be found also in North America. Here, one of the few recipes I found (did not try yet) of these berries.
  2. Barberry: this is a pretty ornamental shrub used as a base ornamental bush in outdoor gardens. They are a win in many gardens where time is an issue as they require very little care. Their berries can be converted into a jam proven to have quite a strong taste. Definitely, a “yes” if you have the luck to have them sitting in your garden, and you want to try something new.

Of course, there are plenty of shrubs that produce edible fruits, here is a good list.

Regarding the jam recipes

Even if you do not find one for the specific berry, it doesn’t really matter. Until your berries are edible, the guidance and ingredients suggested in any berry jam recipe will be good. Just remember to adjust the amount of sugar suggested (in case the berry is more bitter than the one adopted in the recipes you are following). Check the one below in case.

How to Make Blueberry Jam | Small Batch Recipe | The Sweetest Journey

Other uses of shrubs were in traditional rituals, hence nothing to do with human consumption as part of a normal diet. One of the very few exceptions is lavender (yes, it is not an herb!). However, this is consumed mainly for tea and sweets (cakes). I hardly ever heard of any salty recipe using lavender.

What is the take away for you?

If you want to grow something that can take your dishes to another level with some unique flavors, then forget about shrubs. Herbs are the best solution.

Are Those Herbs or Shrubs: Special Cases

Some of the plants are clearly herbs or shrubs. However, others might make you think as they have common features to both categories, while others are a total surprise. Here a list of plants that many of my readers asked me about. Check it out, perhaps you have the same doubt to (or discover something new):

  1. The banana plant is an herb. They produce long stems that although they are strong enough to sustain many kgs of fruits, are not woody. Moreover, it cannot be classified as trees either. It sounds crazy, but banana plants are not only herbs but also the largest on the planet! Check the very good video below for more.
The Biggest Herb on Earth is... a Banana?!
  1. Lavender is a shrub. Despite the fact that many (myself included) called it for a long time a herb, it is not. However, it is clearly a shrub, as you can notice from the many stems coming out from the ground. Also, its shape (more round like a bush given by many stems coming out from the ground).
  2. Spinach is an herb. This famous source of iron is an herb as you can find out in this study from the University of Karaj Branch;
  3. Angelica is an herb. Do not get fooled by its height. Although it is definitely an outlier as way taller than the vast majority of herbs, it is still above the average among herbs (definitely an outlier).
  4. Anise is a spice. Indeed, when you think about anise, what you are referring to are the seeds of the anise plant. This is not an herb, as you can check in this article here.
  5. Camelia is a shrub. Despite its modest size and the possibilities to grow it in a pot (as I do!), observe its base. The stem that comes out is quite woody and can get very thick (and tall), especially in older plants. Hence, definitely a shrub.
  6. Rose is a shrub. Given its woody nature, rose is clearly not an herb. Moreover, it branches out even after a few centimeters above the ground (a feature of shrubs).
  7. Jasmine is a shrub. This plant is related to the more famous olive plants. If you have trouble identifying them, do not be scared, there are literally hundreds of them.

These are, by far, the most common. But should you do it in case the plants you are looking at are not there? What if, even worse, you do not know the plant that you have in front of you?

Check the solution below: use the biologist in your pocket!

How To Distinguish an Herb From a Shrub? Three Seconds

Three seconds is the time that it takes to snap a picture of a plant you are unsure if it is a shrub or an herb.

Indeed, nowadays, thanks to advanced photo recognition technology, your phone can become an expert (automated) botanist able most of the time to recognize plants you might have around.

Check the article below for more info on the best two apps you can use for free (yes, no money asked!) to help to identify your plant on the spot. No internet connection? No problem. You can always take the picture first send it to the app later.

Further Questions

Is tulsi an herb? Tulsi is a type of basil. Hence, as a consequence, is classified as an annual herb.

Is sunflower a herb or shrub? Sunflower is classified as an herb, often grown outdoor and quite well known for its capacity (during its first stage of development) to follow the sun.

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Andrea

A young Italian guy with a passion for growing edible herbs. After moving to the UK 6 years ago in a tiny flat, it was impossible to grow herbs outside. So I start my journey in growing indoor and so I decided to share my knowledge.

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