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10 Differences between herbs and shrubs

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Discover 10 key differences between herbs and shrubs that will help you understand how they differ in their characteristics. From their size and branching patterns to their uses in cooking and medicine.

Plants come in all shapes and sizes, each with unique qualities and roles in nature. Over the years of learning botany and working with different plants, I noticed that two types of plants that often need clarification are herbs and shrubs. Although they may seem similar, they are not the same. Let’s dive deeper and explore 10 distinct ways herbs and shrubs stand apart. We’ll cover things like their size, how they grow, their stems, and even how they’re used for cooking and medicine. 

Growth patterns

1. Size

The first and most apparent is the size. While herbs are shorter, often growing less than one meter in height, shrubs are taller than herbs. They can range from one meter to several meters in height, sometimes even reaching the size of small trees.

For instance, herbs such as basil, parsley, or thyme are commonly grown on windowsills indoors. In contrast, shrubs like roses, hydrangeas, or lilacs are best suited for outdoor gardens and can even be used to create hedges or screens.

As always, there are exceptions like certain climbing or vining herbs like “Giant Dutchman’s Pipe” (Aristolochia gigantea) can reach heights of 6 meters and grow taller than some shrubs. On the other hand, dwarf shrubs and trees are small, like the “Dwarf Korean Lilac” (Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’) can only grow to a height of about 1 meter.

2. Growth patterns

Herbs have soft and non-woody stems. These stems are usually green and flexible. Additionally, herbs have a relatively short lifespan, and their stems may die back to the ground during winter in colder climates. This herbaceous growth pattern allows herbs to quickly grow, flower, and produce seeds within a single growing season.

In contrast, shrubs have woody stems that are hard and durable and can withstand harsh conditions like wind and drought. Shrubs often have multiple stems branching out from a central base. They can grow thicker and more prominent over time and can live for a long time, sometimes many years.

Key Point: Shrubs, with their larger size and woody growth pattern, are well-suited for outdoor gardening. On the other hand, herbs, with their smaller size and non-woody growth, tend to thrive better when grown indoors.

unbrunched vs numerous stems

3. Difference between herbs and shrubs: Lifespan

Herbs are non-woody small plants that are annuals, biennials, or perennials with a shorter lifespan, whereas shrubs are perennial plants that can live for many years.

Annual herbs complete their life cycle within a single year. They grow from seeds, produce flowers, and set seeds for the next generation before dying at the end of the growing season. Examples of annual herbs include cilantro and dill

Biennial herbs have a two-year life cycle. In the first year, they grow from seeds and produce leaves and stems. In the second year, they focus on flowering, setting seeds, and completing their life cycle before dying. Examples of biennial herbs include parsley and caraway.

Perennial herbs, on the other hand, have a longer lifespan and come back year after year from their root systems, surviving through winter. They continue to grow, flower, and set seeds season after season. Examples of herbs include sage.

Shrubs, in general, are perennial plants. They have a much longer lifespan compared to herbs. Once established, shrubs can live for many years, often decades or centuries, depending on the species. With proper care and suitable conditions, some shrubs can thrive for generations. Examples of long-lived shrubs include azaleas, junipers, and boxwoods. The perennial nature of shrubs allows them to grow and expand each year. While individual branches or stems may age and die, new growth emerges from existing woody stems or the base of the shrub, ensuring its survival and longevity.


4. Branching: Woody stems or green herbaceous stems

Herbs have soft, unbranched stems while shrubs have woody, branching, and multi-stemmed stems that emerge from the ground. While herbs typically have a single, sometimes woody, stem that grows from the ground. Herbs may develop branches from that main stem, but it is usually more pronounced in shrubs. An excellent example of this distinction is rosemary, a shrub with numerous stems growing almost from ground level.

comparison herbs vs shrubs

5. Similarities between herbs and shrubs: Root system

Herbs have shallow roots that spread out near the surface of the soil. These roots are thin and don’t go very deep. They are good at absorbing nutrients and water from the top layer of soil. In comparison, shrubs have deeper and more spread-out roots. Their roots go deeper into the soil, allowing them to find water and nutrients from a larger area. These roots help shrubs stay stable and strong.

6. Hardiness

Herbs are generally more delicate and sensitive to extreme weather conditions like frost, excessive heat, or heavy rainfall. Herbs usually prefer moderate temperatures and may struggle to survive in harsh climates. 

On the other hand, shrubs are more adaptable and resilient to extreme weather conditions. They can tolerate a broader range of temperatures, including hot summers and cold winters. The hardiness of shrubs can be attributed to their woody structure, robust growth patterns, and deep root system that provide additional protection and support.

Chamomile hair rinse
Chamomile hair rinse

7. Medicinal Properties and Uses of Herbs and Shrubs

Most common herbs

Many herbs are used for medicinal purposes, and it can be challenging to select just five. However, some commonly used herbs include Calendula, also known as pot marigold. It is a bright herb that helps heal and soothe the skin, particularly for minor cuts, burns, and rashes. It is easy to make healing calendula oilsalve, or a tincture

Another well-known herb is Echinacea, which is famous for its immune-boosting properties. Echinacea tea aids in the body’s fight against colds, and tincture heals cuts and bruises.

Echinacea tincture
Echinacea tincture

Chamomile, a gentle herb often brewed into tea, hair rinse, or massage oil, relaxes the body, soothes digestion, and promotes restful sleep.

Lemon Balm, with its refreshing citrus aroma, is a herb that promotes relaxation and uplifts mood. I love to drink it as herbal tea or turn it into oil or lemon balm lip balm for cold sore relief.

And finally, this healing and soothing yarrow can be turned into an oil or salve that deeply nourishes and restores the skin. 

shrub of gooseberries with woody branches
shrub of gooseberries with woody branches

Most common shrubs.

While herbs offer a wide range of medicinal properties, it’s worth mentioning some notable shrubs:

Elder (Sambucus nigra) is a well-known shrub valued for its immune-boosting properties. It contains antioxidants and vitamins that may alleviate cold and flu symptoms and support respiratory health. I often brew it into a tea or tincture

Rosemary is another perennial shrub that aids digestion, enhances memory, and relieves muscle pain. It is also go to herb when you want to enhance your hair or skin.  For this purpose Rosemary water, Oil or beard butter make a great addition to your homemade apothecary.

Roses, particularly rosehips, are valued for their high vitamin C content. They are used in herbal remedies to support immune health, improve skin conditions, and provide anti-inflammatory effects.

Calming and relaxing lavender reduces stress and improves sleep. 

Raspberry leaves, particularly red raspberries, are used as an herbal remedy for women’s health. They are believed to ease menstrual discomfort and support reproductive wellness.

Lastly, Oregon Grape is valued for its antimicrobial properties, supporting digestive health, treating skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema, and promoting liver function.

nettle chips

8. Culinary Uses or Herbs and Shrubs

Herbs, mainly culinary herbs, are widely used in cooking to enhance flavors in dishes. For instance, herbs like basil, parsley, thyme, and oregano appear in various cuisines worldwide. Basil adds a fresh and sweet flavor to pasta sauces and pesto, like this pesto without pine nuts. Parsley is often used as a garnish or added to salads for its vibrant taste. Thyme is known for its earthy and slightly minty flavor, perfect for seasoning roasted meats, vegetables or pizzas. Oregano is commonly used in Italian and Mediterranean dishes, bringing a warm and robust flavor to pizzas, tomato sauces, and marinades.

rosehips soup
rosehips soup

Among shrubs, rosemary and lavender are often used to add flavor to roasted meats and potatoes, and they can be popular additions to cookies, syrups, or jamsElderberries are versatile and can be used to make syruptarts, and even elderflower ice cream. Lilac flowers make a wonderful teasyrup, or jelly. Similarly, rowan berries, rosehips, and elderberries can be transformed into delicious jams, which are considered delicacies that I personally love for their unique taste.

violet pannacotta
violet pannacotta

9. Habitat: herbs vs Shrubs

Herbs are smaller and delicate, making them suitable for small gardens or confined spaces like windowsills. They are perfect for people with limited space. Some common herbs like basil, cilantro, and thyme can be easily grown in pots or small garden beds.

On the other hand, shrubs are larger and more robust plants. They often create privacy, define boundaries, or make bold statements in gardens. Shrubs can be like natural fences, blocking views or providing structure. Examples of shrubs include hedges, flowering shrubs, and evergreens. They can grow to be quite tall and wide.

Rowanberry jam

10. Religious and Spiritual Practices and Uses of Shrubs and Herbs

 Certain herbs are considered sacred in many cultures and have specific religious or spiritual significance. They may be used in rituals, ceremonies, or as deity offerings.

Herbs, with aromatic properties, are often used in spiritual practices such as smudging and purification rituals (white sage) or creating herbal blends for spiritual purposes (Mugwort ). They are believed to have energetic or metaphysical properties that enhance spiritual experiences or promote well-being.

Shrubs, on the other hand, may not have the same level of significance in religious or spiritual practices as herbs. However, specific shrubs or trees may hold cultural or symbolic importance in certain religious traditions (Cedar, Palo Santo, or Juniper)

mint - herb
mint – herb

Finally, here are answers to your most common questions:

Is Rose a herb or shrub? Roses are classified as shrubs due to their multiple woody branches extending a few centimeters above the ground. 

Indeed mint is an herb – with a soft and non-woody stem; mint is considered a herb. 

Hibiscus is a shrub: Hibiscus is considered a shrub because it has a woody stem and many branches and grows taller than most herbs. It can live for many years and produces beautiful flowers. 

Sunflowers are plants: Although sunflowers can reach impressive heights, they do not have wooden stem-like shrubs. Instead, their stems are green, flexible, and herbaceous. Sunflowers are annual plants, meaning they complete their life cycle in one year. 

Jasmine is a shrub with woody stems and typically grows as a climbing shrub.

The Money Plant, also known as Devil’s Ivy or Pothos, is a trailing vine or climber. It has long, flexible stems that can trail or climb, and it does not have a woody structure.

Basil has soft, green stems and leaves and does not develop a woody structure. It is an annual herb as well as tulsi, which is a type of basil.

Lotus is a perennial aquatic plant that is often considered a herb. It grows in water and has long, tuberous stems with large, distinct leaves. 

Strawberry plants are herbaceous perennial herbs. They have non-woody stems and typically grow low to the ground, producing runners that spread horizontally.

Pea plants are classified as annual herbaceous herbs. They have non-woody stems that are flexible and climb with the help of tendrils. 

Bamboo is a type of perennial grass and is not classified as an herb or a shrub. It has hollow, woody stems that can grow tall and strong. 

Lavender is a shrub with woody stems and fragrant leaves and flowers. 

10 Differences between herbs and shrubs
Vladka Merva on June 22nd, 2023

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