Students discover the geographic regions where basil, oregano, and cilantro have cultural significance, understand the role of evaporation in herb drying, and recognize the different properties of dried and fresh herbs. Grades 3-5
- Chart paper
Activity 1: The Wonderful World of Herbs
Activity 2: Herb Observation
- Herb Observation Rubric, 1 per student
- Dried herbs (oregano, cilantro, and basil)
- Fresh herbs (oregano, cilantro, and basil)
- Small sampling cups, 6 per student
Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)
culinary: of or for cooking
culture: the customs, arts, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group
herb: flavorings that come from the vegetative part of the plant, most often the leaves and roots
shelf-life: the period of time during which a material may be stored and remain suitable for use or consumption
Did You Know? (Ag Facts)
- The word oregano comes from the Greeks, meaning "joy of the mountain." It was believed Aphrodite, the goddess of love, grew it on Mount Olympus.
- Cilantro was brought to North America by the English in 1670.
- Heat diminishes the flavor of fresh herbs, which is why dry herbs are often used in cooking.
- Oregano was introduced to the United States by soldiers returning from Italy after World War II.
- Some people may be genetically predisposed to dislike the taste of cilantro.
- In ancient history, basil was used to embalm mummies.
- Cilantro seeds are called coriander, which is a spice that has its own unique flavor.
Background Agricultural Connections
This lesson plan is part of a three-lesson series for grades 3-5 designed to teach students about producing, preparing, and preserving agricultural commodities, while fostering an appreciation for how fruits and vegetables "start" in the field and "finish" at the table. Lessons include inquiry-based, real life challenges that engage students in a meaningful way, as they discover the story behind how their food is produced. Lessons in this series include:
Herbs are plants useful for culinary, cosmetic, industrial, medicinal, landscaping, decorative, and fragrance purposes. They are different than spices. Herbs are typically leafy green or flowering plants, while spices are dried seed, bark, berries, or fruit and are often ground.
The use of plants as herbs has been important to all cultures since long before history was recorded. Hundreds of tribal cultures have used wild and cultivated herbs for religious, medicinal, and food purposes for thousands of years. As civilizations developed so did the knowledge for the use of herbs. Today, culinary herbs are often used in dried and fresh forms. Fresh herbs can be found in grocery stores or backyard gardens, but have a relatively short shelf-life. Dried herbs allow for storage and year-round availability. In this lesson, students will learn about three specific herbs that are commonly found in kitchens: basil, oregano, and cilantro.
For more information about basil, cilantro, and oregano, refer to the Herbs Commodity Fact Sheet.
Interest Approach - Engagement
- Ask learners:
- Which herbs does your family cook with at home?
- What herbs are in foods you like?
- Record responses on chart paper. At this point, students may respond with herbs or spices. That's okay, accept all responses. Record responses in two columns, with spices on one side and herbs on the other. Do not label columns.
- After adequate time brainstorming, ask the students, "What heading would you place above these columns?" Explain the difference between herbs and spices. Herbs are typically leafy green or flowering plants, while spices are dried seed, bark, berries, or fruit and are often ground.
- Tell the students that today they will be exploring herbs around the world.
Activity 1: The Wonderful World of Herbs
- Distribute The Wonderful World of Herbs. Students will read the text and answer the related questions. Allow the students 5-10 minutes to complete the fill-in-the-blank portion of the activity.
- Review answers and facilitate a related discussion.
- If necessary, demonstrate how to find coordinates on a map. As a class, identify the x-axis (the equator) and the y-axis (the prime meridian). Review the points of a compass and their related quadrants. Students will integrate the information from the text with the latitude and longitude coordinates to plot and label each location on the map. Allow 10-20 minutes to complete the activity.
- Have the students share the name of each country plotted on the map, popcorn-style. Remind the students that the use of plants as herbs has been important to all cultures since before history was recorded.
- Collect the handouts and assess for completeness and accuracy.
Activity 2: Herb Observation
- To prepare for this activity, place a small sample of each dried herb and each fresh herb in six separate tasting cups. Label the fresh herbs with their common names. Label the dry herbs A (for cilantro), B (for oregano), and C (for basil). Prepare a set for each student (or pair of students).
- Explain to the students that they will use their senses to gather information about herbs. Describe how when you taste something, approximately 10,000 taste buds respond to the food stimuli by sending messages to the brain. In addition, our olfactory system (our sense of smell) sends messages to the brain. These messages integrate to create our perception of flavor. Our taste experiences inform our behavior and are often stored as memories.
- Guide students to compare the fragrances of fresh and dried herbs. Instruct the students to match each fresh herb to the herb's dried version, using only their sense of smell. For example, instruct the students to smell fresh basil. Then, smell all three dried herbs and attempt to identify which is dried basil. Repeat this process for cilantro and oregano. Reveal the identity of the herbs (A: cilantro, B: oregano, C: basil). Direct the students to label their previously unknown samples correctly.
- Distribute the Herb Observation Rubric. Review the rubric with the class, and emphasize the importance of providing detailed and descriptive observations. They will taste each sample individually and record their observations in the appropriate cell. Have the students complete their rubric.
- After completing their observations, discuss:
- Favorite or least favorite herbs of the six samples.
- Similarities and differences between dry and fresh herbs.
- Similarities and differences between different herbs.
- Strength of flavor in dry and fresh herbs.
- Lead the students through the process of drying their own herbs. After cutting fresh herbs from the garden, make small bunches with string. Hang the bunches up to dry, leaves downward, covered loosely with thin paper bags. Allow seven to ten days to dry, depending on the size of the bunches and humidity.
- Use an online mapping tool to plot coordinates for the map activity.
Concept Elaboration and Evaluation
After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:
- Herbs are plants useful for culinary, cosmetic, industrial, medicinal, landscaping, decorative, and fragrance purposes.
- Herbs are different than spices. Herbs are typically leafy green or flowering plants, while spices are dried seed, bark, berries, or fruit and are often ground.
- Herbs are important to all cultures.
Instruct students to find a family or cultural recipe that includes basil, organo, or cilantro to share with the class. Bind recipes together to create a class cookbook, or bring prepared dishes to share in a class potluck.
Use a conversion chart to convert fresh herbs to dry herbs in your favorite recipes (or dry to fresh).
Use photo chromatic material to capture herb shadows outside.
Plant a variety of herbs, including basil, cilantro, and oregano in a school garden or classroom planter box.
Find additional activities in the From Start-to-Finish: Producing, Preparing, & Preserving student workbook.
- Contributing Writers and Editors: Liz Baskins, Judy Culbertson, Mindy DeRohan, Len Fingerman, Hayley Lawson, Brenda Metzger, Judee Sani, Sue Squires
- Funding for this lesson series was made possible by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service through grant 17-0275-022-SC. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the USDA.