Herb Basics

A Place to Start


Peppermint (Mentha ¥piperita)

Karen Shelton, www.altnature.com

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In her book Walking the World in Wonder, herbalist Ellen Evert Hopman reminds us to use “green etiquette’’ when gathering plants. When harvesting, be sure there are at least seven others of the plant left behind so the species can continue to reproduce — this ensures that enough plants will remain to form seeds. Never take more plants than you can use, even if there are plenty. Some plants are in danger of becoming extinct and should never be harvested from the wild. They are good choices for growing in your garden. These herbs include the following:

• American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
• Arnica (Arnica spp.)
• Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa)
• Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
• Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides)
• Echinacea (Echinacea spp.)
• Gentian (Gentiana spp.)
• Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)
• Eyebright (Euphrasia spp.)
• Helonias root (Chamaelirium luteum)
• Lomatium (Lomatium dissectum)
• Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.)
• Osha (Ligusticum porteri)
• Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens)
• Slippery elm (Ulmus rubra)
• Sundew (Drosera spp.)
• Trillium (Trillium pendulum)
• Yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica)

Sources: Hopman, Ellen Evert. Walking the World in Wonder: A Children’s Herbal. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 2000.
United Plant Savers, www.unitedplantsavers.com.


Frequent Herbs for Health contributor Laurel Vukovic, in her book 1001 Natural Remedies, has several helpful, nontoxic suggestions for combating pesky ants. First, try a mix of 1/4 cup dried peppermint leaves (Mentha ¥piperita), 1/4 cup powdered cayenne (Capsicum annuum) and 1/4 cup borax. Sprinkle the mixture liberally around the area where ants are entering your home to help deter ants.

Another option is to use essential oils. Try placing a few drops of peppermint, spearmint or citronella oil on a cotton ball. Put the cotton ball in areas where you have seen ants. Renew the oil every two days to keep the scent strong.

Finally, you can try a homemade ant trap. In a screw-top jar, mix 3 cups water, 1 cup sugar and 4 teaspoons boric acid. Poke holes in the jar lid and place the jar near ant trails (keep out of reach of children and pets).

Source: Vukovic, Laurel. 1001 Natural Remedies. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2003.


The under-appreciated liver is responsible for removing toxins from the blood that can interfere with the vital activities of the heart, nervous system and digestive system. Excess dietary fat, chemicals, drugs and alcohol, and refined and processed foods can disrupt healthy liver function. Liver problems can be improved by dietary changes. Try the following smoothie, from Pat Crocker’s book The Smoothies Bible, to give your liver some much-needed attention.

Serves 1

1/2 cup beet or carrot juice
1 cup cooked diced beets
1/2 cup chopped fresh or frozen spinach
1/2 cup cooked chopped carrots
1-inch piece dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale), chopped
1 tablespoon blackstrap molasses, optional

Combine ingredients in blender and process until smooth. Drink immediately.

Source: Crocker, Pat. The Smoothies Bible. Toronto: Robert Rose, 2003.


Common names: Basil, sweet basil, garden basil

Latin name: Ocimum basilicum

Family: Lamiaceae

Part used: Leaves and flowering tops

Medicinal uses: Basil can help ease headaches, nervous tension, upset stomachs, nausea, sore throats and coughs. Basil is also a good source of antioxidants and has antibacterial properties.

Forms commonly used: Fresh herb, dried herb, extract, tincture and tea.

Side effects: In large doses, basil should be avoided by pregnant and nursing women, and is not recommended for infants or toddlers. It’s safe to enjoy basil in small amounts as a spice, however.

Notes: To make basil tea, steep 2 teaspoons dried leaves (4 teaspoons fresh leaves) in 1 cup boiling water for 20 minutes. Strain and sweeten with honey, if desired. Drink 2 to 3 cups daily.

More than 150 varieties of basil are grown worldwide. The plant is thought to be native to India and is very popular in Mediterranean cooking.

Besides the joys of pesto, fresh basil can be enjoyed many ways. Add whole, fresh leaves to a cheese and tomato sandwich in place of lettuce. Arrange with tomatoes on a plate and drizzle with balsamic vinegar. Add it to fish and chicken dishes, tomato sauce, pasta dishes or scrambled eggs. Tear fresh leaves into green salads.


Herbs and skin are a natural pairing: The aromatic plants are a sensual treat for our largest sensory organ, and the skin is a selective barrier, allowing some of the herbs’ healing properties to penetrate.

Here are some suggestions for supplementing your daily skin-care routine with herbs.

Cleanse with herbs that contain foaming saponins, such as oats (Avena sativa) and yucca (Yucca spp.), and antimicrobial herbs such as thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and sage (Salvia officinalis).

Exfoliate with abrasives such as ground peach pits, date pits and powdered parsley (Petroselinum crispum), or by using naturally occurring acids from parsley, chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and lemon.

Tone to restore the skin’s natural acid mantle. Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is a common toning astringent, and volatile oils in herbs such as lemon verbena (Aloysia citriodora) and roses have a similar effect.

Replace and rebalance oil and moisture with aloe (Aloe vera) gel, mullein flowers (Verbascum spp.), safflower oil, sunflower oil and calendula flowers (Calendula officinalis).

Mask occasionally to reach impurities deep in the pores; masks can be made using oats or by mixing various herbs with natural clays, yogurt or honey.

Source: Quatrochi, Kathlyn. The Skin Care Book. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1997.