Are there herbs that you can grow in your own garden and use for health purposes yourself? The answer is a qualified yes. Chances are, you already have several healing plants in your herb garden. Chamomile, echinacea, peppermint, thyme, and yarrow are all herbs you can use for conditions that you probably wouldn’t go to the doctor for. Common everyday ailments such as an upset stomach, mild insomnia, congestion during a cold, and minor cuts, scrapes, and contusions are among the conditions that people can safely treat at home. The following herbs are easy to grow and easy to use—they can be prepared as teas, poultices, or tinctures, and are safe for the vast majority of people.
In Europe, chamomile is so highly regarded that the German name translates into “capable of anything.” Don’t expect it to be a cure-all, but if you have a drippy nose, queasy stomach, or need a relaxing beverage before bed, chamomile tea may be just the thing. Chamomile tea is made from the dried or fresh flowers of German or Hungarian chamomile (Matricaria recutita), seen in older herb books as Chamomilla recutita and Matricaria chamomilla. No matter what the scientific name, they all refer to the same plant. German chamomile is an annual member of the aster family. English or Roman chamomile, a perennial, is known as Chamaemelum nobile (formerly listed in many herbals as Anthemis nobilis). Most chamomile flowers used in tea are the German variety. English chamomile makes a lovely groundcover, particularly for northern gardens, but it produces far fewer flowers than German chamomile. For all practical purposes for the home gardener, their flowers can be used interchangeably.
The annual German chamomile is easy to grow from seed and self-sows freely. After planting the tiny, dust-like seeds, plants will mature and flower within six weeks. In the South it can be planted in March, producing flowers by the end of May. By the heat of June the plant begins to wither. German chamomile likes a sandy, well-drained loam, with a neutral to slightly acid pH and full sun. It flowers for several weeks and flowers can be harvested on a regular basis during this time.
Chamomile flowers have been used for centuries as a mild sleep aid, a digestive aid to an upset stomach, a diuretic, and for many other uses. Externally, the tea is used as a wash for wounds and sores. Several chemical components in the essential oil of the plant have been shown to relax smooth muscle tissue. Anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, carminative (relieving digestive gas), antispasmodic, mild sedative, and wound-healing activities are attributed to chamomile flowers. Modern indications are not only backed by intensive research in recent years, but also by many centuries of common use. A mild tea is useful as a gentle sleep aid, particularly for children. Chamomile releases its active components in response to heat. Therefore, for best results, particularly for anti- inflammatory and antispasmodic activity, you must steep the flowers in hot water.
Pick the flowers at full bloom. Spread them in a basket in a warm, dry, dark place—they will dry beautifully. A heaping teaspoon of the dried flowers can be steeped in a cup of water and drunk three to four times a day.
Chamomile is associated with rare contact dermatitis. There are also rare cases of allergic reaction to ingesting chamomile. Those sensitive to pollen of other aster family members (such as ragweed) should use chamomile with that caveat in mind.
Echinacea purpurea, the most widely cultivated of the nine echinacea species, has been commonly grown as a perennial flower garden border for more than 200 years. Based on extensive research in Germany over the past fifty years, extracts, tinctures, ointments, salves, and other preparations of E. purpurea are used as nonspecific stimulants to the immune system. Echinacea acts by stimulating the body’s own defense systems, such as white blood cells, against certain viral and bacterial invaders. Now it has become part of the modern American lexicon—most people are aware of the use of echinacea to prevent or treat cold and flu symptoms.
As a garden plant, E. purpurea is widely available from nursery and seed sources. The seeds germinate readily, and this species can be propagated by dividing the roots. E. purpurea does well in any well-drained garden soil, will tolerate up to 50 percent shade, and is remarkably drought-resistant. In short, it’s a plant that thrives on neglect.
While most books suggest using echinacea root, I like to use a tea of the fresh or dried flowers. The chemical components of the flowers themselves are quite similar to the root. A tea can be made by chopping up one flowerhead and steeping it in a cup of hot water—very simple. For winter use, I often use a homemade, low-tech tincture that I (or my kids) make. We simply take a good handful of the finely chopped whole flowers and soak them in a fifth of vodka for two or three days. Most books tell you to macerate the tincture for a couple of weeks. However, for home use, soaking it for just a few days is all that is necessary. Then strain off the liquid, and keep the mixture in a cool, dark place. This is a significant supply—it will last for a year or more. In our house, we use an adult dose of about 2 teaspoons of the tincture four or five times a day at the onset of a cold or flu—the day before the symptoms actually appear, but when I begin to feel like I’m coming down with something. This usually takes care of the problem. We also use it for sore throats, canker sores, minor infections, hard-to-heal sores, and other ailments. Like chamomile, some people may be allergic to echinacea, although such allergies are rare.
Known to botanists as Mentha xpiperita, peppermint, once thought to be a distinct species, is now believed to be a hybrid between spearmint (Mentha spicata) and water mint (Mentha aquatica). Peppermint is a perennial that grows to 3 feet tall, spreading by runners traveling across the soil’s surface. Peppermint’s essential oil is high in menthol, which gives it a characteristic flavor and fragrance.
Peppermint is best propagated by dividing the roots. It likes a moist but well-drained soil and full sun. It’s a plant that thrives on neglect given the right soil, and it spreads at will if given the slightest opportunity.
Peppermint tea is both a delicious beverage and a healthful digestive aid that can be used fresh or dried from the garden. Two to four teaspoons of the dried, crushed leaves will make 11/2 to 3 cups of peppermint tea. In studies, peppermint oil inhibits gastrointestinal smooth muscle spasms in humans. Herbalists consider peppermint tea useful for allaying insomnia, upset stomachs, indigestion, nervous tension, colds (helping to induce sweating), cramps, diarrhea, and nausea.
How many of us have common garden thyme (Thymus vulgaris) in our gardens and only use it for flavoring an occasional omelet or meat dish? If you look back into the annals of thyme, you will find that it has evolved to become a culinary herb in relatively modern times. Historically, it was best known as a medicinal herb. It was used as a carminative, an antispasmodic, a mild sedative, an expectorant, and as an aid to induce sweating in colds and fevers. It has long been employed in the treatment of acute bronchitis, laryngitis, whooping cough, gastritis, diarrhea, and lack of appetite. Steeped in baths, it has been used to help relieve rheumatic pains, as well as to aid in the healing of bruises and sprains. Today in Germany, thyme is widely used for the supportive treatment of coughs, bronchitis, and other conditions associated with lung congestion. Studies confirm that it has an antispasmodic action on bronchiolar spasms. Once ingested, components of the essential oil are largely eliminated through the alveoli of the lungs, concentrating the herb at the site where its effects are required. One to two teaspoons of the herb per cup of tea, taken several times a day as needed, is the official dose used in Germany.
Common garden thyme, also called English thyme, is native to the western Mediterranean region, extending into southeastern Italy. It can be propagated from seed, cutting, layering, and root division, although cultivars must be propagated asexually. The soil should be light, warm, rather dry, well-drained, and with a pH of 6 to 8 for good thyme culture. Plants may be killed by frost, heaving the crowns or burning the foliage in areas where winter temperatures dip below 10°F. Provide plants with a heavy mulch. Clumps tend to become woody and die out in the center. They should be divided every three to four years.
A close relative of chamomile with similar chemical components is yarrow (Achillea millefolium), also a member of the aster family. Perhaps better known as a roadside weed, yarrow is common throughout the Northern Hemisphere. As a garden subject, it is easily grown from seed or propagated by division of the roots. It likes full sun, and seems to do well in any average garden soil. It has no unique requirements.
The generic name Achillea comes from a legend that states that Achilles used a poultice of the leaves to stop the bleeding of his wounded soldiers. While an attractive perennial for herb or flower gardens, yarrow is probably more likely to be found as a weed next to the garden than as a garden subject itself. But given its common occurrence, and often close proximity to the garden, it can become a useful gardener’s aid. Like Achilles, I use the plant as a sort of herbal Band-Aid. Whenever I cut myself while working in the garden, I go to the nearest yarrow plant and take a flower (if blooming) or a few leaves, crush them in the palm of my hand, and place them on the cut to stop the bleeding. The effects are surprisingly dramatic—a poultice of fresh yarrow will usually stop the bleeding right before your eyes.
There is a catch, though. Before using yarrow to stop bleeding, the cut must be washed thoroughly, otherwise the styptic flowers or leaves may close dirt in the cut. While antibacterial value has been attributed to yarrow and its chemical components, its main action in relation to minor cuts is simply to stop bleeding. Yarrow seems to live up to the reputation which honors Achilles’ use of the plant. Recent studies show that one of its alkaloids (called achilleine) has hemostatic (blood-stopping) activity. Like chamomile, some people may be allergic to handling or ingesting yarrow.
Foster, Steven. Herbal Renaissance. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith Publisher, 1993.
Foster, Steven. 101 Medicinal Herbs. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1998.
Weiss, R. F. Herbal Medicine (translated from the German by A. R. Meuss). Beaconsfield, England: Beaconsfield Publishers, 1988.