Off to School with Herbs

Make an herbal care package for your favorite student body.


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Being a student is hard work. Exams make you crazy, late-night paper-writing exhausts mind and body, and too much studying leaves the brain blank. All that worry can make it hard to get to sleep. And we haven’t even mentioned the sports and social scenes.

To help them cope, many students reach for over-the-counter aids or even prescription drugs. (Illegal substances? Out of the question for our students.) But medicinal herbs often can do the job and are gentler in their effects than either of the other options.

A care package including some of the ideas suggested below can provide just the touch of home and healing your stressed-out scholar needs.


Rattled nerves make it tough to concentrate and absorb information. Tests and heavy course loads can rub nerves raw. Time-tested remedies for the study-stressed include:

Chamomile. Make a tea (see “Herbal How-To’s” on Page 23) to settle nerves and relieve stress headaches. Drink it daily when the going gets rough. Afterward, put the warm teabags on your eyelids to relieve eyestrain.

Lavender. “Balance” is the word for this old-time herb — stimulating when you’re down, relaxing when you’re up. Great for helping focus on a task. Sniff the dried flowers and leaves or put a dab of essential oil on cloth or a cotton ball. Or make a room spray (see “Herbal How-To’s” on Page 23) for the dorm or apartment.

Lemon balm. Eat it fresh in salads and sauces, drink it as hot or cold tea. Lemon balm calms nerves, helps tired brains and cheers the spirit.

Fennel. Fennel seed tea has the same benefits as lemon balm, but with a decidedly different flavor. It’s also said to be good for the eyes. If you like fennel’s taste, chew the seed alone or add it to bread recipes and sauces.

Sage. As tea, it’s a good pick-me-up after a tough day. It tones the nervous system, boosts spirits and helps concentration. Great with poultry and pork, too.

Yummy basil is good for nerves and is stimulating, too. (What’s pizza without it?) Geranium essential oil banishes butterflies in the stomach. Sniff a bit before going into exams. And dried woodruff, smelling of freshly mown hay, is said to “make the heart merry.”


Plenty of herbs have been used over the centuries by folks trying to build their brain power. Interestingly, some of the oldest are proving themselves in studies today.

Rosemary. A branch of this prickly plant was traditionally tucked behind a student’s ear. Now, rosemary has been found to aid memory and lift the spirits by improving blood flow to the head. Combine it with sage to make a brainy tea. Use it in a room spray or scent bag “to comfort the heart and help a weak memory,” as 17th-century herbalist Nicholas Culpepper put it. Chew a few pungent leaves, or season meats, pasta and pizza with it.

Mint. Eating mint would increase intelligence, according to the ancient Romans. Modern research has shown that the scent of mint may improve concentration. In Japan, some businesses circulate mint oil in the air to heighten productivity. Smell the fresh leaves, make a spray or have it as hot or iced tea.

Cardamom. This Indian spice nourishes the nerves and brain, sharpening thoughts and lifting spirits. Crack the pods open and crush the seeds for tea or add them to a scent bag with other beneficial herbs. They’re also good in baked treats.

Oregano was a Roman brain tonic — another pizza herb with added value. Soothing sage tea is thought to help memory, too. And if you can find it, inhale the scent of petitgrain oil (from the leaves of bitter orange) to heighten awareness.

Rosemary has been found to aid memory and lift the spirits by improving blood flow to the head.


Students who relieve stress and sharpen their brains may find an increase in energy as well. If not, two common herbs can help.

Rosemary. Already a prime brain-booster, this herb also boasts an invigorating scent. Treat your favorite student to an energizing bath bag. Combine 1/2 cup rosemary and 1/2 cup ground almonds with 2 cups plain rolled oats. Stitch into a terry-cloth bag or knot in a washcloth for several weeks of use.

Thyme. Add thyme’s energizing scent to room spray or to a student scent bag. Also delicious in meats and sauces.


Frazzled folks are sometimes just too tired to sleep. Pills often have unpleasant side effects, so try these herbal helpers instead.

Anise. The seeds offer more than just a pretty scent — they’re better than a lullaby for sleep. Chew the seed by itself or add to hot milk. Get a double taste treat by combining 1 teaspoon anise seed with 1 teaspoon tarragon for tea. Or put anise seed in a tiny bag by your pillow to breathe in the scent.

Linden. This classy tree’s subtly fragrant flowers are traditionally brewed into a tea for restlessness and headaches. You don’t have to pick them yourself; look for packaged linden flower tea in health-food stores or European groceries.

Wildflower sleep tea. Look to the fields for this tea blend: 1 tablespoon fresh red clover flowers with 1 tablespoon fresh dandelion leaves.

Scented sleep mix. Combine 1 cup dried rose petals with 1/2 cup dried mint and 1 or 2 fat pinches of ground cloves. Put in a small bag or pillow and sniff yourself to sleep.

Our old friends lavender and chamomile help to bring sleep, the former as a scent, the latter as tea. Dill seed tea, just before you hit the hay, is said to give a good night’s rest. Lettuce, too, is claimed to be mildly sedative. Wild lettuce has the biggest punch.

Modern research has shown that the scent of mint may improve concentration.


When you’re after an A (or B or C, depending on your aspirations), a little luck doesn’t hurt. Many herbs, trees and other plants have been associated with successful study over the years.

Make your special student a good-luck pouch with these old-time herbal symbols. Some are even good enough to eat!

Lavender is stimulating when you’re down, relaxing when you’re up.

Walnut. This majestic tree symbolizes intellect and strategy — useful attributes for students.

Hazel. A tree wrapped in legend, the hazel stands for wisdom and knowledge. English country folk believed hazelnuts should be eaten by scholars (as well as poets and lovers).

Olive. Olive trees are sacred to Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. The leaves, which crowned heroes and athletes in ancient Greece, signify triumph.

Thyme. Medieval ladies embroidered this modest plant as a symbol of bravery on scarves for their knights.

Oak. Not surprisingly, the leaves of this sturdy tree stand for courage. Greek kings wore a crown of golden oak leaves.

Honesty (lunaria, money plant). The silvery seedpods are supposed to attract money — and what student doesn’t need that?

Mary Fran McQuade is a frequent contributor to The Herb Companion. She lives, writes and gardens in Toronto, Canada, in a century-old house near Lake Ontario.