The quiet beauty of an herb garden and the peaceful activity of tending it are a respite from the busy, bustling world around us—and for some gardeners, that’s medicine enough. For others, the herb garden also delivers a steady supply of easy remedies for the upset stomachs, sniffles, headaches and other bumps of daily life. From the apothecary garden comes a harvest of materials for teas, decoctions, salves, tinctures, and tonics to soothe and heal.
Usefulness and beauty are not mutually exclusive traits in plants. In fact, many essential medicinal herbs are quite lovely in the landscape. I’ve placed this fantasy garden in a small stone courtyard because the enclosed space conjures up the image of medieval monks tending their cloistered garden beds. If you don’t happen to have a courtyard, you can adapt the design by using hedges, ornamental grasses, or a small section of fencing to create a sense of privacy and enclosure.
Apothecary Gardens Through Time
The first healers were herbalists, and the first medicines were derived from plants, so the apothecary garden is steeped in history. The first cultivated apothecary gardens were grown in the Middle Ages by Benedictine monks who studied plants and their therapeutic uses. The monks, who generally could read and write when few other people could, were the record-keepers of the plant world. Every monastery had a healing garden. Often, these gardens were quite large and contained hundreds of species of plants growing in raised square or rectangular beds with walkways between them. In later centuries, physicians in both the New World and the old maintained their own physic (healing) gardens and stillrooms for growing and preparing botanical medicines.
Out of botanical medicine grew modern medicine, and today we turn to our doctors and pharmacists—not our gardens—when we have a serious health problem. But that doesn’t make a modern apothecary garden irrelevant or useless. We still find a great deal of comfort in traditional herb garden remedies for many of the minor discomforts of today’s world; we can enjoy the plants’ many links to history, tradition, medicine and religion; and we can breathe in the garden’s beauty and fragrance on a daily basis.
How to Choose Healing Plants
Choose plants for your apothecary garden with your needs and those of your family in mind. Or choose them for their place in history. Or for their beauty and fragrance—or for any other criteria you want to use, because the list of plants with medicinal applications is quite long. The plants in this garden are among the most frequently used healing herbs, but they are just a small sample of the many possibilities. The only limiting factor is your climate; select plants that will thrive in your area, whether that means harsh winters or brutal summers.
One good place to start is with an old-fashioned rosebush. Prized through history for its beauty, fragrance and usefulness, the apothecary rose (Rosa gallica officinalis and its cultivars) was planted in every monastic garden and outside the door of Victorian apothecaries. This ancient rose produces deep crimson, almost magenta, blooms used in medicines and cosmetics. On a sunny afternoon, an enclosed garden space would concentrate its heady fragrance in a spectacular way.
Include as many healing herbs in your apothecary garden as you have room for, but especially those you think you might use on a regular basis. Headaches? A planting of cheery feverfew with its prolific white, daisy-like flowers might help. A pot of aloe, with soothing gel inside each leaf, is handy for burns. Chamomile tea will help you drift off to sleep; peppermint can settle your stomach after a big meal; an infusion of sage, purple coneflower and honey can help the congestion and stuffiness of seasonal colds.
How to Plant and Tend
When you design your apothecary garden, take a tip from those monks: Be sure to include pathways, because a healing garden is not just for show. You want easy access to the plants so you can harvest them regularly.
Choose a site that receives full sun for at least six hours a day. An enclosed garden like this one helps protect plants from wind and damaging weather. But it also can block sunlight for a portion of the day. In these lower-light areas, plant lemon balm, peppermint or other herbs that tolerate partial shade. Add a generous amount of compost to the soil before planting to improve drainage and to supply nutrients.
Don’t skimp on the number of plants for your garden; you’ll want sufficient quantities for drying, tinctures, salves and other preparations you will use later. Some of these herbs, such as feverfew and purple coneflower, will self-seed to give you lots of harvestable flowers, leaves and roots in subsequent seasons. Harvest frequently to keep your herbs attractive and healthy.
Kathleen Halloran is a freelance writer and editor living and gardening in beautiful Austin, Texas.