Imagine for a moment the processes that take place in our bodies as soon as we encounter even a tiny breach of the skin. A miniscule scrape draws a little blood, fends off infection and eventually heals over, involving so many processes and encapsulating so many minor miracles—none of them conscious, willed or even noticed—that the mind simply boggles.
Now imagine these processes on a scale much larger and more complex: wounds, burns, sore throats, fevers, queasy stomachs. For the seemingly endless things that can go wrong with our bodies, each of us carries an arsenal of weapons, tools and front-line soldiers ready to protect and defend against invaders, interlopers or the simple imbalances that can set us on a rocky path. If the complexity and wonder of that don’t just knock you out, what would it take to impress you?
How about the amazing fact that much of what you need to promote these processes is available in the plant world, and that you can grow these plants and turn them into not just good food, but good medicine, for pennies and without side effects?
This article isn’t intended to take the place of medical advice, but for many routine physical complaints, the garden can provide much relief. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Besides the beauty and bounty of the garden—and the exertion involved in creating and maintaining it—our bodies have been interacting with plants for millennia and know what to do with plant medicines. Herbs interact with our bodies as recognizable nourishment that helps them do what they’re cut out to do: get better. With that as a place to start—that our bodies are designed to heal and actually want to do so—we can plant a garden that gives them fuel for that endeavor.
Growing Your Healing Herbs and Plants
The joy of most healing herbs and plants is that they’re easy to grow and sometimes “medicine” is as easy as making a cup of tea. And the options are endless when it comes to growing these plants. Some of them fit easily into your existing garden, or you can start a healing garden from scratch. If you don’t have a large stretch of garden space, you can tuck in little healing gardens wherever you have soil, sun and access to water. Many of these plants also do well in containers. Check with your local nursery or a seed catalog to get the lowdown on growing habits and soil needs for the variety you select. And remember to grow your plants as organically as possible. You can’t expect your body to heal when you’re giving it pesticide tea.
Herbs for Digestion
Dill (Anethum graveolens). An enthusiastic grower in most environments, dill can reach at least shoulder-high, with large, bright-yellow flower heads. Its ferny leaves and feathery flowers make it a pretty garden filler in any setting, but remember that this is a healing garden and dill also has work to do. Used throughout the ages as a remedy for babies’ colic, it is also a calming herb that settles digestion and helps promote a calm sleep. Dill seed oil is antibacterial, and chewing a few seeds after a meal will freshen your breath while it helps your digestion.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare). A cousin to ferny dill, fennel is a large, lovely plant that easily can reach a height of 5 feet. All parts of fennel are edible and provide a mild licorice or anise flavor. Used medicinally for thousands of years, fennel helps freshen breath, aids digestion, soothes colic, balances the appetite, and relieves bloating and gas. It can also help relieve coughs and sore throats when gargled. In many parts of North America, it grows wild and weedy; it’s fond of full sun and doesn’t need rich soil. Note: Fennel also is a favorite food of the swallowtail butterfly. If you see a tiger-striped green and black caterpillar on your fennel, for the sake of the butterfly, let the caterpillar be. More than half the fennel in my garden a few years ago became fennel sticks a couple of days after the hungry, hungry caterpillars found it. But I’d rather have stems than no butterflies, so I looked the other way.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita or Chamaemelum nobile). Happy-go-lucky chamomile flowers have graced home gardens for centuries and its apple-scented tea has worked for generations to calm the nervous system and soothe digestion, particularly in children. The two major varieties are German (M. recutita, formerly M. chamomilla) and Roman or English (C. nobile). Though they have different growing habits (German is taller, with less dense foliage; Roman hugs the ground and makes a pretty, aromatic groundcover), their medicinal applications are practically interchangeable. In the garden, chamomile tends to bolt quickly and shrivel in intense summer sun. Germany’s herbal regulatory body, called the Commission E, has approved chamomile for relieving digestive spasms and inflammation. (For more on Commission E, see “What is the German Commission E?” further along in this article.) It eases bloating and indigestion after meals, can ease heartburn, and is a useful remedy for mouth ulcers and canker sores. It has been shown to enhance the healing of skin, to help prevent infection and has been used since ancient times to wash wounds and sores—a practice now borne out by science. Note: Those with intense ragweed allergies should introduce chamomile slowly, as the two plants are relatives.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). A favorite of bees everywhere (Melissa is Greek for “bee”), lemon balm has been popular among herbalists for thousands of years and is a utility herb that’s good in so many ways, it’s a challenge to categorize. A member of the aggressive-growing mint family (you were warned!), this aromatic healer is high in essential oil content and is used to reduce fevers and treat colds, to calm the digestive tract, to relieve spasms related to cramps and headaches, and to overcome insomnia. It improves mood and mental performance and is approved by Commission E as an effective treatment for cold sores. Lemon balm will wilt in the hot sun and likes to sprawl in more shady spots. It is an excellent herb for the home gardener because it is best used fresh due to its volatile oils’ tendency to dry quickly once it’s picked.
Peppermint (Mentha xpiperita). Humans have cultivated mint in some form for thousands of years, though peppermint is a relative newcomer, according to herb expert and author Steven Foster. It’s easy to grow from cuttings (not seeds), and any little bit of runner with a node will produce a new plant (which, of course, will then do its best to take over your neighborhood). Versatile peppermint is used for indigestion, irritable bowels, colds and coughs, muscle aches and tension headaches. Recent research shows that its essential oil contains substances that relieve muscle spasms and inhibit the growth of bacteria and viruses. Menthol is its primary constituent, giving this hardy perennial its signature scent and unmistakable flavor. Dry peppermint leaves throughout the growing season and you’ll have an aromatic, uplifting and digestion-settling tea all winter.
Herbs for the Skin
Calendula (Calendula officinalis). It’s such a cheerful flower, you’d want calendula in your garden even if you didn’t know what a powerful healing herb it is. A wonderful emollient herb, calendula is used in lotions, salves and ointments for chapped skin, dermatitis, minor cuts and burns, insect bites, diaper rash and even hemorrhoids. Popularly known as “pot marigold,” calendula grows into handsome bunches of leaves topped by simple daisy-like flowers in tones ranging from yellow and gold to deep orange. Calendula grows from seed and likes sun. It requires loose soil, but doesn’t need it heavily fertilized or rich. It’s a perfect plant to grow in containers and will self-sow in your garden. Note: Do not confuse calendula with the common garden marigold, genus Tagetes. Calendula flowers are edible and have very little scent; Tagetes have a stronger scent and are inedible and medicinally impotent.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). A member of the Aster family, yarrow is known throughout the Northern Hemisphere as a perennial weed that grows alongside roadsides, meadows and “wastelands.” The genus name Achillea is taken from the legend that Achilles made a poultice of the plant to stanch his soldiers’ wounds during the Trojan War. Achilles was onto something: Yarrow contains an alkaloid that actually does stop the flow of blood. The plant also contains more than 120 other components, some of which calm muscle spasms, reduce pain, ease digestion, calm anxiety and reduce inflammation. Yarrow is an easy plant for beginners, requiring no care and remaining pest-free and winter-hardy in Zones 3 through 9. It’s a pretty, ferny plant in the garden, with clusters of tiny white, ivory or pale pink flowers that bloom from early summer into early fall. For minor cuts, wash the wound thoroughly (yarrow isn’t antiseptic), then crush some leaves in the palm of your hand and apply to the cut to stop the bleeding. Note: Try yarrow on a small spot of skin first, as some people experience an intense allergic reaction to it.
Lavender (Lavandula spp.). Lavender’s needs are simple: It wants alkaline soil, several hours of hot sunlight a day and dry feet—meaning keep its soil well-drained and don’t overwater it. If you meet these criteria and work with your local nurseries or regional online sources, you’ll find plenty of lavender options that will grow in your area. You can use the fragrant essential oil of English lavender (L. angustifolia) in do-it-yourself lotions, salves, balms, soaps and vinegars. Its uses in aromatherapy for calming and relaxation are well-documented, as are its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, known since ancient times. It is licensed in Germany as a standard medicinal tea for sleep disorders and nervous stomach, according to the American Botanical Council (ABC). And bearing in mind the 2012 International Herb of the Year, you might find extra motivation: Lavender and roses were made for each other. Note: Mexican lavender (L. stoechas), commonly used in landscaping, is not appropriate for medicine or cooking.
Aloe (Aloe vera). If all of the plants alleged to be Cleopatra’s beauty secret were laid end to end, they would reach from here to the Nile. However, in the case of the spiky succulent aloe vera, the odds are good that the femme pharaoh actually did include this skin-nourishing herb in her regimen. The fleshy, lance-leaved plant has been cultivated for its medicinal effects since long before Cleopatra’s reign and is known to be good for sunburn, minor burns and insect bites (no word on its effectiveness against the bite of an asp). The gooey gel found in its leaves soothes irritated skin and eases topical pain, as well as providing antibacterial protection, and its soothing juice has been shown to be effective in treating psoriasis. Though many “aloe vera” products can be found on supermarket and pharmacy shelves, many of these products have as much or more water, fruit juice and preservative as herb. Given how easy the plant is to keep on hand, it makes more sense just to pot up a few and break off a leaf as needed. (Unless you live in a warm and relatively dry climate, aloes do better in pots so you can transfer them into the house when the cold weather hits.)
Herbs for Coughs, Colds and Flu
Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea, E. angustifolia, E. pallida). Many echinacea species are attractive in the garden, but E. purpurea, E. angustifolia and E. pallida are the coneflowers generally recognized as most potent for medicinal use. A member of the aster family, echinacea grows throughout North America and, according to Foster, the Plains Indians used the common prairie species of coneflower (E. angustifolia) as medicine more than any other plant. A large body of research (sometimes contradictory) can be found relating to echinacea’s usefulness in preventing colds and flu. Less ambiguous is its role in helping reduce the length and severity of these common illnesses, as well as its role as supportive therapy for lower urinary tract infections, poorly healing wounds and chronic ulcerations. While most references suggest using echinacea root for medicinal use, many herbalists recommend making a tea of the fresh or dried flowers of E. purpurea, which contain chemical constituents similar to those of the root. Plants and seeds of E. purpurea are widely available from nurseries and seed houses. The seeds germinate readily, or plants can be easily propagated by dividing the roots. This species does well in any well-drained garden soil, will tolerate up to half shade and is remarkably drought-resistant. On the other hand, Foster says, plants and seeds of E. angustifolia are harder to find, and the seeds germinate much less readily.
Tip: Of the many available types of Echinacea, three are recognized as healers. Of those three, Echinacea purpurea is the best bet in the garden.
Sage (Salvia officinalis). The genus name Salvia derives from the Latin salvere (“to be saved”), which gives a good idea of the esteem in which sage has been held over the millennia as a curative herb. Versatile and easy to grow, sage is beautiful in the garden, tasty in the kitchen and a stalwart in the medicine cabinet. With antibiotic and antiseptic properties, it has been prized in treating inflammation in the mouth or throat, including gingivitis and canker sores. Commission E approves sage as a standard medicinal tea for gastrointestinal issues and night sweats, as well as a topical rinse for inflammation. A number of herbalists use sage in their prescriptions for those hallmarks of menopause, hot flashes and night sweats. A perennial that’s best grown from starts, sage likes full sun and doesn’t like to get its feet wet, so make sure the soil is well-drained and not too heavy. For canker sores, or sore throat and tonsils, make a tea with 2 teaspoons dried sage leaves (more if you use fresh leaves), 1 cup boiling water and a dash of salt.
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare). This old-fashioned herb is indispensable for the modern healing garden. It tames troublesome coughs, and grows easily. Learn how to make your own cough drops in Herb to Know: Horehound Drops.
What is the German Commission E?
The Commission E is Germany’s herbal regulatory body. Their findings are published in English. (See “Resources.")
Since the late 1970s, Germany’s drug regulations have required a system that registers herb products. This system requires development of information on how herbal products work (their chemistry and pharmacology), how well they work (clinical trials), and safety information based on their long history of use and any new scientific data.
Anyone who has done even cursory research into an herbal supplement or product has seen references to findings by the German Commission E. Few of us know what the commission is or how it is doing work that, by all rights, our own regulatory agency ought to do for the American consumer. If you’re interested in healing herbs and plants—and you probably are if you’re reading this magazine—this relatively unknown working group has a great deal of influence on the choices available to you. —Steven Foster is a noted herb expert.
These are the references used in this article—great to have on hand for any queries about healing herbs and plants or, in the case of Tammi Hartung’s book, how to grow any of them.
The ABC Clinical Guide to Herbs by Mark Blumenthal (American Botanical Council, 2003)
The Green Pharmacy by James A. Duke, Ph.D. (Rodale Press, 1997)
Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs by Mark Blumenthal, Alicia Goldberg, Josef Brinckmann, eds. (American Botanical Council, 2000)
Homegrown Herbs by Tammi Hartung (Storey Publishing, 2011)
Formerly editor in chief of The Herb Companion, K.C. Compton is senior editor at our sister publication, Mother Earth News.