Humble though it may seem, an herb garden is truly a wonder of nature. Many herbs offer compounds known to ward off ailments and illnesses ranging from memory loss to stiff joints. Using culinary herbs to flavor food can also improve the healthfulness of our diets by helping us reduce our intake of fats and salts, instead flavoring dishes with the bright taste of homegrown herbs. And growing an herb garden offers a huge bang for your buck, as fresh culinary herbs are often expensive to buy but cheap to grow. All the herbs listed here are easy to grow, yummy to eat or drink, and offer medicinal value. Plant these six medicinal herbs for a garden of good health. (Note: Herbs grown in pots indoors like frequent applications of organic fertilizer. Alternatively, simply grow these potted herbs for a few months, then replace them with new plants when their health begins to wane.)
German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla): Chamomile is reputed to help reduce anxiety levels and bring on sleep, both of which are crucial to our health. Argentinean researchers discovered recently that a compound in chamomile oil binds to the same receptors as the Valium family of tranquilizers and anti-anxiety drugs. When Japanese researchers exposed animals under stress to chamomile vapors, the animals’ stress-hormone levels fell significantly. Chamomile can also soothe upset stomachs and may help relieve menstrual cramps.
GROW IT: This annual bushy shrub is easy to grow from seed or from cutting. It’s extremely low-maintenance outdoors in full sun, but you can also grow potted chamomile indoors provided you have a very sunny window or place it under fluorescent or grow lights. Chamomile requires lots of room, so plant it in a 12-inch pot in sandy, well-drained soil.
DRINK IT: To make a tea, pick chamomile flowers and lay them out to dry at room temperature out of direct sun for about a week. Store in a dry, well-sealed jar. Steep 1 to 2 tablespoons of dried blossoms in boiling water for about 10 minutes.
Oregano (Origanum spp.): Studies have found a compound in oregano called carvacrol to help prevent inflammation, which may help it protect against arthritis. Oregano is also high in several antioxidants including phenols and flavonoids, both of which are thought to protect against chronic diseases such as cancer.
GROW IT: Hardy, perennial oregano is extremely easy to grow provided it has ample light. Find a window with at least six hours of bright light, or place oregano under fluorescent or grow lights. Grow oregano in 6-inch pots and it will assume a trailing nature. Pinch off leaves regularly to encourage an increased harvest. Plant in well-draining soil, and let soil dry slightly between waterings.
EAT IT: A classic in Italian sauces such as marinara and pizza sauce, oregano is also extremely common in both Mediterranean and Mexican cooking. Add oregano to poultry, seafood, chili, vinaigrettes and more.
Peppermint (Mentha xpiperita): Peppermint is a potent stomach-soother; studies have found it to relieve digestive distress in sufferers of chronic indigestion. A mild anesthetic, peppermint can also help ease the pain of sore throats. Menthol, its active ingredient, helps treat colds and congestion.
GROW IT: Peppermint is among the hardiest plants in the garden. It can grow in partial sun and will grow well indoors from seed provided it gets at least some sun each day. Peppermint doesn’t need much water; allow soil to dry between waterings. Peppermint needs room to spread. Plant seeds in a large pot, then thin to one plant every 12 inches once plants reach about 2 inches tall. Even one strong seedling will quickly spread to fill an entire pot.
EAT IT: Peppermint makes a delicious hot or iced tea, and can also be muddled and mixed with soda water (and sugar, if desired) for a refreshing beverage. Mint is common in Thai dishes such as spring rolls and Middle Eastern dishes such as tabbouleh salad. You can also make a simple mint sauce to complement lamb or other meats by combining fresh mint with sugar and vinegar.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): Known as the “herb of remembrance,” noted herbalist James Duke says rosemary contains more than a dozen antioxidants that slow the breakdown of
acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that aids in memory and may help ward off Alzheimer’s disease.
GROW IT: Drainage and light are both crucial for rosemary. Line rosemary pots with 1 1/2 to 2 inches of gravel or perlite below a fast-draining soil mix. Place pots on a saucer, then water from the bottom by filling the tray with water. Rosemary needs lots of light, so place it in a west- or south-facing sunny window or under fluorescent lights. Moving air will help prevent powdery mildew, which often plagues indoor rosemary. Ventilate plants with a small fan. If you see rosemary leaves going white with mildew, snip off the affected areas, then spray the plant with a mixture of 2 tablespoons milk per cup of water.
EAT IT: A classic flavoring for roast chicken, rosemary works well with almost any poultry, beef, pork or fish recipe, as well as on potatoes or in flatbread.
Sage (Salvia officinalis): Sage has multiple health benefits. It’s been found to enhance memory, particularly in the elderly. Sage is an excellent source of vitamin K and is rich in numerous antioxidants. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found sage particularly effective against oxidative stress in liver cells. Studies have also found sage to be a potent antibacterial, adept at killing common pathogens such as salmonella and staphylococcus.
GROW IT: A Mediterranean native, sage is an extremely hardy perennial and will survive winters outdoors in most climates. It requires lots of sun and excellent drainage, so make sure not to overwater. If growing sage indoors, include a 1 1/2- to 2-inch layer of gravel or perlite below well-drained potting mix. Sage needs lots of sun, so unless you have a sun room, consider using a grow light or fluorescent lights placed 6 inches above the plant and left on for 14 hours a day.
EAT IT: Sage’s robust flavor holds up to strong, rich ingredients such as meats and cream sauces. Sage is often used in sausages, stuffings, cream pasta sauces and baked goods such as cornbread. You can also brew a tasty tea by steeping fresh leaves in boiling water.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris): In Europe, health-care practitioners use a variety of thyme products to treat coughs, bronchitis, emphysema and even asthma. The German Commission E (a German governmental health regulatory agency) considers thyme a bronchospasmolytic, expectorant
and antibacterial. In a German study including more than 7,000 patients, a treatment of dried primula root and thyme extract proved as effective as synthetic drugs in treating bronchitis.
GROW IT: Although you can propagate thyme easily from cuttings or plant divisions, you can also purchase small thyme plants and keep them alive on a windowsill while you eat them, then buy a new plant. Thyme prefers full sun, so grow it in a sunny window or under fluorescent or grow lights. Drought-resistant thyme needs infrequent watering and well-drained soil.
EAT IT: Thyme commonly flavors soups, stocks and stews. It is a crucial element in many French and Middle Eastern dishes, including the classic French flavoring herbes de Provence. In the Middle East, it is combined with oregano and marjoram in the spice blend zahtar, used in flatbreads and to flavor meats.