I try to keep my life as simple as possible, and that includes the contents of my medicine cabinet. Over the almost thirty years that I’ve been using herbs, I’ve experimented with more than 100 different healing plants. In the process, I’ve discovered a handful of favorites that I turn to time and again for treating everyday ailments. These aren’t exotic plants—you can grow most of them and can find them at any health-food store and even at many grocery stores. They’ve all been used for centuries for healing, they’re safe, and they’re effective. Most of them are also multipurpose herbs that excel at multitasking—something I try not to do but certainly appreciate when it comes to my herbal allies.
Instead of filling your medicine cabinet with dozens of different remedies for common maladies, try simplifying your life with these five herbs.
Latin name: Calendula officinalis
Part used: Flower
Medicinal uses: Calendula is one of the best healing herbs for the skin and mucous membranes. The blossoms calm inflammation, are mildly astringent, speed healing, and have antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties. Because calendula is a gentle healer, it’s safe for even the most sensitive skin. Use calendula salve for skin rashes (including diaper rash), minor cuts and burns, bruises, and chapped lips. Calendula infusion makes an excellent footbath for athlete’s foot, a facial wash for acne, an eyewash for conjunctivitis, a mouth rinse for aphthous ulcers (canker sores), and a vaginal wash for yeast infections.
How to use:
For minor wounds, burns, bruises, chapped lips, and diaper rash: Apply calendula salve or cream two to three times daily.
For acne: Use an infusion as a final facial rinse twice daily after cleansing.
For athlete’s foot: Pour 2 cups of warm calendula infusion into a shallow basin large enough to hold your feet. Add 1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar (vinegar increases skin acidity, which inhibits fungal growth) and enough warm water to cover your feet. Soak your feet for 15 minutes twice daily.
For canker sores: Rinse your mouth two to three times daily with a mixture of 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt dissolved in 1/2 cup of warm calendula infusion.
For conjunctivitis and irritated eyes: Soak cotton balls in warm calendula infusion and apply to your eyes three times a day for 10 minutes, or more often if desired. Or strain calendula infusion through a clean paper coffee filter and use as an eyewash.
For vaginal yeast infection: Use lukewarm calendula infusion mixed with apple cider vinegar as a vaginal rinse several times a day. For easy application, put the infusion into a spray bottle (combine 1 cup of calendula infusion with 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar).
How to prepare:
Infusion: Make a strong tea by pouring 2 cups of boiling water over 4 tablespoons of dried calendula blossoms. Cover and let steep until cool. Strain and use as directed.
Salve: Calendula salves and creams are widely available; it’s also easy to make your own salve. Coarsely grind 4 tablespoons of dried calendula petals in a blender. Place in a glass canning jar, add 1/2 cup of extra-virgin olive oil, and stir well. Cover with a lid and set in a sunny window. The warmth of the sun extracts the medicinal properties of the herb. After one week, strain the oil by pouring it through several layers of cheesecloth.
To make a salve, combine 1/2 cup of herbal oil with 1/8 cup of grated beeswax in a small, heavy saucepan. Heat gently until the beeswax is melted. Pour the salve into a wide-mouth glass jar, let cool, and cover it with a lid. When stored in a cool, dark place, calendula salve will stay fresh for approximately one year.
Notes: Calendula is one of the easiest garden flowers to grow. A close relative of the common marigold, it has sunny yellow and orange flowers and blooms prolifically. Add the petals to soups or rice for an inexpensive alternative to saffron, or add fresh calendula petals to salads. People allergic to ragweed may also be allergic to calendula.
Latin name: Matricaria recutita
Part used: Flower
Medicinal uses: The delicious apple-like flavor of chamomile makes it a favorite beverage tea, but the herb also has significant healing properties. Chamomile contains potent essential oils that relieve indigestion, menstrual cramps, and tension headaches, and it’s gentle enough to soothe a colicky baby. The mild tranquilizing effects of chamomile calm nervous tension and help to relieve insomnia. As a steam inhalation, chamomile clears respiratory congestion. Used externally, chamomile soothes skin inflammation caused by sunburn, shaving, or other irritants.
How to use:
For indigestion, menstrual cramps, headache, and nervous tension: Drink up to 4 cups of chamomile infusion daily.
For colic: Give the baby approximately 1/4 cup of chamomile infusion diluted with an equal amount of water in a bottle before every feeding.
For insomnia: Drink 1 cup of chamomile infusion 1 hour before bedtime. For additional sleep-enhancing benefits, soak in a warm chamomile bath for 20 minutes in the evening.
For colds and respiratory ailments: Use a chamomile steam inhalation twice daily.
For skin inflammation and irritation: Apply cool chamomile infusion to the affected area with a spray bottle several times a day. If your entire body is affected (sunburn, for example), soak in a cool chamomile bath.
How to prepare:
Infusion: To make a soothing cup of chamomile tea, pour 1 cup of boiling water over 2 to 3 teaspoons of dried chamomile flowers. Cover and steep for 10 minutes. To avoid bitterness, don’t steep longer. Strain and sweeten if desired.
Bath: Pour 1 quart of boiling water over 1/2 cup of chamomile flowers, cover, and steep until cool. Strain and add to a bathtub of water.
Inhalation: Place 1/2 cup of dried chamomile flowers in a large pot with 2 quarts of water. Cover and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for 10 minutes. Set the pot on a table, remove the lid, and drape a bath towel over your head and the pot. Breathe in the warm, moist steam for about 10 minutes, taking care to not burn yourself with the steam.
Notes: German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and Roman or English chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) are closely related and have similar healing benefits, but German chamomile has a much sweeter flavor. It’s also the most readily available type of chamomile. Chamomile is easy to grow from seed in the garden. People allergic to ragweed may also be allergic to chamomile.
Latin name: Echinacea spp.
Part used: Flower, root
Medicinal uses: Echinacea was a favorite medicine of the Plains Indians, who used it for treating infectious diseases and wounds (including snakebite). Several hundred scientific studies have confirmed that echinacea is a potent natural healer: It stimulates immune activity, strengthens cells against invading microorganisms, and has natural antibiotic activity. Echinacea is effective for helping the body fight off colds, flu, and virtually any other type of infection. It can also be used externally to treat wounds, eczema, psoriasis, and herpes. It’s best taken at the first sign of an infection. But even if you take it after the symptoms are full-blown, echinacea can help you recover more quickly.
How to use:
For colds, flu, and other infections: Drink 3 cups of infusion daily. An alcohol-based liquid extract of echinacea is a more potent form of the herb. Take 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of liquid extract three to four times daily for up to two weeks at a time.
For cuts and wounds: Dilute echinacea extract with an equal amount of water and use it to wash the wound twice daily. For ease of application, use a spray bottle.
For insect bites, stings, impetigo, and herpes blisters: Apply undiluted echinacea extract three times daily.
For sore throat: Gargle with 1/2 cup of warm water mixed with 1 teaspoon of echinacea extract, and swallow the mixture. Repeat three times daily.
For inflamed gums or canker sores: Apply echinacea extract with a cotton swab three times daily.
How to prepare:
Infusion: Make a tea by simmering 2 teaspoons of echinacea root in 1 cup of water in a covered pot for 15 minutes. Strain and use as directed.
Extract: Echinacea extract is readily available, but it’s also easy to make your own. Buy good-quality dried, shredded echinacea flowers and roots. Fill a wide-mouth glass canning jar two-thirds full of the herb, and add enough vodka to fill the jar. Stir well, cover, and let the herb steep for three weeks, giving the jar a good shake once a day. Strain the extract through several layers of cheesecloth, squeezing as much liquid as possible out of the herb. Store the extract in a glass bottle in a cool, dark place.
If you have fresh echinacea available, you’ll need to make the extract in two stages: in midsummer, when the flowers are blooming, and again in the fall, when the roots are ready to be harvested. Chop the flowers and roots, or grind them using a meat grinder. Steep the flowers for three weeks, strain the extract, and then repeat the procedure (using the same extract) when you harvest the roots.
Notes: Echinacea is native to the plains of North America and is easy to grow in any sunny, well-drained location. The large magenta daisylike flowers are a beautiful addition to a garden and make wonderful cut flowers. If you want to grow echinacea for making extracts, wait until the plant is three years old before harvesting the roots—that’s how long it takes for the roots to be large enough to harvest.
Latin name: Sambucus nigra, S. canadensis
Part used: Ripe fruit
Medicinal uses: Elderberry is an excellent herbal ally for warding off colds and flu. The berries are rich in vitamin C, and researchers have identified other natural compounds that prevent cold and flu viruses from invading and infecting healthy cells. Studies have shown that taking elderberry extract throughout the cold-and-flu season provides significant protection against illness. If you do come down with a cold or flu, taking elderberry can cut the recovery time in half.
How to use:
For cold and flu prevention: Take 1/2 teaspoon of extract or 1 to 2 teaspoons of syrup twice daily.
For treating colds and flu: Take 1 teaspoon of extract or 1 tablespoon of syrup four times a day.
How to prepare:
Extract: You can buy elderberry extract, or you can make your own. Start with good-quality, dried elderberries. Fill a wide-mouth glass canning jar two-thirds full of the berries, and add enough vodka to fill the jar. Stir well, cover, and let the berries steep for three weeks, giving the jar a good shake once a day. Strain the extract through several layers of cheesecloth, squeezing as much liquid as possible out of the berries. Store the extract in a glass bottle in a cool, dark place.
Syrup: Elderberry syrup is widely available; it’s also simple to make a tasty syrup at home. Pour 2 cups of boiling water over 1 cup of dried elderberries. Soak the berries for 8 hours, and then simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Strain, measure the remaining liquid, and add an equal amount of honey to the liquid (discard the berries). Gently reheat the mixture until the honey has completely dissolved. Pour into a clean glass bottle and store in the refrigerator.
Notes: While researchers have focused on the European elder (S. nigra), the North American species, American elder (S. canadensis), is believed to have the same healing properties. American elder grows wild throughout much of the United States and the berries are abundant in the early fall. Be sure you properly identify elderberry before harvesting. The raw fruit may cause vomiting or diarrhea; dried berries do not cause these problems.
Latin name: Zingiber officinale
Part used: Rhizome
Medicinal uses: The pungent underground stem of the tropical ginger plant has been used for centuries in European, Chinese, and Ayurvedic herbal medicine. It makes sense—ginger is almost an entire medicine kit in itself. All types of digestive disorders—such as gas, heartburn, and nausea—are eased by ginger. It also provides relief from morning sickness and motion sickness. The antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory compounds in ginger help to ease menstrual cramps and headaches. And the warming properties of ginger help to stave off the chills of a cold or flu and ease muscle aches caused by the flu or overexertion.
How to use:
For indigestion, gas, or heartburn: Sip a cup of ginger infusion as often as needed.
For morning sickness: Take 2 capsules of powdered ginger with water as needed, up to 1 g per day. Sipping ginger tea can also help, as can sucking on a piece of crystallized ginger.
For motion sickness: Take up to 1 g of powdered ginger 30 minutes prior to traveling.
For menstrual cramps and headaches: Drink ginger infusion as desired; soak feet in a hot ginger bath.
For colds and flu: Drink 4 cups of ginger infusion throughout the day. Soak in a hot ginger bath for 20 minutes.
For muscle aches: Soak in a hot ginger bath for 20 minutes. Add 2 cups of Epsom salts to the bath to further ease muscle soreness.
How to prepare:
Infusion: Simmer 2 teaspoons of fresh, chopped gingerroot in 1 cup of water in a covered pot for 10 minutes. Strain and use as directed.
Bath: Grate a handful of fresh ginger into a thin cotton handkerchief, tie into a ball, and run hot bath water through the ginger ball to make a bathtub full of ginger tea.
Notes: An easy way to obtain the health benefits of ginger is to include it liberally in cooking—fresh gingerroot is a wonderful addition to soups and stir-fries. Minced crystallized ginger is delicious added to fresh berries or other fruits. People with gallstones should consult their health-care practitioner before taking ginger.
Laurel Vukovic writes and teaches about herbs and natural healing from her home in Southern Oregon. She is the author of 14-Day Herbal Cleansing: A Step-by-Step Guide to All Natural Inner Cleansing Techniques for Increased Energy, Vitality and Beauty (Prentice Hall, 1998) and Herbal Healing Secrets for Women (Prentice Hall, 2000).