The criteria for getting on this list of favorite herbs is that I have to have known the herb very well, have used it for a long time, and it would have had to be successful the majority of times I used it. If you take any one of these plants, you can do so much with it. You don’t need to use too many herbs—my great-grandmother, who used only a handful of plants on a regular basis, was a very good herbalist. Below I discuss some of the herbs I turn to most often.
Black walnut (Juglans nigra)
Black walnut tincture is extremely antifungal and is quite effective for treating candida, athlete’s foot, and ringworm, topically and orally. To make a black walnut tincture, you should choose the young walnuts that are a little smaller than golf balls and peel off the outer coating with a sharp paring knife. Make up about 2 cups of menstruum (liquid) using a combination of 35 to 45 percent alcohol, 10 percent apple cider vinegar, and the remaining 45 to 55 percent water. Put the peels and the menstruum in the blender and blend it up. Let it sit for 7 to 14 days, press it out (through a tincture press or several layers of cheesecloth), and you have a dark tincture that can be very useful. Be aware that black walnut tincture stains.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
Calendula is good for any skin problem. If you get any unusual skin ailment that you don’t know what to do about or your doctor doesn’t know what to do about it, and it’s been hanging around longer than it should, put calendula on it. You can use tincture, salve, or oil. Remember that dried calendula should be the same color as the fresh. It changes color in about six months even in optimal storage, so dried calendula products are not as reliable as fresh or freshly dried calendula. To keep it viable for a year or so, store your calendula in the freezer. It is interesting to note that any of the herbs that are easy to grow and abundant in nature tend to have a short shelf life.
Cottonwood buds (Populus balsamifera ssp. balsamifera)
Any herb that is very resinous, such as cottonwood buds, can be a wonderful remedy to put on wounds instead of wearing Band-Aids. You just put the tincture on the wound and let it dry thoroughly. If it’s a fairly deep wound, you’ll want to put on several coats of cottonwood bud tincture—it’s like shellacking wood. It’s so much easier than wearing a Band-Aid. You can also use other resinous herbs such as myrrh (Commiphora spp.).
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Dandelion is an incredibly useful herb. I have to say that part of the vitality I experience in my own life is because of eating dandelion. It was one of the plants that I harvested with my mom, picking the dandelion greens and cooking them starting in the spring when they first popped up, all the way through until they became very bitter in late May, and the weather changed.
Dandelion has been eaten in all cultures—the flowers, stems, and seeds. There is so much research on this herb that we could fill up a room with papers on it. It also has a long history of use by the common people. You can use the root or the leaf; I like to use them together in making teas and tinctures to get the optimum medicinal value of dandelion. It is a very good, dependable diuretic if taken on a regular basis in sufficient quantity. It’s especially good for pregnancy, when a woman is getting swollen ankles or when their blood pressure begins to rise in late pregnancy. Dandelion is also helpful for women who are tending toward gestational diabetes.
It’s a very nutritive herb and is completely safe for most people. Dandelion is extremely nutritious and is a good source of minerals, which we need so much in our culture. You can use very large doses of it or smaller doses, depending on the person. It’s a good herb to latch onto as a beginning herbalist and never give it up.
Echinacea (Echinacea spp.)
Echinacea continues to be one of my favorite plants. I began my relationship with echinacea in the 1960s and early ‘70s when I was a young, budding herbalist. I became enamored with it because of its incredible action for stopping colds, treating infections, and its many other uses.
Of the several species of echinacea, Echinacea purpurea is the easiest to grow. It is a good idea to use this species, because you should not buy wild-crafted echinacea at all. There is not much of it left in our herbal world. To make a super-quality echinacea tincture, try adding seeds to the mixture. You can buy them or grow echinacea and save your seeds and mix them with the root, leaf, and the tops of the plant. The seeds produce a lot of the tingling, numbing sensation on the tongue that some people consider an indication of quality. I like to tincture up some of the fresh roots and dry some of them for tea. I freeze some roots after they are washed and dried, so I will have a continuing supply of fresh echinacea if I don’t happen to harvest it the next fall.
Echinacea is very good for spider and insect bites. I often use it for kids in our neighborhood, as they come to me if they get any kind of bite or bee sting. We just make an echinacea tincture poultice right there and leave it on the affected area for fifteen to twenty minutes, making sure it stays wet.
I usually make a gallon or two of echinacea for my family for a year’s use—that includes some to give away. It’s a very good thing if you want to get to know an herb to have an abundance of it. You cannot get to know an herb by a one-ounce bottle. So whatever herbs attract you, you should make a point to get large quantities of those herbs and use them abundantly—spread them on your head, rub them on your body, give them away, ask people to tell you what their experiences with them are, and get intimate with them as much as you can.
Garlic (Allium sativum)
Anywhere you travel you can get garlic—it seems to be a part of everyone’s life everywhere you go. The more garlic you eat, the more resistant you are to things that are out to get you. So amp up your garlic intake when you are around people who have the flu, or when you’re going to be getting on an airplane, or when you’re under stress. The quantity is very important, and you need to be able to ingest it in a way that you can really enjoy. Some people get an upset stomach from eating raw garlic. However you eat it, it helps boost your immunity, reduce blood pressure, and has many other uses as well.
Pickled garlic is an easy, palatable way to eat garlic. A few years ago my family and I went on a bus trip with some of the students from the California School of Herbal Studies down to Baja to see the whales. We picked up someone at the airport who had a very bad flu. As soon as we looked at him, we were scared. We wanted to put him (who we dearly love, by the way) in the kitchen trailer that we pulled behind the bus! We spent the night at the beach, got up in the morning, and he was worse and had a high fever. We got on the road again and had been going only about two minutes when we passed by a stand where the women were selling pickled things. I noticed that one lady had four quart-sized bottles of pickled garlic. So we bought all of her garlic and started eating those garlic cloves right away, because we were determined not to spend our vacation the way this man was. There were about five garlic eaters in our group, and we each ate ten to twelve cloves a day. Day after day other people in our group were falling victim to this terrible, virulent flu. After about three days, several people had it—it was a twelve-day trip. Some of these people were tequila drinkers and liked to drink tequila around the campfire late at night after the kids went to bed. There were no tequila drinkers after a few nights—they were all sick. The only people left around the campfire were the garlic eaters. At the end of the trip, we were about the only ones left standing. It was a very good little study on the healing power of garlic.
Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius and P. ginseng)
Ginseng is another one of my very favorite herbs. I really developed a relationship with it after my daughter was born. I decided I needed to create a tonic for myself, and I had never used ginseng personally; I had only prescribed it for other people. So at thirty-five, when I was getting very little sleep and running a store and seeing clients, I was feeling a little crazy and old. I thought ginseng might be good, and it turned out to be so helpful to me. I have a good constitution for ginseng because I am very slow natured. The first thing I noticed was that I began to sleep very deeply, which I had been missing so much because of nursing and having a baby in our bed. I was able to get a really deep sleep for about six hours, and after about a week of that I felt so much better. Note that if ginseng is not the right herb for you to take or if it’s not the right time in your life to take ginseng, it will cause the opposite effect—restlessness and inability to sleep. So that is a very good criteria to use to judge whether ginseng is a good herb for someone—how it affects their sleep.
I use either Asian (Panax ginseng) or American (P. quinquefolius) ginseng depending on which is good quality. I like to slowly cook the roots in water in order to get the most ginsenosides (the active constituents of the herb). Just cook it until soft—-you don’t have to worry about how long to cook it. I also eat the roots. Then I store the liquid in the refrigerator and drink a little each day. Sometimes I put it in a little wineglass; it is a very good tonic for me. You can also jazz it up by adding some cinnamon sticks or cloves. You can also take the roots out and dry them to make Christmas decorations.
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)
Hawthorn berries are wonderful for all of us, with heart disease being so prevalent in our society. From age forty to sixty, you should start to use hawthorn berry products. The hawthorn elixirs are really tasty. If you have access to fresh hawthorn berries, you can cook them up until they are very soft. Then separate out the seeds, getting all of the gooey plant material off. Add a little honey to that and make a paste. You can freeze that in ice-cube trays (eat two to three ice-cube-size portions a week), or just keep it in the refrigerator in little jars and eat it. You can also make very strong tea and freeze it in an ice-cube tray and take it like that. Or make a tincture—hawthorn is very water-soluble, so doesn’t need a lot of alcohol. It also combines very well with rose hips (Rosa spp.), which have a similar action and add to the flavor. I have heart disease on both sides of my family, so one of the formulas I really love to take is hawthorn, organic lemon peel, lemon juice, rose hips, and a little ginger. It is very tasty—I make a conserve out of that, and it’s a wonderful way to take it. However you want to take it, just explore hawthorn, especially those of you who have heart disease in your family.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Lavender essential oil is one herbal product that I always travel with. It is very good for putting on burns or warts. You can buy lavender in various forms. Lavender tea is great in instances where you come home from work and you can’t unwind. You can have the tea instead of a martini—put the infused flower tea in a martini glass and add a little sliver of lemon. You can keep lavender tincture by your bedside in case you need it to help you sleep. There are so many uses for lavender, and it is one of the most beloved herbs in Europe. A tea of lavender and catnip (Nepeta cataria) is one of the best combinations for helping children relax.
Oregon grape root (Mahonia spp.)
Because I live in the Pacific Northwest and have it in abundance, one of my favorite plants of all time is Oregon grape root and rhizome bark. I strip off the outer bark of the stem and rhizome down to the white wood and use just the bark strips. This makes the herb more potent by eliminating much of the more-inert wood. The small rootlets are great as well. Because of the scarcity of goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), which was my great-grandmother’s favorite herb, it is important for me to use Oregon grape—which has similar properties—in its place. However, Oregon grape is a long-lived perennial and is not that easy to propagate, so we need to be very respectful of using it as well.
Because of its strong antiseptic properties, Oregon grape is good for impetigo, which can be caused by staph or strep. Children sometimes get these non-healing ulcers around their nose or mouth, or elsewhere on the body. I see a lot of them when I travel in the tropics. The best way to treat these ulcers is with hot soap and water, peeling off all the scabs. After you get all the scabs off, wash again with soap and water and then dab on some antiseptic Oregon grape root tincture (you can also use echinacea tincture). Oregon grape is also highly recommended as an eyewash for conjunctivitis, and is also helpful to take as a prophylactic before you go traveling if you tend to get diarrhea.
Peppermint (Mentha ¥piperita)
All of the mints are so wonderful—you just have to find the one you resonate with. I feel that mints bring joy and a light-hearted spirit to an otherwise sometimes-dismal world. I always think that one of the things we could do in Washington, D.C., and other places where world leaders meet is bring in mists of mint and lavender. It’s a good idea to use the misters or take out the peppermint oil when things are out of balance in your family or in your workplace—it helps change the energy. Usually when we think of using those misters, we are kind of in a good mood already, but it’s a good idea to use them when you are not in a good mood. Mint is always recommended for melancholy, which is not a term that herbalists use much anymore. It’s in all the old herbal books and it was a very important use of herbs in the past. I have been wanting to revamp that word and bring it back out because of all of the people who are taking antidepressants, to remind us that depression is not a new problem.
Mints are also antispasmodic, which is one of the reasons I always carry a little bottle of peppermint essential oil with me. Then when I feel like I am getting stressed out in my shoulders or my neck, I just apply the peppermint oil or have someone rub it on for me. It is really very relaxing. It’s also useful for menstrual cramps or leg cramps. When I feel like I’m getting a headache, I take the peppermint oil and rub it through my hair. It doesn’t take the headache completely away, but it really lightens it up.
Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
Although it’s a little less potent than Panax ginseng, Siberian ginseng is also a very good herb, and the two are excellent in combination. Siberian ginseng is useful for people on chemotherapy and radiation, especially if taken a week to ten days prior to treatment in a sizeable dose, two to three times daily (be sure to consult your health-care provider). It helps to protect your cells, and yet it doesn’t seem to interfere with the radiation and chemotherapy. Many people whom I have helped in the Portland area have not lost their hair and have not had severe, incapacitating side effects such as nausea. It’s been very helpful for a lot of people. Panax ginseng combines well with Siberian ginseng.
Cascade Anderson Geller is a Portland, Oregon–based herbalist. She served as assistant professor and clinical adviser of botanical medicine at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine and at other naturopathic institutions, ran a busy private practice for many years, and has offered her own two-year herbal program in Portland since the 1970s. Her biggest achievement by far, however, is her family: two wonderful, herbal children and a loving, supportive husband who have been willing to drink and eat all manner of interesting concoctions and have not only survived but thrived.