In Europe, chamomile is so widely used that it's often called the "ginseng of Europe," a reference to that mainstay of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Photo by Susan A. Roth
Save time and money by stocking your backyard or windowsill gardens with five basic medicinal herbs. These superstars will treat common ailments such as colds and flu, inflammation, minor cuts, infections, pain, muscle spasms, anxiety, poor digestion and insomnia.
Growing medicinal herbs may seem difficult, and preparing teas or tinctures from them might appear complicated and time-consuming. But the truth is you don’t have to be a skilled gardener to grow a few basic medicinal herbs successfully or be a trained pharmacist to easily prepare them for use. In the process, you may save some money and enjoy yourself.
Five Basic Herbs
There are many easy-to-grow, easy-to-use herbs that you can harvest and prepare to treat minor illnesses. Every medicinal garden should include chamomile, yarrow, lemon balm, echinacea and peppermint. These five basics are safe and effective for the vast majority of people when used as simple teas, poultices or salves.
Echinacea: Super Immune-Booster
Echinacea products are among the top-selling herbs in health-food stores. In the United States, you can buy tinctures and capsules made of the leaves, roots and even the seeds of Echinacea purpurea, one of nine species of perennial herbs in a genus of the aster family that occurs only in North America. Many gardeners know this group collectively as purple coneflower, but echinacea has emerged as the group’s most widely used common name.
(See an image of echinacea growing.)
E. purpurea has been grown as an ornamental in flower gardens for more than 200 years. The Plains Indians used narrow-leaved purple coneflower (E. angustifolia), a common prairie species, as medicine more than they did any other plant. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this species was widely touted as a blood purifier and “cure for what ails you.” Sales of echinacea preparations were brisk through the 1920s, even among physicians, but the herb fell into disuse soon after the introduction of sulfa drugs and a shift from plant preparations to synthetic drugs.
Today in Germany, extracts, tinctures, ointments, salves and other preparations of E. purpurea and E. angustifolia are used to strengthen the immune system against some viral and bacterial invaders, uses backed by extensive research performed during the past 30 years.
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, plants and seeds of E. angustifolia are harder to find, and the seeds germinate much less readily.
While most references suggest using echinacea root for medicinal use, I make a tea of the fresh or dried flowers of E. purpurea: the chemical constituents of the flowers are similar to those of the root. In summer or fall, I simply pour a cup of boiling water over a chopped flower head and steep it, covered, for 10 minutes. For winter use, I make a tincture. I chop an entire plant, place it in a wide-mouthed gallon jar, and pour in about a fifth of 190-proof grain alcohol (never wood or rubbing alcohol) and a quart of water—just enough to cover the plant material. I put on the lid and set the jar aside for two weeks. At the end of this period, the tincture is ready to use. It will retain its effectiveness for at least a year. I swallow about 30 to 60 drops (1 to 2 teaspoons) of the tincture four or five times a day when I feel a cold coming on.
Chamomile: Gentle Yet Powerful
Many Europeans and Americans enjoy chamomile tea, which is made from the dried or fresh flowers of the annual German or Hungarian chamomile (Matricaria recutita, formerly M. chamomilla or Chamomilla recutita). Roman or English chamomile, the flower of the perennial Chamaemelum nobile, is seldom sold in the United States for medicinal use, although it is commonly grown in herb gardens. German and Roman chamomile flowers may be used interchangeably.
(See an image of chamomile growing.)
People have used chamomile tea for centuries as a gentle sleep aid (particularly for children), as well as to ease digestion, promote urination and relieve colic. They also used chamomile tea to wash wounds and sores. Today, the pharmacopoeias (official authorities) of 26 countries approve it to treat inflammation, infection, colic, muscle spasms and tension. All uses except for sedative claims have been confirmed by recent research.
German chamomile is easily grown from seed. The daisylike flowers usually appear within six weeks of planting, so you can often make two plantings in a single growing season. It does best in cooler climates; in the South, it quickly bolts and shrivels under the intense summer sun. German chamomile likes a neutral to slightly acidic, well-drained sandy loam and full sun. Plants self-sow freely, so you’ll probably not need to plant it again after the first season. During the several weeks in which chamomile blooms, you can make several pickings. Spread the flowers in a basket in a warm, dark place to dry.
Making tea with flowers picked from the garden couldn’t be easier. Just pour 1 cup boiling water over 1 heaping teaspoon dried flowers, steep, covered, for 10 minutes, then strain into a cup. Sip a cup of tea three to four times a day to relieve an upset stomach or drink a cup to relax before going to bed.
NOTE: Those allergic to the pollen of other aster family members such as ragweed may also be allergic to chamomile.
Yarrow: First Aid in the Garden
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), another member of the aster family, is known to many as a perennial weed that grows wild along roadsides, meadows and dry wastelands throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The generic name Achillea comes from the legend that Achilles used a poultice of the plant to stop the bleeding of his soldiers’ wounds during the Trojan War. Scientists have since discovered that an alkaloid called achilleine is responsible for stanching blood flow. Yarrow contains more than 120 other chemical components, some of which have been shown to reduce inflammation and muscle spasms and relieve pain. Others are believed to ease digestion, calm anxiety and reduce inflammation.
(See an image of yarrow growing.)
Nearly all yarrows require no care, remain pest-free and are winter-hardy in Zones 3 through 9. As a garden subject, it’s an attractive, 3-foot-tall herb whose stems and ferny leaves are covered with woolly hairs. Flat or round-topped clusters of tiny, white or pale, lilac-pink flowers bloom from June through September. Plants are easily grown from seed or propagated by dividing the roots in the spring or fall. Yarrow adapts well to many soil types but thrives in moderately rich soil in full sun. Harvest the stalks when in full bloom and hang to dry.
I use yarrow as a garden first-aid station. Whenever I cut myself while working outdoors, I wash the cut thoroughly (yarrow doesn’t inhibit the growth of bacteria), then crush some yarrow leaves or flowers in the palm of my hand, and apply them to the cut. Yarrow can also be used in a salve or poultice for minor cuts and wounds. The bleeding usually stops immediately.
To make a yarrow tea, pour a cup of boiling water over 1 to 2 teaspoons of the dried herb and steep, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes, then sip. Drink three cups per day to treat colds and early fevers. Yarrow is not considered toxic, but some people may have an allergic reaction to it.
Lemon Balm: A Tasty Healer
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a favorite of bees, as its generic name attests: Melissa is Greek for “bee.” Popular among herbalists for 2,000 years, this lemon-scented perennial member of the mint family is also high in essential oil content. (“Balm,” which is derived from “balsam,” refers to aromatic, healing plant resins or oils.) It is native to the Mediterranean region, western Asia, southwestern Siberia and northern Africa, but it is widely naturalized in North America.
(See an image of lemon balm growing.)
Traditionally, lemon balm has been used to reduce fevers and treat colds by inducing sweating; calm the digestive tract; relieve spasms related to cramps and headaches; and overcome insomnia. Recent research has confirmed lemon balm’s ability to calm anxiety, relieve spasms, and inhibit the growth of fungi and bacteria. The German government allows preparations of lemon balm to be labeled as treatments for insomnia related to nervous conditions and gastrointestinal spasms.
A slightly sprawling herb growing to 2 feet high, lemon balm is easy to grow from seeds sown in the spring or early fall. It is hardy in Zones 4 through 9. A fertile, moist soil is ideal. Lemon balm tolerates a wide range of acidity, from pH 5 to 7.8, and likes a cool habitat; it thrives in moist, open spots of California’s redwood forests. If grown in full sun, lemon balm may wilt during hot, dry spells. Plants grown under shade tend to be larger and more succulent than those grown in direct sun. It can be invasive, so prune off the flowering tops before they go to seed.
Lemon balm is a great medicinal herb to grow yourself because it is more effective when used fresh or freshly dried. Harvest it just as the plant comes into bloom. Lemon balm is easy to dry but loses much of its scent upon drying. The fresh leaves make a refreshing tea. Pour a cup of boiling water over a small handful of fresh leaves (or 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried leaves) and steep, covered, for 10 minutes. It is delicious either hot or iced.
Peppermint: Spicy-Sweet Digestive Aid
Mint was mentioned as a stomach aid in the Ebers Papyrus, the world’s oldest surviving medical text, believed to date from the 16th century B.C. Once thought to be a distinct species, peppermint (Mentha ×piperita) is actually a hybrid between spearmint (M. spicata) and water mint (M. aquatica).
(See an image of peppermint growing.)
Peppermint leaf tea was traditionally used to allay insomnia, upset stomach, indigestion, nervous tension, colds (by inducing sweating, it was thought to purge the infection), cramps, diarrhea and nausea. Recent research has shown that the essential oil contains substances that relieve muscle spasms and inhibit the growth of bacteria and viruses. Its primary constituent—menthol—gives this hardy perennial herb its spicy-sweet scent and flavor.
Grow mints in containers, as they can be quite invasive. Peppermint’s stalks grow upward to 3 feet tall nearly as fast as its shallow runners spread horizontally. Its flowers are sterile, so you can’t grow plants from seed, but you can easily increase your stock by dividing the roots. In moist but well-drained soil and full sun, peppermint thrives on neglect; in fact, you may need to dig plants up every year to limit their spread. Harvest leaves as they mature and dry them in a warm, dark place.
Peppermint tea is delicious and refreshing. Pour a cup of boiling water over 2 teaspoons of fresh leaves or 1 teaspoon of crushed, dried leaves. Steep, covered, for 10 minutes. Use more or less herb according to your preference. Drink a cup of this tea up to three times a day to aid digestion.
Steven Foster is an author and photographer specializing in medicinal plants.