Being hospitalized or ill is bad enough, but the smells of sickness in hospital rooms, oy vey! Every herb garden is full of plants that can make great hospital gifts to ease the patient's mind and spirit.
For all their clean efficiency, hospitals aren’t the most cheerful places to be. When I endured a nine-month hospital stay a few years ago, I desperately missed my family and friends, my home and my garden. So far from everything I loved, it was hard to keep my spirits up as I fought to get well. Noises, light and unpleasant odors in my hospital room grated on my nerves day and night. Pumped full of antibiotics, I didn’t want to inflict sleeping pills on my poor body.
That’s when I turned to sweet-smelling herbs for solace. My mother had given me a hospital gift before I became ill: a small, lavender aromatherapy kit. In the hospital, I used the spray to scent the air and my sheets and pillow. On sleepless nights, I rubbed lavender lotion on my wrists and temples. Then my weary mind could drift off to flowering fields and escape the institutional setting for a time.
As I recovered, my husband brought me snips of fragrant rosemary and crisp lemon geranium. A bunch of thyme from a friend went into a bag in my drawer. I happily added bits of fresh parsley and basil from my garden to hospital food.
During my long convalescent stay, the slips of scented geranium took root in their vase, and I potted them up for my windowsill. A plastic pot, coffee can of soil mix and pebbles for crocking were supplied by my devoted husband. We did the messy work on the hospital patio. For a brief time, I forgot my situation as I happily focused on soil, root and leaves.
The beautiful flowers sent by my friends were lovely to look at—but it was my herbs that brought me peace and pleasure.
If you have a friend or family member in a hospital or nursing home, think of herbs as a starting point for gifts. (DO NOT provide herbal medicines without consulting the attending physician; some interact negatively with pharmaceuticals.)
Herbal bouquets, room sprays, sachets, teas and other goodies make practical and pretty hospital gifts. They’re unusual, easy to handle, small in size, and can benefit your loved one’s emotional and physical health. Choose from ready-made preparations or bring something from your own garden. Here are a few ideas to work with.
The entire herb garden has something to offer ill or frail friends. However, some herbs are easier to obtain and have more varied uses than others. You can grow most of those listed here yourself, or buy them dried or as essential oils. Look for them, too, in commercial lotions, soaps, sachets and room sprays. Find products that use real plant oils, rather than artificial substitutes.
Lavender. Sweet-smelling, relaxing and uplifting, lavender is the best herb to ease the anxiety and emotional pain of illness. It even has antibacterial properties—good in a sickroom spray.
Mint. Mind, body and spirit benefit from the various varieties of mint. Peppermint, especially, clears the head and settles the stomach.
Chamomile. Ease sleeplessness and rattled nerves with gentle chamomile. The fruit-scented tea, with a little honey, is a classic bedtime drink.
Rosemary. Wood smoke and sweet resin combine in rosemary’s unique scent. The herb stimulates appetite and digestion; improves circulation and liver function; and freshens stale rooms.
Thyme. Energizing and uplifting, thyme has been used since medieval times to banish the blues. Warm and mellow, the scent brings the outdoors in and its antiseptic properties are a natural air cleanser.
Bergamot. Usually available as an essential oil, true bergamot comes from a type of Mediterranean orange. (Don’t confuse it with the North American flower Monarda, also called bergamot.) Citrus-sweet bergamot oil adds depth to other herb blends, cheering the spirit, wiping away stress and overriding unpleasant odors.
Geranium. Rose-scented geranium leaves (actually Pelargonium species) soothe anxiety and help ease depression and stress. Lemon geranium plants and dried leaves are long-lasting natural air fresheners.
A bouquet of fresh herbs cut from the garden is a refreshing change from florists’ arrangements. The shapes, colors and scents of herb leaves appeal to many senses—sight, scent and touch.
For eye appeal, include several types of herbs in your posy. Dark-green rosemary, frilly parsley and a dappled plant like variegated lemon balm are a nice combination. Use any gold or silver herb to brighten a bouquet, but don’t overdo the contrast.
Be creative and tuck in herbal flowers, too. Old-fashioned roses qualify (their scent is relaxing and uplifting) and the violet-blue flower stalks of sage are colorful accents. (The blooms taste good, too.)
Fuzzy rose geranium leaves and lambs’ ears add texture to the bunch and are delightful to stroke, like little garden pets. Don’t worry about a glamorous vase. A plain jelly glass or sturdy canning jar is fine. Tough and heavy, neither of these will tip over or break easily. If they do, they’re easily replaced.
Hospital scents can be nasty at times, so little bags of herbs to sniff are a welcome relief. Save the herbs from any bouquets and dry them for a sachet or sweet bag. Even if you can’t sew, you can crumble the herbs in a pretty handkerchief or scrap of cloth and tie it with a ribbon.
Craftier types can stitch little bags with color-coordinated ribbons attached. Tiny patchwork pillows edged with lace and stuffed with fiberfill and herbs are wonderful to tuck under a pillow or pin to a curtain. Skilled needleworkers can let their imaginations go and make animal, flower or angel shapes with touches of embroidery or other decorations.
For the filling, follow these easy steps. If you’re blending, use a glass, pottery or enamel bowl and a wooden spoon. Choose one or a mixture of those herbs mentioned above to best suit your friend’s needs. If you’re unsure, you can’t go wrong with lavender. You can add a teaspoon of ground cloves or cinnamon per cup of herbs for a more complicated scent.
If you have it, a drop of essential oil that matches one of the herbs will increase the scent’s staying power. (Use oils with care—they may stain fabric, leather or wood.)
For the final touch, you can add a fixative like powdered orris root. (Fixatives help hold the scent of a sachet or potpourri.)
If your friend is staying in a hospital or nursing home for long-term care, you can make sachets for drawers and closets, too. Many of the herbs listed above work well in these. Some have special benefits: Lavender, mint and thyme deodorize and neutralize stale areas. Stuff little bags with these herbs and perhaps a drop of bergamot, and put them in closets and in shoes.
To repel moths, mix equal amounts of thyme, wormwood, tansy and dried cloves. Or combine rosemary, peppermint, dried cloves and lemon geranium.
For a stronger hit of fragrance, make up a natural room spray. Add two or three drops of essential oil from one or two of the herbs listed above to a half-cup of spring water. Put the liquid into a small atomizer, shake and spray whenever needed into the air, above the bed or near curtains. Real herbal scents are light and pleasant, unlike commercial perfumes and deodorizers, so they won’t overpower other people in the room. Herbs of special interest include:
• Lavender and rose to sweeten and cool the air.
• Geranium and bergamot to relax and encourage sleep.
• Thyme to cleanse and invigorate
• Lavender and rosemary to deodorize and disinfect.
Institutional food varies. During my illness, I had some that was surprisingly good and some that was pretty bad—but none was like home cooking. And beverages were boring: coffee, black tea, juice and milk.
Fortunately, most hospitals offer the option of a cup of plain hot water, so patients can make their own herbal tea. Other long-term care environments usually have some kind of tea-making facilities. So a selection of herbal teas can be a welcome treat, for taste as well as health reasons. The ones here should be safe for all; if in doubt, check with the attending physician.
• Peppermint tea is a delicious after-dinner drink, good for the digestion and tummy discomfort. (Be sure to tell a doctor if discomfort persists.) Mint tea helps relieve tension headaches and mixes well with other herb teas.
• Chamomile tea is the first choice for bedtime. Add a little honey or two or three dried cloves to sweeten.
• Rosemary tea aids digestion and restores energy. Try it with honey and a little cinnamon.
If your friend’s diet allows, tiny bottles of dried herbs make a nice addition to institutional food. Thyme and basil go with just about anything. Make a tasty salt substitute by mixing onion powder, garlic powder, paprika and powdered rosemary, sage and thyme. Candied ginger settles the stomach and warms the cold fingers and toes that elderly people often experience.
Herbal products are turning up in markets and drugstores, as well as natural health shops. Lotions, soaps, shampoos and lip balms are just some of the things you’ll find. Hospital and nursing home rooms are small, so look for small sizes. Check expiration dates and review lists of ingredients to ensure as much real herbal content as possible.
Whether homemade or store-bought, herbal gifts bring a touch of the natural world to those shut away from it. And that, in itself, is healing to the ill and lonely.
Mary Fran McQuade is a frequent contributor to The Herb Companion. She lives, writes and gardens in Toronto, Canada.