When we think about medicinal herbs, our first associations may be about healing the body — herbs are commonly used to boost the immune system, relieve pain, improve digestion, soothe skin and support physical health in many other ways. But we can also deploy herbs to support our mental and emotional health. Various herbs can be used to help relieve anxiety and mild depression; promote relaxation and sleep; or improve focus and mental clarity.
So many herbs have been used for these purposes that it would be difficult to provide a complete list. However, those listed on the following pages stand out as particularly easy and appealing to grow and use at home. Altogether, these picks offer an assortment of gorgeous, sweet-smelling plants that are great choices for your garden, and can be made into easy-to-prepare herbal teas.
While the herbs included here are generally safe to use in teas and other herbal products, consult with your health-care provider before using these herbs in large amounts, for long-term use and/or to treat specific medical conditions. It’s a good idea to get professional guidance to determine an appropriate dosage and to be sure you’re aware of potential drug interactions or other side effects. This is especially true for women who are pregnant or nursing, or for anyone taking prescription medications.
Lemon Balm(Melissa officinalis) is a green leafy perennial that resembles its relative mint, but with a distinctive lemony scent. This herb has a long history of being used to reduce stress and anxiety.
To Grow: Start from plants in late spring. Lemon balm is usually considered hardy to Zone 4. The plants can grow to 2 feet or more in height, and are a nice addition to a perennial bed, with prolific green leaves and small white flowers when in bloom. Relatively fast-growing, it takes only about 70 days to reach maturity. Harvest the leaves for use fresh or dried in tea.
For Health: Traditionally used for insomnia and anxiety, lemon balm is often consumed as a tea. Several studies support these medicinal uses, although lemon balm has been combined with other calming herbs such as valerian in some of this research. In fact, lemon balm may have additional benefits for mental health. While more research is needed, one intriguing recent finding is that treatment with lemon balm extract may help improve cognitive function and reduce agitation in people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.
Rosemary(Rosmarinus officinalis) is a drought-tolerant, aromatic perennial shrub native to the Mediterranean, usually with small blue flowers. While best known for its culinary uses, it may also boost mood and protect the brain.
To grow: Start as plants in spring, choosing well-drained soil and full sun. Select rosemary varieties carefully as they can be very different: upright or trailing, compact or sprawling, and with different levels of cold hardiness, although few are advertised as hardy beyond Zone 6. In warm climates, you may be able to grow rosemary as a hedge. In cooler climates, the safe bet is to grow it in a pot and bring it indoors in winter. However, some rosemary varieties (such as ‘Arp’ or ‘Hill Hardy’) may overwinter in cooler climates, especially given heavy mulch or other protection. Reaching maturity in about 100 days, rosemary produces narrow, needle-like leaves that can be clipped off throughout the year, and enjoyed fresh or dried.
For Health: Lab research has documented rosemary’s anticancer and antioxidant properties. One animal study suggests that rosemary may have antidepressant effects, while a 2012 human study suggests it might improve cognitive function at low doses. In addition, studies of rosemary for aromatherapy have shown that the scent can improve memory, increase focus and reduce stress.
(Salvia officinalis) is another common culinary herb with a surprising number of well-researched medicinal uses. A perennial herb native to the Mediterranean, it may have protective effects on memory and cognition.
To Grow: Start as plants in spring. Sage prefers full sun and well-drained soil. It can grow to as much as 3 feet with attractive leaves and small, usually purple flowers that make this plant a nice addition to an herb garden or ornamental border. Many varieties are hardy to Zone 4, and take about 80 to 90 days to harvest. Harvest the leaves, being careful not to overprune. Leaves can be used fresh, or dried to enjoy as a tea.
For Health: Sage has traditionally been used to sharpen the mind, and a number of studies back that up, finding positive effects on sage for memory in both animal and human studies. One study found that for its participants, a single dose of sage improved both mood and memory.
Lavender(Lavandula angustifolia), also known as English lavender, is a bushy perennial shrub. Its beautiful upright blue or purple flowers have a strong scent that many people find relaxing.
To Grow: Start as plants in spring, in a spot with full sun and well-drained soil. With mulch or other protection, lavender can survive in Zone 5 or even 4, especially if you choose Munstead types, which are compact and bushy, with particular cold hardiness. Some types reach 3 feet in height, and most plants take 100 to 110 days to mature. The flowers can be harvested and dried for use as a tea.
For Health: Lavender is a popular calming herb. The essential oils are used in aromatherapy, but you can also enjoy the scent by growing lavender and using it around the house, including by putting the herb in pillows, or adding it to bath and beauty products. Some studies suggest lavender may also reduce anxiety when taken orally.
Valerian(Valeriana officinalis) is a tall perennial herb with sweet-smelling white or pink flowers; however, it’s often grown for its pungent roots, which have a long history of use as a mild sedative.
To Grow: Start it as plants in spring, but wait to harvest roots until fall of the second year. It’s typically hardy to Zone 3, but dies back to the ground in winter. Valerian likes to be kept moist and can reach 5 feet in height; it may be sold as “garden heliotrope.” When it’s time to harvest, dig up the whole plant and clean dirt off roots, then place in a warm area to dry. The roots are often used in a tea, and they can be combined with lemon balm and hops.
For Health: Frequently used as a calming herb, especially for insomnia, valerian’s positive effects for promoting sleep are supported by a number of studies. After 28 days, a group receiving valerian reported fewer insomnia symptoms than those receiving a placebo. It is also used for anxiety, although research results have been mixed and further study is needed.
Hops(Humulus lupulus) are tall perennial vines grown for their green cone-shaped flowers. These flowers, also called strobiles, have a mild sedative effect, which many people enjoy in tea — not to mention beer!
To Grow: Hops benefit from rich soil, full sun and a tall trellis — 10 or even 20 feet tall. Hops are started from rhizomes, which are offered from many garden suppliers that also sell fruit trees — for example, Stark Brothers and Fedco Trees. Plant rhizomes a foot deep and at least 3 feet apart. Many varieties are hardy to Zone 5 or beyond and can be harvested starting the second year. Pick the green cones when they become papery — you will also notice a yellow powder. After picking, allow them to dry thoroughly, and then freeze if not planning to use right away.
For Health: Several studies support the use of hops as a sedative. More recent research also suggests an additional benefit: Hops contain xanthohumol, a compound that lab studies suggest may help protect brain cells from the kind of damage that can lead to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Herb to Know: St. John’s Wort
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) may be the single most well-known herb for mental health, and is often used to treat mild to moderate depression. You can also grow it at home. St. John’s wort is an attractive perennial, usually hardy to Zone 3. It grows up to 3 feet tall, and has pretty, bright yellow flowers; however, in some locations it is considered a noxious weed. Also, compared to the other herbs mentioned here, St. John’s wort can be more complicated to prepare and use at home, because it has potentially serious side effects and may need to be taken at very specific dosages. If you want to try it, talk to your health-care provider first, and consider that standardized commercial preparations may have advantages over growing it at home.