Imagine having a living, aromatic medicine chest right outside your back door.
We can ensure a steady supply of high-quality medicine and a beautiful garden by growing our own collection of medicinal herbs. Throughout the world, native healers have traditionally eaten a bit of the native medicinal plants in an area where they are working to “calibrate” themselves to that environment. In similar fashion, you can “calibrate” your health to your own unique environment by using herbs from your own garden to support your health.
Although the herbs listed here will grow almost anywhere in North America, select plant varieties that are native to your region. If a particular herb does not grow well in your garden, think of the actions of that plant and consult with local herbalists to discover herbs with similar properties that grow well in your region. Goldenseal, for example, is native to the woodland forests of the northeast and central northern regions of North America and loves moist but not soggy growing conditions. Oregon grape root, with its high berberine levels, has similar medicinal properties and grows exceptionally well in the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. Choose plants that thrive in your local region and are suited to the conditions in your garden.
Peppermint (Mentha xpiperita)
Indigenous to Europe and Asia, peppermint is a rapid grower that has naturalized throughout most of North America. Peppermint has square stems with dark green leaves and spikes of white flowers that bloom throughout the summer.
Peppermint has a wide variety of medicinal actions. It’s effective for pain management: Recent research with mice demonstrates peppermint tea can reduce central nerve pain; and menthol-rich peppermint applied topically reduces muscle and joint pain. For the digestive system, peppermint also offers a wide range of beneficial effects: Used externally, peppermint oil reduces the nausea often associated with chemotherapy and surgery (but not pregnancy); peppermint relaxes the muscles lining the digestive tract and reduces pain, making it helpful for the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome; and in studies, infants with colic responded as well to internal use of peppermint as to the pharmaceutical simethicone. Cell studies have demonstrated peppermint has bacteriocidal effect on Helicobacter pylori, the primary cause of stomach ulcers. (Avoid using peppermint late in the day as it can aggravate acid reflux.)
Grow it: Peppermint will grow almost anywhere but prefers damp ground. Peppermint is a cross between water mint and spearmint and, like many hybrids, its seeds are sterile. It spreads via rhizomes—roots that move horizontally under the soil. You can also propagate peppermint by dividing or making cuttings. If you want to grow other herbs in your garden, contain peppermint in a clay pot. Once peppermint is established in the garden, it will happily colonize the entire plot. Although peppermint will tolerate partial shade, it will have higher essential oil content and more potent medicinal properties if grown in full sun.
Use it: Harvest leaves at their peak, just before the plant flowers. Cut back to the first or second set of leaves. You can harvest two or three times in a season, and this trimming helps the plants grow bushier. Spread the leafy stems on a screen and dry out of the sun. Gently strip the leaves from the stems and store whole in a dark glass bottle to maintain potency. Infuse fresh or dried peppermint leaves in a cup of boiling water to benefit the digestive system. You also can create a salve with peppermint leaves infused in vegetable oil to rub on sore muscles and joints.
Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia)
Echinacea is a tall perennial herb native to the prairie grasslands. Echinacea roots may reduce inflammation, in turn boosting immune function. In studies, healthy participants taking echinacea had a reduction in inflammatory markers and an increase in anti-inflammatory activity (its immune-boosting effects were more effective in those producing more of the stress hormone cortisol). Echinacea may also help stabilize blood sugar levels and discourage fat cell production.
Grow it: Echinacea angustifolia has larger, fleshier roots and may have more medicinal activity than E. purpurea. Sow seeds in the spring and water well during the first year. Once established, echinacea is highly drought-resistant. Allow a few flowers to go to seed and echinacea will naturally grow in its preferred spots in the garden. Harvest roots in early autumn. If you plan to make a tincture, use the fresh roots quickly, ideally within 24 hours. Some research suggests extracts made from fresh plants have almost three times more active substances than an equal amount of dried herb.
Use it: Drink echinacea tea at the first sign of illness. To make tea, simmer 2 teaspoons of dried root in a pint of hot water for 15 minutes. For the brave, hold echinacea tincture at the back of the throat as long as you can, then swallow it. For adults, drink tea or take capsules of dried herb every two to three hours. Continue at a lower dose (such as a cup of tea or two capsules) three times a day for one to two weeks after symptoms resolve. Along with its well-known use for fighting colds, consider echinacea for any bodily infection such as respiratory and bladder infections. Echinacea is also a good choice to apply topically for bee stings, boils and cuts. Note: Echinacea may cause an allergic reaction in those with ragweed allergies.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Yarrow grows wild throughout most of North America. You can see the white blossoms of this native wildflower nodding in summer breezes in open fields and on rocky outcroppings. Research has found that yarrow may relax blood vessels, potentially helping lower blood pressure. Yarrow also is used as a diaphoretic to cause sweating, which can be useful to fight off illnesses that are just coming on.
Grow it: Your first yarrow plant might come from a friend or neighbor who is dividing a flourishing yarrow plant. Yarrow also can be grown from seed. Start it indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost. Harden off your seedlings by setting them outside for a few hours a day for a week before planting, and then plant them in well-drained soil. Yarrow is very forgiving and will grow even in dry, infertile soil.
Use it: Gather yarrow blossoms and leaves from June to August when the flowers are at their peak. You can use these fresh to brew a cup of tea or dry them on a screen to save for the winter months. At the first sign of a cold, induce sweating by taking a hot bath and drinking yarrow tea, and you may be able to avert the illness. Stay warm and avoid becoming chilled after starting to sweat. (Note: This treatment is not recommended for young children or for frail or elderly people, as intense sweating can be highly depleting.) Yarrow’s antiseptic properties make it a natural ally in fighting bladder infections.
German Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)
Native to central and southern Europe, German chamomile is a beautiful flowering annual with a bright yellow center and a daisylike white flower. (Be sure to check the botanical name on any plant or seeds you buy, as Roman chamomile, or Chamaemelum nobilis, has a similar common name but slightly different medicinal actions.) Chamomile has been used for centuries to calm nerves, reduce anxiety and soothe the digestive system. Recent research suggests chamomile may have potent antioxidant activity, protecting the liver and the digestive tract from oxidative damage, and blocking certain inflammatory pathways, helping reduce inflammation throughout the body.
Grow it: Sow chamomile seeds indoors six weeks before the last frost and then transplant into the garden after hardening off. You also can sow seeds directly in the garden in early spring or in autumn. Either way, avoid covering the seeds with soil, as they need light to germinate; instead, simply set seeds on soil surface. Once established, chamomile will self-seed throughout the garden.
Use it: Gather chamomile flowers (not stems or leaves) when they are at their peak, ideally just after the dew has dried. Dry on a screen out of direct sunlight. Store the dried blossoms in a dark glass bottle in a cool, dry area. Make tea from the fragrant, apple-scented blossoms to help prepare for sleep, soothe an upset stomach or relieve a headache. To use chamomile for colic, limit use to 1 to 2 ounces of tea a day; for children younger than 5, limit intake to half a cup of tea per day. Note: Stop using chamomile two weeks before any scheduled surgery.
Oregon Grape Root (Berberis aquifolium)
The spiky, holly-shaped leaves and bright, blue-black berries of Oregon grape root make it easy to identify in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. The bark of the root and stem have a wide range of medicinal properties. Oregon grape root is rich in berberine (also found in goldenseal and golden thread), a substance that can increase bile secretion in the liver for up to 90 minutes and has a wide range of antibacterial and antifungal activity. Recent research supports the long-time folk use of berberine-rich plants, including Oregon grape root, to treat psoriasis and eczema.
Grow it: You can grow Oregon grape root from seed or from the suckers of an established plant. Plant Oregon grape root in a shady area where it will tolerate dry or moist, but not wet, conditions. Yellow, honey-scented flowers unfurl in late spring and produce edible (but very sour) grapelike berries in the summer. The bright green leaves turn purplish-red in winter.
Use it: Harvest the berberine-rich bark from the roots and stems after the plant has grown for a few years. If possible, take only part of the plant so that it can continue to grow. Strip the brilliant yellow inner bark from the roots and stems and dry away from direct sunlight. Decoct a tea from the dried roots by simmering 1 teaspoon of dried root in a cup of water for 10 minutes.
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)
Goldenseal is native to the forests of eastern North America. A century ago, overharvesting of golden thread led herbalists to recommend goldenseal as a substitute. Today, with loss of native habitat and overharvesting, goldenseal is endangered, too. You can help ensure the survival of this potent healing ally by growing it in a shady spot in your garden.
Similar to Oregon grape root, goldenseal increases bile production. Goldenseal also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which may make it helpful in treating diabetes. In animal studies, berberine reduced oxidative stress and inflammation in the liver, adipose tissue, kidney and pancreas, in turn helping reduce the effects of diabetes. For generations, goldenseal has been used to treat skin infections. Recent cell studies show goldenseal has bactericidal activity against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), confirming this internal use for goldenseal. Cell studies have also shown goldenseal inhibits growth of H1N1 and influenza A viruses.
Grow it: You can grow goldenseal from seed, rhizome divisions or rootlet cuttings. The seeds must be stratified, meaning they’re exposed to cold, wet conditions as if they were nestled in the ground through winter. You can simulate these conditions by combining three parts vermiculite with one part seed. Slightly moisten the vermiculite (if you moisten too much, the seeds will rot), place in a sealable plastic bag and store in the refrigerator for two to three months. Grow goldenseal for at least three years before harvesting the roots in autumn, when the leaves are still green. Clean the roots carefully and dry away from heat or sunlight.
Use it: Decoct 1 teaspoon of dried goldenseal root in a cup of water for 15 minutes to make a tea. You can also make a tincture or fill size “00” capsules with the dried, ground root and take two capsules per dose. For acute conditions, such as a cold or other infection, drink a cup of tea or take two capsules every two to three hours. For chronic conditions such as diabetes, take goldenseal two to three times a day. Note: Goldenseal may also reduce beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract. If you use goldenseal regularly, take a high-quality probiotic daily.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
Purple passionflower is a stunning wildflower native to the southeastern U.S. Often found growing wild along roadsides, passionflower vines can trail up to 15 feet. Train this native beauty over a trellis or fence, or allow it to vine through your garden. Passionflower may reduce anxiety by influencing neurotransmitter receptors. In a recent study, 63 patients preparing for periodontal work were given either passionflower extract or a placebo. Those receiving passionflower had significantly lower anxiety. Traditionally, passionflower has been used to treat asthma, and recent research demonstrates passionflower can reduce wheezing, cough and shortness of breath for those suffering from asthma.
Grow it: Passionflower can be grown from cuttings or from seed. The cuttings may need up to three months to root. Soak seeds in warm water for 12 hours before sowing them indoors. Be patient, as the seeds may take up to a year to germinate. You may want to keep the young plants indoors until the following spring. Plant the seedlings in spring in a well-drained, sunny spot in the garden. Add a bit of compost to the planting hole. Keep the soil evenly moist throughout the growing season.
Use it: Harvest passionflower when the blossoms are at their peak, ideally just after the morning dew has dried. Make fresh tea or tincture with the blossoms. You also can dry the blossoms on a screen out of direct sunlight. To prepare for sleep, make a cup of tea at bedtime by steeping a teaspoon of the dried flowers in a cup of boiling water. The fruits ripen September through November and have a lovely tropical flavor. The fruits will keep in the refrigerator for one to two weeks. Note: Don’t use passionflower if you are pregnant or nursing.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Lemon balm releases its delightful lemony scent when you brush against it in the garden. Native to south central Europe and northern Africa, lemon balm has naturalized throughout most of North America and its many medicinal uses make it a wonderful garden plant.
Lemon balm helps soothe the nervous system, making it useful for anxiety and mild depression. In a recent study, 169 primary school children with restlessness and insomnia (not attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) were given 640 mg valerian root extract and 320 mg lemon balm extract daily for seven weeks. Based on parents’ surveys, the children showed remarkable improvement: Inability to focus decreased from 75 percent to 14 percent; hyperactivity from 61 percent to 13 percent; and impulsiveness from 59 percent to 22 percent.
Lemon balm is also helpful in preventing viral activity: Studies have indicated that it may prevent oral canker sores by preventing the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1) from entering healthy cells (recent research finds lemon balm may even prevent herpes infection in strains of HSV-1 resistant to antiviral drugs such as Acyclovir). Note: In one study, a lemon balm extract was more effective than rosmarinic acid, an isolated constituent of lemon balm. This highlights medicinal plants’ complex, synergistic actions; isolated components of a plant rarely have as potent an effect as the whole plant.
Grow it: A member of the mint family, lemon balm grows in well-drained clay or sandy soils. Plant seeds in early spring. Once established, lemon balm will seed itself throughout the garden. You may want to grow lemon balm in containers or in a clay pot sunk into the soil as, like most mints, it can take over the garden.
Use it: Gather lemon balm when its white, fragrant blossoms are at their peak. Use fresh leaves and flowers to make a tincture or a jar of sun tea, or dry them on a screen out of direct sunlight to save for the winter months. Store in a dark glass bottle in a cool, dark area. To relax and calm nerves, drink a cup of lemon balm tea, or take 25 drops of tincture or two capsules of dried herb. To help prevent herpes outbreaks, drink one to two cups of tea daily (or four to five times a day during an acute outbreak). You also can apply a lemon balm salve two to three times a day to heal a canker sore.
American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
Native to northern and eastern North American forests, American ginseng grows well in shady areas. The fleshy white root of the American ginseng plant is a potent adaptogen, helping the body better adapt to stress. Recent research has focused on ginseng’s ability to increase energy, including addressing the fatigue commonly associated with cancer treatments. For diabetics, ginseng can help increase the number of cells in the pancreas that produce insulin and help lower blood sugar levels. Recent research suggests ginseng is safe for diabetics to take long-term. Recent rat studies found ginseng protects the heart muscles from the effects of a heart attack.
Grow it: Find a shady spot that is moist but well-drained to grow ginseng. You can grow ginseng from seeds or seedlings. Keep the seeds in the refrigerator for at least two to three months before planting, then plant them about 1⁄2 inch deep in early spring. For seedlings, plant one to two inches deep in early spring or late autumn. Like goldenseal, ginseng requires a few years’ (at least five) growth before harvesting. In China, the large roots of older ginseng plants are highly prized, particularly if they grow in the shape of a human being.
Use it: Harvest ginseng roots in the early autumn when they are at the peak of their nutrient content. Make a tincture immediately with fresh roots, or dry away from direct sunlight. Make a cup of tea by decocting a teaspoon of the dried root in a cup of water. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. For adaptogen support, drink a cup of tea or take two capsules one to two times a day. For some people, adaptogenic herbs are stimulating. If this is true for you, be sure to take your last dose of ginseng before 3 p.m. to avoid disrupting sleep. For diabetic support, consult your health-care practitioner for guidance about frequency and dosing.
Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata)
Blue vervain is a prairie native with purple candelabra-like blossoms that unfurl in July, at the peak of summer heat. Almost all research on vervain has been done on European vervain (V. officinalis). Blue vervain seems to have many similar medicinal properties, though, and grows beautifully in damp areas of the garden.
Cell studies demonstrate vervain can help protect against nerve damage. This protective effect may explain why traditionally vervain has been used to strengthen and relax the nervous system, potentially affecting depression, seizures and anxiety. Recent studies on mice demonstrate vervain has antitumor effects without damaging the immune system. Vervain also encourages sweating, making it an ally at the beginning of a cold or the flu.
Grow it: Blue vervain likes damp garden areas, and its seeds must spend a winter underground to germinate. Plant seeds directly in the garden in the autumn. Or you can simulate conditions of a winter planted in the ground by storing seeds in the refrigerator in a plastic bag with damp sand or peat moss for three months before planting. Alternatively, purchase seedlings and plant them in the spring. Once established, blue vervain will self-seed in autumn.
Use it: Harvest blue vervain’s leaves and flowers just before the blossoms unfurl. The medicinal properties of the leaves are at their peak just before the blossoms open. Dry on a screen out of direct sunlight. It’s important to dry vervain quickly (for example, on low temperature in a dehydrator), as the leaves may turn black if dried slowly. The leaves and blossoms can be used to make tea or tincture. Soak in a hot bath and drink a cup of blue vervain tea to induce sweating at the very beginning of a cold. Dry off and immediately bundle up or crawl into a warm bed. Avoid drafts or chills. Drink a cup of tea one to two times a day to strengthen and soothe the nervous system.
Be Smart with Herbs
When it comes to using herbs medicinally, always consult a qualified health-care practitioner trained in working with herbs for specific recommendations to address your particular needs. A general rule of thumb: For herbs safe for children, toddlers need about one-fourth of an adult dose; children 6 to 12, half the adult dose. Even adult doses are adjusted according to height, weight and age. Several of the herbs listed here are not recommended for children or pregnant or nursing women. Be especially cautious when using herbal medicines in children or if you are pregnant, nursing or considering using herbs in conjunction with pharmaceuticals.
Judith Boice is a naturopathic physician, acupuncturist and Fellow of the American Board of Naturopathic Oncology. She has a special passion for working with wellness and women’s health and is the author of nine books, including The Green Medicine Chest: Healthy Treasures for the Whole Family. She lives and gardens with her partner, Jeff, two sons and three chickens in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Visit her website for more information.