Use this guide to grow and use medicinal plants such as echinacea, tulsi and chamomile.
Calendula, which comes in almost 100 different varieties, is a favorite for first-aid and cosmetic purposes in oils, creams and salves.
Photo by iStockOver the past 20 years or so, more people have become aware of herbs’ ability to increase our health and well-being. Unfortunately, with this growth, we’ve also seen an increase in supplements made with low-quality herbs that are irradiated, sprayed, and grown in unsustainable or unethical ways, especially from large chain retailers. While there are more and more options worth buying all the time, you can save money by growing some of your medicine yourself.
In addition to saving money, making and using our own medicines can be a fun and empowering way to bring health and wellness to ourselves, our families and our communities. Cut a bouquet of lavender spikes to put in a vase next to your grandmother’s bed to help her relax. Make an extract of echinacea to help your family get through cold and flu season. Dry some chamomile, tulsi and nettle, and combine them with other herbs for a nourishing and tasty tea blend to sell at your local farmers market. There are countless ways we can share plants’ healing gifts with others through our own gardens.
Here we focus on some of the easier medicinal herbs to grow and those whose harvest and methods of use are simple and likely to bring you success. They all grow well in most parts of the country, and pack a serious punch when it comes to medicinal compounds.
German chamomile, a must-have for every herb pantry, is productive and highly medicinal. It is an anti-inflammatory nervine that has a calming effect on the nervous and digestive systems, and it’s safe for children and adults who are in a weakened state. Chamomile has antiseptic properties and is used topically in washes for skin, eyes and mouth. Its essential oil is useful in creams, oils and salves. When brewed as a tea, the sweet little blossoms bring a sense of well-being. Chamomile can also be formulated with other herbs and taken in extract form as a digestive, a sleep aid and an overall nerve tonic.
• Self-seeding annual that grows tenaciously in many environments but prefers cooler climates
• Pest- and disease-resistant
• Prefers full sun; can be grown in partial shade in hotter climates
• Likes well-drained soil with good fertility, ample moisture and lots of organic matter
• Will self-seed but may not outcompete weeds; direct-seed in the fall or early spring (cover lightly); thin plants to 10 inches apart
• Blooms early to mid summer
Harvest and Use: Many large commercial growers of chamomile sacrifice quality for expediency by using combines to harvest the flowers. Hand-harvesting chamomile blossoms retains more of the essential oils and medicinal compounds. Pick blossoms by hand during full bloom every seven to 10 days during peak bloom time. Flowering may slow down during hot, dry spells and then resume when cool weather returns.
You can use fresh blossoms immediately, but they’re also relatively easy to dry. To ensure the centers of the flowers are dried completely but volatile oils are not lost, dry at lower temperatures (85 to 95 degrees) somewhere with good airflow and limited light.
Simplest preparation: Add a tablespoon of fresh or dried buds to 6 ounces of hot water in a cup or teapot and steep for five minutes, then sip before bed or anytime you need to relax. Steeping for longer than the recommended time or boiling the blossoms can volatilize the essential oils in the plants, reducing the quality and negatively affecting taste and aroma.
Beautiful, perennial echinacea begins showing its gorgeous purple and red flowers in midsummer and continues for many weeks. Its nectar is a favorite among pollinators.
Nearly the entire plant—roots, seeds, leaves, flowers (but not stems)—is medicinal. Echinacea is highly effective at strengthening the body’s immune response. Specifically, it increases the macrophage T-cell activity and helps boost the immune system at the onset of infection. It has been used successfully for hundreds of years to treat colds and flus and works well against both viral and bacterial infections. Echinacea can be used as a tea, made into tinctures, powdered and encapsulated, or made into mouthwashes and throat sprays. It is safe for children and adults, but it should only be used to fight active infections, not as a daily tonic. Note: Echinacea should not be taken by those with immune disorders; consult a physician if you are in doubt.
• Perennial hardy to USDA zones 3 to 8; drought tolerant
• Likes well-drained, loamy soil with ample fertility; benefits from topdressings of organic fertilizer
• Consistent water supply increases growth, but can tolerate long dry spells
• Direct-seed in fall or early spring (cover lightly with soil) or by transplanting plugs or crown divisions; thin plants to 18 inches apart
• Somewhat susceptible to the plant virus aster yellows; avoid planting next to calendula or other members of the aster family, which are also susceptible to the disease
• Begins showing purple and red flowers in midsummer during the first or second year of growth and continues for many weeks
Harvest and Use: Leaves and flowers can begin to be harvested in the first year if planted early enough. To ensure enough aerial growth to feed the root system, cut back no more than 20 percent of the tops. Heavier leaf and flower harvests can be made from more mature plants without compromising root growth.
The roots are ready to harvest in the early spring or fall of the third or fourth year. Harvest by hand with a spading fork or mechanically using a potato digger. Prior to digging roots, cut down or harvest the aerial parts. It is helpful to quarter roots before washing. After splitting the roots, wash thoroughly before drying. The roots dry under optimum conditions in three to four days. For large harvests, mill roots using an electric leaf shredder/wood chipper after they are fully dried. Small harvests can be chopped with sharp pruning shears.
Once flowers are harvested, clip blossoms off the stem and run them through a chipper or cut by hand. Spread the cut blossoms on drying screens with good airflow at temperatures of 90 to 100 degrees. Cutting the blossoms before drying helps them dry more uniformly.
Leaves can be dried easily on the stalks. Place them in a single layer on drying racks, and dry at temperatures of 100 to 110 degrees. Once dried, garble (rub the plants over quarter-inch stainless steel mesh to remove the stems). Small-scale leaf harvests can be stripped off of stalks before drying.
Simplest preparation: As with most herb roots, echinacea should be prepared using the decoction method, which means to simmer them in boiling water for 15 to 20 minutes to extract the water-soluble medicinal compounds. Leaves, seeds and flowers can also be decocted by this method with or without the roots.
Fragrant and delicious tulsi has green to purple leaves and deep purple flowers with eye-popping orange stamens, plus a wonderful, heady clovelike scent attractive to bees and humans alike.
Tulsi is a heavenly adaptogenic herb that makes delicious teas, tinctures and elixirs. As a tonic, tulsi builds energy, is uplifting to the spirit and brings a sense of wholeness and well-being. It is one of our favorite tea herbs on the farm, and we drink it daily. Tulsi is also good for releasing stress and easing anxiety and acts as an anti-inflammatory. Externally it can be used to make hydrosols, spritzers or skin washes. Its aromatics are refreshing and ease feelings of exhaustion. Its antimicrobial properties help to tone and heal skin.
• Bushy annual or short-lived tropical perennial
• Extremely sensitive to frost
• No pest or disease problems
• Needs full sun (at least six hours)
• Likes rich soils with ample moisture but is drought-tolerant
• Direct seed after threat of frost, or plant plugs of tulsi about 12 inches apart to create a dense hedge
Harvest and Use: Harvesting tulsi by hand is easy. Harvest plants when they are flowering and before they have gone to seed. Cut the entire aerial part of the plants with a pruning shear or sharp knife, leaving six to eight inches to allow it to generate a few more cuttings during the season.
Because of its high moisture and essential oil content, tulsi should be processed immediately after harvest. For fresh use, cool the plant quickly by laying the fresh harvest on tarps or screens in a shady, cool environment. To dry, lay tulsi on drying racks in a single layer with good airflow. Dry at 100 to 110 degrees. It is not unusual for tulsi to take up to a week to dry completely.
Simplest preparation: Steep a tablespoon of fresh or dried leaves and flowers in boiling water for five to 10 minutes. Enjoy a cup of tea every day to promote overall well-being.
Pretty and fragrant lavender, with its spiky purple flowers and grayish-blue leaves, is a perennial woody shrub that is hardy to USDA zones 4 to 9 and pest- and disease-resistant. At any health-food store or farmers market you can find lavender in soaps, sachets, essential oils, lotions, salves, extracts, teas, decorative weavings, baked goods, flavorings, body powders and bath salts. Lavender is familiar and beloved—it’s a powerful nervine, helps reduce anxiety, promotes relaxation, and restores a sense of well-being to the frazzled.
• Likes full sun and well-drained, sandy soil
• Marginally hardy, needs heavy mulch during winter in colder regions
• Does not require highly enriched soils but after subsequent seasons may benefit from atopdressing of compost or organic fertilizer
• Can be grown from seeds or vegetative cuttings cut from soft stems; set transplants 12 to 16 inches apart when roots are well-established
• Can take a couple of seasons to become established and produce a solid blossom crop, but will continue to produce well for five or six years before dropping off
• Prune plants after second season, leaving one to two inches of green growth above woody section
Harvest and Use: Lavender produces abundant blossoms after the first season and should be harvested for medicinal purposes when it’s beginning to bloom but before all the flowers are fully open. To harvest lavender, use a sharp knife to cut off the flowering stalks a couple of inches above the leaves, then pick the small blossoms off the plant if you’d like to separate them. The stems also contain essential oils. To dry lavender, lay out the flower stalks in a single, compact layer on drying racks out of direct light, and dry at 100 to 110 degrees. Lavender should dry in a couple of days. When dry, the blossoms will rub off the stems easily.
Simplest preparation: Toss a handful of fresh or dried lavender buds in your bathtub and soak away. Place a vase of lavender stems next to your bed to help you relax in the evening. Infuse fresh or dried blossoms for four to six weeks by filling a jar half full of blossoms then covering the plant material with olive oil or other good quality plant-based oil to make a relaxing massage oil. You can also add this oil to your favorite healing salves (do not ingest).
The more than 100 varieties of calendula, often referred to as pot marigold (not the same as ornamental marigolds, Tagetes spp.), have blossoms ranging from tiny and yellow to big sunbursts of 3-inch orange flowers. The strikingly beautiful flowers are sticky and fragrant, containing medicinal resins. People and pollinators alike flock to its lovely color and sunny disposition.
Calendula is a favorite for both first-aid kits and cosmetic purposes and is used in topical applications such as liniments, salves, oils, creams and serums. Its blossoms are used to heal burns, cuts and skin abrasions. Not only does calendula promote cellular healing, it is also antiseptic and antimicrobial and helps fight infection. Calendula can also be used to clean wounds and is often paired with spilanthes, myrrh and peppermint to use as a mouthwash. Internally, calendula is a strong lymphatic, excellent for tonifying the lymphatic system and flushing toxins. Calendula is a cooling herb that has anti-inflammatory and bitter properties and can be taken internally in tea or tincture form.
• Self-seeding annual that grows best in full sun and well-drained soil rich in organic matter
• Sow seeds 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 inch deep in weed-free bed; or start with transplants to outcompete weeds; start with new seed or transplants each season; thin plants to 1 foot part
• Somewhat susceptible to aster yellows disease; avoid planting near other members of the aster family
• Consider mulching beds to reduce weed pressure, which can compromise yields and plant vigor
• Generous bloomer; harvest every few days from early summer to first killing frost in fall to keep plants producing; always deadhead blossoms that are beginning to go to seed
• ‘Erfurter Orangefarbige’ is a commercial variety bred to produce lots of large, dense flowers high in resin content
Harvest and Use: Harvest calendula by hand when blossoms are fully open but before they begin to go to seed. Do this during the heat of the day, when blossoms are open and resin concentrations are high; fingers should get sticky when picking.
Drying calendula can be tricky because different parts of the blossoms dry at different rates. For optimum quality, dry blossoms in a single layer in complete darkness at 95 to 100 degrees with fans blowing over drying rack. Food dehydrators work well, too. It can take a week or more to get blossoms completely dry. Even the most experienced herbalist can misstep drying calendula, so check dried calendula every couple of days for two weeks—to check, put dried flowers in a jar with a lid. If moisture accumulates inside the jar, the calendula is not fully dry. Preserve fresh calendula for topical use by making an infused oil: Simply fill a glass jar halfway with herbs, cover with oil, stir and cover. Shake daily for two to eight weeks, then strain and use externally (do not ingest). We like to infuse our calendula oil in the full sun for increased extraction.
Simplest preparation: Steep a tablespoon of fresh or dried calendula flowers in boiling water for 10 minutes or so, and use a cotton swab or cloth to apply the solution to cuts and burns.
Perennial stinging nettle, hardy to USDA zones 2 to 10, is an amazing medicinal plant, a superfood, and a source of fiber that can be used like hemp. The square stems and lance-shaped leaves are covered with fine hairs containing formic acid that can produce an itchy sting if you touch them. Wear gloves and long sleeves for harvest.
Nettle is an incredible, nutrient-dense, tonic herb that is fortifying to the body, full of chlorophyll, vitamins, minerals, micronutrients and protein. It is wonderful for promoting liver and kidney health and feeds the entire body. It is a superfood that restores health and vitality. Nettle can be used in many ways: in teas, extracts and powders. Nettle is also an amazing spring green to eat in soups and casseroles and is delicious steamed, sautéed or braised. Once dried or cooked, nettle loses its sting. It has astringent, anti-inflammatory properties and can be used to treat and prevent allergies, urinary tract infections and liver imbalances. The roots and seeds are also medicinal and work well to reduce prostate inflammation.
• Hardy perennial grows well in full sun to partial shade
• Thrives in soils rich with organic matter
• Prefers adequate moisture but can tolerate dry conditions
• Easily propagated from seeds (sow thinly and cover lightly) or vegetative cuttings taken in early spring, planted in potting soil and kept well watered; thin plants to 12 inches apart
• Plant in a low-traffic area to avoid stinging people. Nettle can be a vigorous self-seeder so remove seed heads before they ripen or plant in an isolated place.
• Red Admiral butterfly larvae are a major pest; manage with handpicking or applying raw neem oil preparations, which are not injurious to beneficial insects.
Harvest and Use: Harvest leaves at early stages of growth all the way to the onset of flowering but before the plants set seed. Cut stems 12 inches above the base of the plant to encourage further growth for a second and sometimes third harvest. Nettle leaves dry easily on the stem and should be placed whole in a single layer on drying racks. Dry at 95 to 100 degrees, out of direct light in good airflow. Remove leaves when they break easily off the main stems but before stems lose all pliability.
Simplest preparation: Nettles are a great example of food as medicine and can be used as a “replacement green” in any recipe that calls for steamed, braised or sautéed greens. One of my favorite recipes is nettle soup made with lots of garlic and chicken bone broth. My wife, Melanie, makes a delicious nettle spanakopita. Nettle leaves can become tough late in the season, so use them while they are young and tender.
For more expert tips check out How to Harvest, Clean and Use Medicinal Herbs.
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