Houseplants for Herbalists
By Dawn Combs
Most of us have the philosophy that it’s better to buy fruit from the farmer down the road — or pick it out of our backyard — than get it from the grocery store, especially if it has spent a week in transit from the other side of the planet. We still struggle, however, with the idea that our medicines should be given the same consideration. Most medicinal plants are at their best just after you harvest them, giving you the highest nutrient levels and medicinal compounds when used fresh. Local medicine is the basis of my book, Heal Local, and it has become my mission to spread the word that your astragalus root should be just as fresh and local as your carrots.
The idea of local medicine is understandable when we apply it to parsley and peppermint, which are readily available during the growing season at most farmers markets. But what about when our medicine of choice is a tropical plant and we live in a temperate zone? This gap is a perfect space for creativity in our choice of houseplants.
For years, I’ve experimented with growing the herbs we need for our family both on our land and in pots. Some of my houseplants live in the ground during the summer months and then “fly south” for the winter to a sunny, indoor windowsill. Keep in mind that if you would like to try growing your medicinals in pots you will need to research their individual needs. If you don’t understand the environment where they grow naturally in the ground, you won’t be able to mimic that in the pot.
Listed here are a few of my favorites, or rather, the ones I haven’t killed! I’m afraid I’m a bit of an indoor plant failure. Take it from me — if I’ve had success with the following oddities, you can as well.
When planning to use any new herb as a food or medicinal source, consult your health practitioner in order to pinpoint any potential contraindications with existing medications, and take precautions when ingesting a new herb for the first time.
Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica)
Gotu kola is native to India. It grows in ditches and wet areas, forming a creeping mat of shiny, green leaves. Gotu kola has a place in both Chinese and Ayurvedic medicinal practices and a long history of use given the benefits it bestows on our cognitive abilities.
How to Use: Gotu kola leaves are delicious! They can be simple grazing snacks, and you can add them to salads, smoothies, pestos, sauces, and more. The leaves are traditionally infused into teas and oils but are typically not heated so as to protect their delicate phytochemicals.
How to Start: Gotu kola isn’t a great option for starting as a seed unless you are very patient. You’ll do better buying a plant or taking a cutting from someone you know.
How to Grow: I grow my gotu kola in a wide pot, as it likes room to ramble. You might even want to hang it to allow the escaping tendrils to dangle. Gotu kola shouldn’t dry out, so don’t make or buy a potting mix that is filled with too much perlite or sand. My kitchen is a great place to keep gotu kola because there are a number of spots where I can keep the pot out of direct sunlight; it likes to be shaded, so keep it in a warm area away from any windows. Depending on whether your house is situated in a humid or arid environment, you may need to mist the plant often in addition to keeping it evenly watered.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Ashwagandha is a pretty little plant with green leaves and red berries that is native to the dry parts of India. It’s in the same family as the pepper, eggplant, and tomato (Solanaceae or nightshade), so it’s no surprise that ashwagandha resembles the latter fruit. This is one of my indoor/outdoor houseplants. I always move it outside when the weather gets reliably warm in the spring and then bring it back inside in the fall.
How to Use: Throughout the growing season you can pick off the leaves of a healthy ashwagandha
plant and use them in teas. If you carefully dig around the outside edges of your pot, you will find roots that are harvestable. Wait to cut these roots until after the berries have ripened. With a sharp, clean knife, harvest small roots, and then carefully bury the plant again in moist soil. Medicinally, ashwagandha is used as an adaptogen, supporting the immune system, the endocrine system, and reducing stress. You can let the berries ripen and save seeds to start more plants.
How to Start: Ashwagandha is not difficult to start from seed. It’s a light-dependent germinator, so sow it along the top of the soil, water well, and then cover with plastic. Ashwagandha is a relatively easy plant to find, so if you want to start from the very beginning by planting it yourself, then you should have no trouble.
How to Grow: Ashwagandha doesn’t like wet feet. The best soil mix for this plant has a high concentration of sand or drainage materials. Ashwagandha should only be watered when the soil dries out. If you’re keeping it inside year-round, you’ll need a sunny spot that’s fairly warm, somewhere between 70 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. If it’s a winter-only houseplant, my recommendation is to place it in a spot that’s 50 to 60 degrees so that it remains healthy.
Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus)
I never liked the already dried lemongrass I bought from herb companies. When I grew my own outdoors, however, I quickly realized that fresh is best. I love having this aromatic and useful plant around throughout the season. This year, I’m growing my supply in the house so I never have to go without the delicious, uplifting smell of fresh-cut lemongrass.
How to Use: If you’re planning to use your lemongrass plant for cooking, you’ll most likely use the bulb and grass. For medicinal purposes, you only need the stalk. This herb can be turned into a number of medicinal preparations, but to me the most delightful use is in a tea. The name says it all: Lemongrass gives your drink a pleasant lemon flavor. As mild as it seems compared to other herbal tastes, it has quite a long list of purported benefits. Though studies are still preliminary in some areas, a collection of them have shown that lemongrass can help alleviate nausea and support the digestive system, maintain good cholesterol, relax the nervous system, and more. Mix lemongrass into warm tea or bathwater.
How to Start: Lemongrass is available for purchase in many grocery stores these days. What you buy as produce is actually a part of the grass stalk with the bulb below. In this state, it is so easy to replant. After you cut off the grass that you need for your recipe, place the bulb directly in moist soil and allow it to root. Leave only about 2 inches of grass above the bulb, or the plant will be too dried out and stressed to survive. Plants are also available from many suppliers, if you wish to go that route.
How to Grow: Lemongrass likes full sun and moist but well-drained soil. You need to think ahead when choosing a pot for this plant, as it likes to spread. In fact, the more you harvest, the more you stimulate it to grow. But a little tip: Set this plant out of your cat’s reach, since it might be disappointing when they’ve slobbered all over what you were planning to harvest for dinner.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
I don’t really need to grow this plant indoors because it’s hardy in my part of the country, Zone 6a. Of course, being hardy only means that my passionflower vine will live through the winter and reemerge in the spring, not that it will remain green and useful across all seasons. If I want to continue to harvest the fresh leaves when the snow falls, I’ve got to have one growing inside. My favorite part of the house for a passionflower vine is in the alcove with my large garden bathtub. In the summer months, when the otherworldly purple blooms appear, it’s an amazing place to soak and relax.
How to Use: The leaf of passionflower is a nervine and a sedative, providing relief for many who struggle with insomnia, stress, and anxiety. It has also been shown to help lower blood pressure. Typically passionflower is used internally, so leaves can be made into tea or tinctures right off the plant throughout the year. This vine likes to be pruned, so the more you use it, the better it will grow.
How to Start: Passionflowers can be slow to germinate, so most people buy plants or take cuttings from a friend.
How to Grow: Passionflower is a vine. It is hardy in Zones 7 to 10 and will die back to the ground only to return after the winter in temperate areas. Indoors, the plant likes well-drained soil. During spring, summer, and fall it likes to be watered on a routine basis, but during winter you can let it dry out between waterings. Place it in a spot that gets full sun and stays between 65 and 85 degrees.
No matter how you choose to use these plants, they provide both beauty and benefits. From my practical point of view, if you’re going to provide a space for them and spend energy keeping them alive, why not grow houseplants that are also useful?
Houseplant Seed Source
Are you looking to start your herbal houseplant collection? For seeds, we recommend Strictly Medicinal Seeds. Founded by Richo Cech, author of MakingPlant Medicine, Strictly Medicinal provides seeds and starts for a number of unique medicinal plants that are difficult to find elsewhere. You can find seeds for all of the plants mentioned in this article, and many more, in their extensive catalogs.
Seed Starting Guide
Nurturing herbs from seeds offers many benefits to the herb gardener. Use this seed starting guide and you’ll get a head start in the garden, you can minimize the chance of introducing soil-borne diseases to your garden, you’ll save money, and you may even have fun along the way!
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