If you’re a gardener, the back yard in summertime is your supermarket and your playground. It also can be your pharmacy. Why stop at clipping flowers and picking tomatoes when you can make teas, bath products, poultices, oils and medicinal foods from the fresh herbs growing right outside your door?
Summer is the peak season for fresh, seasonal remedies to treat all the dings and scratches you and your family are likely to get from working in the garden, climbing trees, building forts and mixing it up with nature. It’s also the perfect time to take advantage of the garden’s abundance by filling up your medicine cabinet with remedies for the coming months. Imagine having a ready answer when someone in your family comes down with the flu, has an ear infection or just wants to pamper herself with an herbal bath.
If you keep in mind some general rules about how to process different plant parts, when to harvest the part of the plant you’re interested in, and the difference between using fresh and dried herbs, the rest is up to your creativity. Use the tried-and-true recipes featured in this article, then go into the garden and create your own based solely on which plants speak to you the loudest.
How to Harvest Herbs for Healing
The most important thing to remember is: you want to harvest a plant when most of its energy is in the part from which you are going to make medicine. For example, if you want to pick burdock roots to add to soup, you wouldn’t want to take the root when the leaves are just beginning to sprout, because the leaves are where the plant is concentrating its energy. The best time to take roots is early spring before the above-ground parts have begun to show, or late fall after the plant has gone to seed and its energy has traveled back underground.
Simple Medicine: How to Make Herbal Tea
Nothing could be simpler or provide you with more instant gratification than tea made with fresh herbs from the garden. There’s something tremendously satisfying about going into the garden and tearing off a few leaves here, a few flowers there, pouring some boiling water over them, and sitting down for a cup of freshly harvested tea in the middle of the afternoon.
According to Richo Cech, author of Making Plant Medicine (Horizon Herbs, 2000), the plants most appropriate for fresh infusions are angelica, calendula, catnip, dandelion, gentian, horehound, lemon balm, lovage, plantain, self-heal and thyme. This is not to say you can’t experiment with making fresh infusions of other herbs, though. Along the way, you’ll find that fresh herbs impart a far more glorious color to water than their dried counterparts.
As a general rule, the medicinal properties in dried herbs are more accessible for extraction than in fresh herbs because the process of dehydration causes the cell walls to become more fragile and to give up their contents more readily. For this reason, it will be necessary to use a larger quantity of the fresh plant when making tea than you would of the same plant in dried form. So for fresh herb tea, it’s best to finely chop or tear the plant (some people prefer the mortar and pestle route) and loosely pack it in a glass jar. Cover with boiling water and a lid (to prevent volatile oils from escaping) and steep until it has cooled enough to drink, about 20 minutes. Strain the infusion into a glass or drink it straight from the jar. You might try this method with a mixture of mint, lemon balm and catnip for a refreshing, calming tea.
If you prefer working with dried plants, there are many ways to dehydrate the herbs you’ve picked. You’ll see fairly consistent results if you lay your herbs flat on a framed screen in a warm, dry place, ensuring that air will circulate to all sides of the plant. Some people swear by using a food dehydrator on a very low setting (while this is certainly the quickest method, it’s not exactly the most natural or energy efficient). Others rely on nothing fancier than some twine and a well-placed nail from which to hang the bundled herb – a technique closest to the historical method of hanging bundles from the rafters. Heartier plants, such as rosemary, thyme and sage, will dry just fine with this low-maintenance approach. More delicate herbs, or herbs with a higher moisture content, such as basil, mints and lemon balm, will be better off lying flat in a well-ventilated area. The drying time depends on the moisture content of the plant and can take anywhere from a couple of days to two weeks. Avoid drying herbs in the oven or in direct sun, as this will affect the color and flavor of the plant and your finished product.
In the middle of summer, colds and flu are generally far from our minds, but this is a great time to stock up on bug fighters of all kinds.
If you are fortunate enough to have an elder tree (Sambucus nigra) growing in your garden or your neighborhood, you have access to one of the most powerful antiviral medicines in the world. Dried elderberries are made commercially into teas and tinctures. The best and easiest way to harness their flu-fighting power is to juice them (then cook the juice before consuming).
To make tasty elderberry pops, pick the elderberries at their ripest and rinse them in a colander. Put the clean berries in your blender, adding a bit of water, if needed, to get things going. Once you have the elderberry juice, put the juice in a nonreactive pot and cook it until it boils, then simmer for 15 minutes. Let the mixture cool, then fill ice cube trays about 3/4 full and freeze for an hour until firm enough to insert Popsicle sticks. Then let freeze until solid. If someone comes down with a summertime virus, have them suck on the deep red-purple pops and pretend they got them from the Good Humor man. The chill will feel good on scratchy throats, and the elderberry will go to work fighting the flu bugs.
You can experiment with adding your children’s favorite juices to the elderberry juice before freezing. If a virus hits during the colder months, dissolve a couple of elderberry cubes in a cup of warm or hot water, and sip the elixir to banish the bugs from your immune system. Keep in mind that elderberries are antiviral and not antibacterial, which means they work great for flus and anything else caused by a virus but are ineffective at combating ailments caused by bacteria.
Immune-Building Burdock Stew
• 6 to 8 cups water or mushroom broth
• 2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
• 1 summer squash, cubed
• 1 parsnip, peeled and sliced
• 1 carrot, sliced
• 1/2 cup mung beans (known as dal)
• 1 zucchini, sliced
• 1 slice dried astragalus
• 1 piece dried kombu
• Handful shiitake mushrooms, sliced
• Cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, cumin, cloves, salt and/or fresh ginger to taste
1. Bring ingredients to a boil; simmer for 2 hours. For a creamier texture, you can remove half of the soup and blend it, returning it to the pot afterward.
2. Before serving, remove astragalus and kombu (if blending, remove these before you blend).
3. To make the dish more cooling in the summer months, serve with a toss of fresh cilantro and a squeeze of lime. SERVES 2
Simple Medicine: How to Make a Poultice
If you find yourself needing some herbal first aid, be it from wandering through your nettle patch, tripping on an errant stick in the back yard or having an accidental encounter with a kitchen knife, herbs will always come to your rescue. Poultices are a fast and easy first-aid option and have been around as long as humans could chew and spit. As with most herbal remedies, poultices can be as rudimentary or as fancy as time and your imagination allow.
The old-fashioned method involves picking some leaves, chewing them up, slapping the gob on the affected skin and covering it with whatever cloth is handy. As an alternative to gnashing the leaves with your pearly whites, you can easily bruise them with a mortar and pestle (be sure to add some water). If your need isn’t an emergency, you can harvest the root, grind it into a fine powder, add warm water to make a paste, apply it to the skin and cover it with a warm hand towel and tie it with a cotton cloth to keep it all in place. This works especially great with comfrey (Symphytum officinale).
The beauty of a poultice is that it can be made in the field on the fly. Almost any broad, green leaf will work to some extent in soothing the skin and drawing out undesirable elements from the wound. Traditionally, comfrey poultices are used to heal bones, wounds and traumas to muscles and other tissues. Because it causes such rapid cell proliferation and healing, though, a comfrey poultice should never be applied to deep wounds or puncture wounds, as there is a possibility of the skin healing over an infection and sealing it in.
Plantain (Plantago spp.) also is a favorite poultice ingredient, both for its ubiquity and for its ability to soothe infections, eczema, rashes and even acne. Another wonderful ally is yarrow (Achillea millefolium), the leaves of which can be used on deeper wounds. Ideally, a poultice should be kept on overnight and reapplied as often as necessary.
Simple Medicine: Bath Salts and Facial Steams
Some of the most enjoyable herbal remedies are for less-serious ailments. Use what you have in your garden to give yourself a much-needed dose of relaxation and decadence.
BATH SALTS. Pick any herbs with a high concentration of volatile oils to make medicinal bath salts. A mixture of rosemary and lavender will work well. After drying the herbs, add a few sprigs of each to a covered glass jar (approximately 40 ounces) filled with sea salt or Epsom salt. Store in a cool, dry place for about two weeks—longer if you wish—agitating them every once in a while. After the herbs have imparted their smell and oils to the salt, you can remove the sprigs. Pour 1 to 2 cups of the salt into a running bath, or use it as a body scrub.
FACIAL STEAM. Pick fresh flowers of calendula, lavender and stalks of rosemary and put them in a large glass bowl. Fill the bowl with boiling water and cover quickly with a towel. Set the bowl on a table or the floor and pull the towel over your head, making sure the towel is still covering three sides of the bowl. Lower your head until you are close enough to feel the herbal steam penetrating your skin, but not so close that it is uncomfortably hot. Breathe deeply and relax for 10 to 20 minutes. The steam will not only help to open the upper respiratory tract but it also will impart the medicinal qualities of the herbs to the skin on your face and neck, increasing circulation and enhancing your complexion. Enjoy.
Make Your Own Healing Oil for Ear Pain
Mullein (Verbascum spp.) is an herb that grows in many of our gardens. For some, this lung tonic and upper respiratory soother was a premeditated planting; for others, depending upon where you live, it is a happy volunteer, shooting up in our yards, alongside the road, and anywhere else it sees fit. Its dried, fuzzy leaves can be used for tea, and the fresh flowers can be made into a pain-relieving and infection-fighting ear oil.
“A so-called oil of mullein, or rather mulleinized oil, prepared by steeping the blossoms in oil in the sun, has a fabulous reputation of being curative in earache from otitis media,” wrote H.W. Felter, M.D., in The Eclectic Materia Medica, Pharmacology and Therapeutics, in 1922.
Richo Cech of Horizon Herbs recommends combining 1 part mullein flowers (by weight) with 1 part crushed garlic cloves. “Do not remove the skins from the garlic,” he warns, “as they keep the mass from balling up, which keeps it from rotting the extraction.”
Put the mixture in a jar and quickly cover the herbs with olive oil, stirring to expose as much of the mixture to as much as the oil as possible. Cover the jar with cheesecloth and set it outside in the warm sun (or in a warm sunny spot inside) for three days to macerate. Squeeze the infused oil through cheesecloth into a dry jar and let the particulates settle to the bottom overnight. Cech recommends decanting the pure oil off the watery sludge the following morning and filtering it through several layers of clean, dry cheesecloth. You must take great pains to make sure the finished oil does not contain water droplets, as they will be the downfall of the preparation. If all goes well, the oil should last about a year if you keep it in a dark bottle in a cool, dark corner or cabinet.
To administer, place 2 to 3 drops as deep into the ear canal as is comfortable and massage, with gentle pressure, where the back of the earlobe meets the head. The oil can also be massaged externally around the front and back of the ear. Use twice a day or as needed for pain relief.
JENNIFER RABIN is an herbalist and freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon.