Herbs for Health: Medicine in the Herb Garden

Simple home-remedies for common ailments can be found in or near your garden.

| April/May 2001

  • German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is probably the single garden herb most easily used in home remedies. Plus it packages its healing components along with abundant, cheery flowers that bloom for several weeks.
    Photographs ©2001 by Steven Foster
  • Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) thrives on neglect, adds color to the herb garden, and can be used in homemade teas or tinctures.
  • What healing garden is complete without a stand of peppermint (Mentha xpiperita) to soothe the savage stomach?
  • Plantain can be a convenient herbal band-aid for rashes and stings.
  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) gets its generic name from a legend that Greek warrior Achilles used it to stop the bleeding of his wounded soldiers.

Are there herbs that you can grow in your own garden and use for health purposes yourself? The answer is a qualified yes. Chances are, you already have several healing plants in your herb garden. Chamomile, echinacea, peppermint, thyme, and yarrow are all herbs you can use for conditions that you probably wouldn’t go to the doctor for. Common everyday ailments such as an upset stomach, mild insomnia, congestion during a cold, and minor cuts, scrapes, and contusions are among the conditions that people can safely treat at home. The following herbs are easy to grow and easy to use—they can be prepared as teas, poultices, or tinctures, and are safe for the vast majority of people.


In Europe, chamomile is so highly regarded that the German name translates into “capable of anything.” Don’t expect it to be a cure-all, but if you have a drippy nose, queasy stomach, or need a relaxing beverage before bed, chamomile tea may be just the thing. Chamomile tea is made from the dried or fresh flowers of German or Hungarian chamomile (Matricaria recutita), seen in older herb books as Chamomilla recutita and Matricaria chamomilla. No matter what the scientific name, they all refer to the same plant. German chamomile is an annual member of the aster family. English or Roman chamomile, a perennial, is known as Chamaemelum nobile (formerly listed in many herbals as Anthemis nobilis). Most chamomile flowers used in tea are the German variety. English chamomile makes a lovely groundcover, particularly for northern gardens, but it produces far fewer flowers than German chamomile. For all practical purposes for the home gardener, their flowers can be used interchangeably.

The annual German chamomile is easy to grow from seed and self-sows freely. After planting the tiny, dust-like seeds, plants will mature and flower within six weeks. In the South it can be planted in March, producing flowers by the end of May. By the heat of June the plant begins to wither. German chamomile likes a sandy, well-drained loam, with a neutral to slightly acid pH and full sun. It flowers for several weeks and flowers can be harvested on a regular basis during this time.

Chamomile flowers have been used for centuries as a mild sleep aid, a digestive aid to an upset stomach, a diuretic, and for many other uses. Externally, the tea is used as a wash for wounds and sores. Several chemical components in the essential oil of the plant have been shown to relax smooth muscle tissue. Anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, carminative (relieving digestive gas), antispasmodic, mild sedative, and wound-healing activities are attributed to chamomile flowers. Modern indications are not only backed by intensive research in recent years, but also by many centuries of common use. A mild tea is useful as a gentle sleep aid, particularly for children. Chamomile releases its active components in response to heat. Therefore, for best results, particularly for anti- inflammatory and antispasmodic activity, you must steep the flowers in hot water.

Pick the flowers at full bloom. Spread them in a basket in a warm, dry, dark place—they will dry beautifully. A heaping teaspoon of the dried flowers can be steeped in a cup of water and drunk three to four times a day.

Chamomile is associated with rare contact dermatitis. There are also rare cases of allergic reaction to ingesting chamomile. Those sensitive to pollen of other aster family members (such as ragweed) should use chamomile with that caveat in mind.

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