Before I started taking control of my family’s health, my medicine cabinet was filled with over-the-counter remedies from the drugstore, each for a different ailment. As I began to learn about natural health, I was eager to build a well-stocked natural apothecary—so I bought an ounce or two of each new herb I read about. Soon my cupboards were overflowing with herbal capsules, tinctures, essential oils and homeopathic remedies.
However, my friend and mentor, pioneering herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, once told me something that always stuck with me: It’s more important to know a few herbs very well than many herbs superficially. It took me several years to settle into a place where I was ready to heed her advice, and now I try to teach others to use this model for their own at-home natural health care.
I am not unlike most people who want to undertake a return to a more self-sufficient lifestyle, but I may be worse than most because I am an admitted plant junkie. As an ethnobotanist, I’m fascinated by plants, and I find it difficult to confine myself to learning about one at a time. Yet as I began to teach my community the skills they needed to take care of themselves at home, I saw a disturbing trend: either the throwing up of hands and retreat due to overwhelm, or an overreliance on certain concentrated medicines. By using a more localized, small apothecary model in home health care, we can eliminate the feeling of being overwhelmed by too many herbal options yet ensure we are enhancing our health by using a specific selection of whole plants.
Back to the Basics
Today, thanks to our huge advances in communication and information technology, we can avail ourselves of more plants and their benefits than ever before. Access to this global apothecary can incorrectly lead us to the conclusion that we must know everything about every plant in the world, and that we must find space for them all in our homes. Over the past couple of years, I have watched essential oil companies rise to prominence partly as a result of their powerful, compact nature: These tiny little bottles can easily reside in the bathroom medicine cabinet. While these oils can be remarkably beneficial, and perfect for uses such as massage oils, air fresheners, cleaning products and many homemade personal-care recipes, they are highly concentrated and—when used as the exclusive makeup of the family medicine chest—lack the balance of phytochemicals that complementary botanical preparations of whole plants can provide.
So what to do? In a world that’s awakening to the need to reconnect to our plant allies, we can benefit from solutions that are practical, space- and money-saving, and unintimidating. Encouraging people to cultivate a small apothecary and heal locally, sourcing medicine from within their communities, has become a passion for me. With it, I return to the idea Rosemary implanted in my brain all those years ago.
Building Your Local Apothecary
In the Western world, we can be overly narrow in the way we approach our remedies. The pill we get over the counter relieves our headaches and nothing more. Therefore, when we learn about plants, it’s natural to think in terms of plant X equating to only remedy Y. The list of plants we need then grows as we add more problems to treat. But the reality of the benefits of a specific plant is much more complex. A given plant can often provide therapy for a multitude of health problems, some of which may seem rather unrelated, as a result of broad-spectrum activity that isn’t emphasized by the targeted approach of synthetic medicine.
When we place botanical medicines under the microscope, we can identify many of the chemicals in their makeup and understand the actions they may take in the body (and there are many more chemicals we don’t currently know how to categorize). Whole-plant supplements work as a complete system within the body, sometimes buffering the harsh activity of what we call active constituents, known and unknown together weaving a beautiful symphony. When we define a plant’s identity by one action, creating synthetic or even natural remedies from one isolated chemical, it’s like playing only the bassoon line—it may be pretty, but it’s nothing like when the piece is played by the whole orchestra. This isolation can often cause unwanted side effects, as well. The small apothecary model recognizes each plant’s multifaceted actions, allowing us to grow or store a more deliberate selection of needed remedies using much less room and giving us the freedom to really know one or two plants instead of trying to master an endless list of possibilities.
Customizing Your Apothecary
To start your home apothecary, begin by listing the health ailments that typically arise in your home: For example, if you’re raising a family, you are likely looking for herbs that might help treat your children’s cuts, scrapes and bruises; aid in bedtime relaxation; and meet nutritional requirements for growing bodies. You’re likely also in the market for herbs that can increase immunity and your own energy levels. As we age, we’re often looking for herbs that can remedy aches and pains; increase memory and brain health; and strengthen muscles and bones. Once you’ve listed your family’s most common health needs, start researching local herbs that might be able to address multiple problems. One of my favorite resources for learning about herbs is LearningHerbs. See “Recommendations” at the end of this article for more great resources.
Choosing a small apothecary model means occasionally eschewing the “popular” herbal remedy for one of the herbs you have chosen as your family’s “go-to remedies.” For example, although skullcap is often recommended as a favorite herb for headaches, you may already have rosemary in your garden for its ability to enhance memory—and, if you’re well-versed in that plant, you’ll know it also can be an effective headache treatment. While it certainly can be useful to listen to other herbalists’ experiences, it’s rare that one specific recommended plant is the only solution to a given problem.
After you learn about the options for your family’s health-care needs, you may choose a handful of plants that grow free as weeds in your yard or that easily grow in your garden. This decision may help see that your health-care bills are slashed. Getting to know a few multifaceted local plants provides you with a deeper relationship with your medicine, guarantees freshness, takes up less space in your cupboard and can even provide security in times of family or community instability.
When it comes to using your homegrown herbs, always customize your treatment to your preferences. For example, don’t use herbs in tea if that isn’t what your family prefers. Tinctures, as another example, may be most convenient for the family member who is always on the go or needs immediate relief for an acute problem. Of course, if you’re new to using herbal supplements, tinctures and teas can seem confusing and therefore may be less convenient. In that case, you can make your own capsules of powdered herbs or try a simple herbal pill recipe.
What Every Natural Home Medicine Chest Should Have
• Powdered herbs for poultices and capsule ingredients
• Tinctures for acute situations such as headaches, pain or asthma
• Salves and balms for basic wound care, burns and congestion
• Antiseptic spray for disinfecting wounds
• Premixed teas for your family’s most common ailments—label well for the most convenient use
Basic Care Tools
• Castor oil
• Heating pad
• Raw honey
• Apple cider vinegar
• Cotton and flannel strips for poultices and wound binding
• Small tubs for foot and hand baths
• Green clay
Herbs to Know
Two of the plants that best illustrate the benefits of the small apothecary model are plantain and elder. Let’s examine them at greater depth.
Elder: Although many of us are familiar with elder, the plant is usually pigeonholed as an immune booster and nothing more. But elder—Sambucus nigra or S. nigra ssp. canadensis—is practically a medicine chest all on its own. Although use of its berries is well-known, American Indian medicinal traditions have taught us about using its flowers, as well. (Note: Avoid S. ebulus, also known as dwarf elder, as it can be toxic.) For more information read Grow, Cook and Heal with Elder.
In a small apothecary: The berries may help relieve constipation, respiratory congestion, common cold, allergies, sinusitis and pneumonia; and the flowers have been used for burns, fever, gout and bloating. Note: Use trusted preparations of elder because raw or unripe fruit—as well as the leaves, seeds or bark—contain a chemical related to cyanide, which is poisonous, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Don’t use elder if pregnant or nursing, or if you have an autoimmune disease. The University of Maryland Medical Center lists medications not to mix with elder, so check with your doctor before using.
Plantain: This unassuming weed can be found almost everywhere on the globe. Two species commonly found in my area include Plantago major and P. lanceolata—both grow wild in my backyard. Although these two varieties are not always interchangeable for medicinal uses, the leaves and seeds of both species have a history of topical and internal use in home health care. Note: Don’t use plantain if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding or taking warfarin. To learn more about the medicinal properties of plantain read Building Your Natural First-Aid Kid: Herbal Skin Healers.
In a small apothecary: This plant may be helpful with splinters; bug bites and stings; poison oak; topical infection; hemorrhoids; cholesterol reduction; bladder issues; bloating; inflammation; cough and sore throat; upper respiratory infections; bronchitis; conjunctivitis; minor wounds; sunburns; toothaches and more.
• Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide by Rosemary Gladstar
• The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual by James Green
Dawn Combs is an ethnobotanist, herbalist, author and educator. She wrote her most recent book, Heal Local, because she is passionate that our medicine should be approachable, sustainable and local. She owns Mockingbird Meadows, an herbal health farm in Ohio, with her husband Carson and their children, Jacy and Aidan. Visit the farm.