Many common, easy-to-grow herbs and plants have beneficial properties. Ground basil can be added to toothpaste for fresher breath. Mullein flowers in olive oil can treat chapped lips. Raspberry leaves soothe sunburn. Homegrown plants like these can improve everyday wellness, and by growing them you can become more self-sufficient and take charge of aspects of your health. Backyard Pharmacy (Quarto Publishing Group, 2015) by Elizabeth Millard gives detailed information for the best plants to grow in your garden, or even indoors, to treat daily ailments. Complete with color photographs of the herbs, this book provides an overview of preparation methods, growing needs, harvesting tips, storage, and scientific research about each plant. With this as your guide, you can truly turn your yard or garden into a pharmacy.
You can purchase this book from the Mother Earth Living store: Backyard Pharmacy.
From June to October, I use arnica almost every day, because it seems like I have some nightly complaint — sore shoulders from weeding all day, mosquito bites that stay itchy for hours, dry lips and hands — that could use some arnica love. The herb has been used for just such medicinal purposes since the 1500s, and there are plenty of preparations found in any natural remedies section of a co-op or grocery. Homeopathic practitioners use arnica for specific anti-inflammatory purposes, but in general, the herb is used topically since some serious side effects have been noted when used internally. The herb’s name is likely taken from the Greek word arna (meaning “lamb”) in reference to the plant’s slightly hairy, soft leaves, even though all herbal preparations use only the flowers and not those lamb-like leaves.
Although herbs taken internally in the form of teas or essential oils shouldn’t be used on a constant basis, those used externally like arnica don’t carry that caution. So, if you have nagging muscle pain or chronic issues like arthritis, try using arnica as a way to soothe those problems.
Here are a few ideas for your Rx/medicinal preparations:
• Create a tincture by pouring vodka (or other alcohol at least 70 proof) over freshly picked flowers. Seal tightly and let stand for at least a week in a sunny spot or warm area. Filter, put in a well-sealed container, and store out of direct sunlight.
• Combine the tincture with distilled witch hazel, which will increase the medicinal properties of your mix.
• Blend the tincture with a non-scented lotion or coconut oil for a topical lotion that will be moisturizing as well as soothing. If you can find some at your co-op, try using emu oil, since it has transdermal properties, which means it allows the herbal remedy to absorb more fully into the skin.
In addition to being a well-loved medicinal plant for bruises, aches, and pains, arnica is a happy little plant, bursting with bright yellow flowers thanks to its relation to the sunflower family. The plant grows to about 1 or 2 feet, with bright green leaves and a slightly hairy stem. They’re seriously adorable, and look a bit like wildflowers, so they’re a nice choice for giving landscaping a softer, abundant look. Although they can be grown indoors, the flowers do well outdoors and are hardy in a range of climates — there are even some who grow them at over 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains. Because of its popularity, there are several areas of the world where harvesting wild arnica is illegal, including Italy, France, and the Ukraine, so cultivating it instead of foraging is the responsible choice.
Although arnica does have several varieties within the family, and boasts a few other names like mountain tobacco and leopard’s bane, it’s likely that when ordering seeds, you’ll find only “mountain arnica” as a choice. Don’t feel slighted by the lack of selection — this variety tends to be the hardiest and more predictable when it comes to growing. However, it’s possible you may encounter other varieties like meadow arnica, and if you do, snap them up.
Arnica seeds first need to chill in order to germinate. This sounds counterintuitive to gardeners in warmer climates — doesn’t refrigeration slow growth? — but the herb does best in higher elevations and temperate conditions, which tend to be cold right before natural germination periods. To mimic this, plant the seeds in small pots filled with peat moss and refrigerate or place in a cold frame for two to three months before transplanting out to their garden spot; aim for about 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
Sure, it’s a super picky way to garden, and it can be annoying if you decide in May that you want arnica in your herb mix and realize that you missed your refrigeration window. But I’ve tried to skip this step before and ended up with greenhouse trays of soil that look like I forgot to plant in them.
If the refrigeration option is too fussy, then sow seeds outdoors in the late summer so they can come up the following year. But mark where you planted them, because sometimes they can take up to two years to grow with that particular method.
Once you do get the plants going and transplant outside, the good news is that arnica tolerates a range of soil conditions and climate types. In general, though, the herb prefers well-draining soil so be sure to cultivate well before planting. They also thrive in alkaline soil, with a pH range between 6.0 and 8.0, which can be adjusted by sprinkling agricultural limestone prior to planting.
Choose a garden spot that gets some shade if you’re in a warmer climate — the herb does well with full sun and blooms best that way, but it doesn’t do well in dry, drought-type settings, so partial shade will provide some relief. The soil should be evenly watered to keep a nice degree of moisture, but not overly wet, which could lead to root issues.
If you’ve struggled with establishing arnica in a garden in the past, consider planting in a pot so you can control the herb’s conditions better. That way, if it seems to be struggling in full sunlight, shift to partial shade. Alternately, if its shady location means that few blooms are popping, give it some much-needed sunshine.
When you have a nice patch going, it’s easy to expand your arnica empire by dividing them up; just dig up part of the plant with roots, plant in a separate location and water well. If the plants have withered for the season, that’s fine — you just need the rhizome anyway, which is the part of the rootstock that includes the little shoots from its sides.
Harvest and Store
When I was a kid, we played a maudlin game with dandelions, in which we flicked off the blooms and called it “popping off the heads.” When harvesting herbs like arnica, I think about this little second-grade practice almost every time — shout out to Sunnyside Elementary School! — since only the flowers are harvested. The roots can be used in some preparations, but for the most part, you’re popping those heads.
In the summer, I prefer to use fresh arnica for remedies and medicinal preparations, since it’s easy to make a tincture in just a week. Also, I tend to combine with calendula flowers to create a powerful herbal combo that can steep in alcohol on my windowsill. Once it’s steeped as a tincture, either seal well and store in a cool place, or strain out the plant material and combine with lotion, oil, beeswax, or some other herbal preparation material.
Although a tincture will last practically forever, it’s useful to dry some of the blooms for making preparations later. For that, use a clean metal or plastic screen, such as a fine-mesh cooling rack for baking, and evenly space the flowers for drying, away from insects and strong breezes. Once dried, pack into a jar and seal tightly, out of direct sunlight.
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Reprinted with permission from Backyard Pharmacy: Growing Medicinal Plants in Your Own Yard by Elizabeth Millard, published by Quarto Publishing Group, 2015. Buy this book from our store: Backyard Pharmacy.