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Medicinal Uses of an Herb Garden
Perhaps you have chosen to grow herbs because they are useful to you in the kitchen. They taste great!
But maybe you've also heard about how certain teas can be good for you when you have a fever or cold. Many of us in North America are familiar with certain tea blends such as, "Gypsy Cold Care" or "Throat Coat."
Well, this blog is going to make it easier on you to reach into your garden and grab the few herbs that make such blends as these possible.
Creation is so replete with herbs that support human health that we only have enough room to list a few herbs that are easy to grow and fall under the following medicinal categories:
- Immunity-Boosting Herbs
- Relaxing Nervines
- Anti-Microbial Herbs
- Herbs that Aid in Digestion
- Heart-Healthy Herbs
A lot of herbs listed below actually span 2 or more of these categories. And there are many more medicinal categories that herbalists use not listed here.
For instance, ginger is both an anti-microbial and a digestive aid. So keep that in mind as you explore plant possibilities for your own herb garden.
But first, a note of warning...
The underlying principle governing herb usage is this: Herbs are not nature’s equivalent to “off-the-counter (OTC)” medication. They work in different ways, often take longer to work, and provide better results!
Herbs can and do heal, but they are not a "one-size-fits-all" pill.
If you wake up in the middle of the night with a sore throat and you want something to alleviate that discomfort, using ginger may not work as well as peppermint for you. That's if you're the type of person who always tends to feel hot.
If you’re the type, however, who gets cold hands and feet easily (like me), then ginger may be your best bet!
As herbalist Rosalee de la Foret often says, “Herbs are most effective when they are matched to the person and not the disease.”
She also adds, “It’s illegal for herbalists to prescribe herbs to outright treat western diseases.”
But in a slow and steady, "one-piece-of-the-entire-puzzle" kind of way.
And that is more empowering than you may initially think. Because then you train yourself to see the bigger picture (diet, lifestyle, exposure to chemicals, etc.,)
and not just the outward manifestation (for instance, eczema)
of some underlying problem (for instance, a person's problems with digestion).
What's in a Name?
It’s also important to note the Latin name of these plants if you decide to use them for your own herb garden. Except in the case of the Hawthorn family, some varieties of the same plant can be toxic to consume.
Immuno-modulating herbs, in general, are herbs that support the immune function of the body. They are used for colds or cases of flu.
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous) - a low bush or stalk
This legume plant is originally from China but can be grown in North America. It is a particularly good herb to grow because it is:
- pretty expensive to buy it in health stores or even online.
- extensively proven to provide support to one’s immune system.
- a great "nitrogen-fixer" in your garden!
Chinese grandmothers are known to start sneaking these roots into soups and stews when flu season comes around in the winter.
Recently, Astragalus as been studied as an adjunct therapy to chemotherapy patients.
Hardiness: USDA zones 6 to 11
Diameter: 1 ft
Height: 4 ft.
Roots are most commonly used in soups and stews and taken out when serving the stew. Also used in teas.
Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea angustifolia) - a cluster of shrubby flowers
In permaculture terms, this plant “stacks a lot of functions!” Here are just a few reasons why this should be in any American garden:
- It is a native perennial that attracts pollinators
- It blooms beautifully throughout the summer
- It is famous in its ability to ward off the earliest signs of colds, flu and many different types of infections (from acne, toothache and boils to syphilis and rabies)
Hardiness: USDA zones 2 to 10
Diameter: 4 feet
Height: 5 feet.
I use all parts of the flower to make a tincture. The recipe I use is by Rosemary Gladstar in her book,
The roots are more commonly harvested in the fall than at any other time during the year.
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra and Sambucus canadensis) - a large bush with thin stems
If you plan to incorporate elderberry into your garden because of:
- its many benefits as a cough and cold syrup
- it is rich flavanoids (making it an antiviral) and antioxidants
- it has been used as an anti-pyretic (fever-lowering agent) throughout the ages...
Please note that this perennial grows big, tall and sprawls. It may need to be up against a wall or fence and definitely provided with sufficient room to grow.
Elderberry has been studied so intensely in the past decade that 2013 marked the first international conference dedicated solely to “rais(ing) elderberry to the scientific level it deserves.”
Hardiness: USDA zones 3 to 8
Diameter: 10-12 feet
Height: 5-12 feet
Both berries and flowers can be harvested and used in teas.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) - a tall, thick bush, good for edges
Lemon balm is a mint-family member that is easy to grow and so pleasant to smell and drink in teas.
Like peppermint, it is refreshing and aromatic, but more than that, it is also calming.
Herbalist Rosemary Gladstar suggests giving children chamomile and lemon balm tea to calm them when they're hyperactive. She says it is particularly good for those who suffer from ADHD. In general, the veteran herbalist also says she associates lemon balm with longevity!
- is an anti-viral used to staunch wounds, alleviate cold sores and genital herpes
- is a relaxing nervine that helps when you are feeling "stressed out," tense or have heart palpitations
- aids in digestion and menstrual cramps because of its anti-spasmodic properties
Hardiness: USDA zones 4 to 9
Diameter: Waist-high bush about 3 feet in diameter and slowly spreads.
I have my children take lemon-balm and chamomile in the afternoons when they both tired and hyper at the same time.
Tulsi or Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum or Ocimum sanctum) - a cluster of shrubby flowers
If you can grow culinary basil, you can grow Tulsi. Personally, if I had to choose between the two basils, I would choose Tulsi because in herbalism, Holy Basil falls under the category of nourishing plants called "adaptogens."
The more these plants are taken, the more they improve your vitality, your immunity and basically your overall health. In particular, Tulsi:
- helps improve your body's ability to oxygenate itself (Rosalee de la Foret)
- relaxes you and puts you to sleep (if you need to rest)
- is antimicrobial & anti-inflammatory
- is cardio-protective
- improves memory function
- also has immunomodulating properties
Hardiness: USDA zones 4 to 9
Diameter: Waist-high bush 2 feet in diameter or less.
Height: 3 - 4 ft. tall
Just smelling these flowers will make you happy. Depending on the seed variety, Tulsi can be very prolific. Because these plants originate from India, they grow as annuals in North America.
Find an Indian gardener and you will likely find, many different kinds of "tulasi" growing in their garden.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) - a vine
This is a unique vining herb, which makes it a great choice for a permaculture herb garden because vines are one of the 7 layers in a food forest.
More on these layers on a future blog post, but suffice it to say that we need to think of the physical space that our herbs occupy and maximize the spaces so that more things can grow and support the rest of our diverse plantings.
Passionflower is also a great choice because it is very resilient. It comes back every year and rewards us growers with its intricate beautiful flowers and a sleepy and relaxing nervine tea.
- Like lemon balm, passionflower is a relaxing nervine suitable for children and adults who have trouble getting to sleep or calming down.
- According to Rosalee de la Foret, passionflower also helps with anxiety and muscle cramps associated with a woman's menstrual period.
Hardiness: USDA zones 6 to 10
Diameter: vining 6-8 feet can grow up to 40 feet.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) - a low bush of flowers
This herb is just superb in the many things that it can actually do. Used in combination with elderberry flowers and peppermint, it becomes a rather popular tea blend called, “Gypsy Cold Care.”
In my garden. It is currently my most harvested plant because it grows all year long in Zone 7B.
I use yarrow:
- to staunch bloody noses and wounds.
Instead of a Bandaid, I wrap a piece of yarrow around my fingers and fasten it with paper tape, when I accidentally cut myself.
- at the first sign of menstrual cramps.
You can combine it with ginger to help lessen the pain.
- Another great function of yarrow is as a late-spring to early summer pollinator plant for those flies that love umbellifer type of plants.
If you’ve been gardening for some time, you will see its flowers are very similar in shape to those of carrots and parsley. And that's because all three of them belong to the same Umbellifier family.
Hardiness: USDA zones 3 to 9
Diameter: Spreads several feet. The longer it is there, the wider it may spread, if undeterred by other plantings around it. But it is doesn't spread aggresively.
Height: Maxes out to about 12 inches tall
I use all parts of the flower, stem, leaves. Usually, I do not harvest the roots. Herbalist, Rosemary Gladstar says that the white flowering varieties are the most potent ones.
Garlic (Allium sativum) - a root crop with a single spiky grass-like stalk above the ground
This has got to be the easiest herb/plant to grow.
All you need to do is get the timing right and make sure the soil you have is fluffy and fertile.
Simply plant a clove, yes a garlic clove, into the soil anytime from fall through winter. Expect a harvest in the summer if you live in the Northern Hemisphere. Click HERE for zone-growing specifics.
You may be familiar with the fact that garlic is not only a great-tasting culinary herb, but also:
- an anti-viral and anti-bacterial agent
- lowers blood pressure and high cholesterol
- increases immune system activity and decreases inflammatory cytokines (chemical messengers of the immune system).
- is a "prebiotic" (food for gut flora)
Hardiness: USDA zones 0 to 10
Diameter: Maximum 3 inches per bulb.
Height: About 18 inches tall
Naturally, cloves are used in cooking. But you can also prepare garlic in tinctures and in popular "Fire Cider" ferments. Some varieties of garlic produce "scapes" which is the flowering stalk of the garlic. These garlic scapes can also be chopped up into soups and stews along with the softer part of the stalk to flavor a meal with a little hint of garlic!
Sage (Salvia officinalis) - a woody cluster of flowers, good for edging
A little Latin lesson:
If you are wondering why many of these herbs have their second Latin adjective as "officinale" or "officinalis" it is because "when Linnaeus invented the binomial system of nomenclature, he gave the specific name "officinalis", in the 1735 (1st Edition) of his Systema Naturae, to plants (and sometimes animals) with an established medicinal, culinary, or other use."
Incidentally, Salvia comes from the Latin word salvere ("to feel well and healthy, health, heal").
Other useful things to know about sage:
- An NIH study found here states the smoke from burning sage eliminated 94% of pathogenic bacteria in a confined space and kept it that way even after 30 days!
- It's great in soothing sore throats and can be used as a mouthwash
- Sage is a great complementary herb when cooking squash, sweet potatoes and pork.
- In mid-spring, sage is also a reliable pollinator plant attracting bees and butterflies.
Hardiness: USDA zones 5 to 8
Diameter: Maximum of 18-24 inches per plant.
Height: Around 4 feet.
You can use dried or fresh sage leaves.
Creeping Thyme or Wild Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) - ground cover
Web MD tells us that
"Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a bacterium that causes infections in different parts of the body. It's tougher to treat than most strains of Staphylococcus aureus -- or staph -- because it's resistant to some commonly used antibiotics."
The little known fact about thyme is that it has been shown to be effective where certain antibiotics are not. Basically, if you have an MRSA staph infection that is resistant to the drug Tetracycline, you can use medicinal amounts of thyme to help reduce the MRSA's resistance and kill that pathogenic, drug-resistant bacteria.
More on that from renowned researcher and hermit herbalist, Stephen Harrod Buhner in his book, which you can read for free if your library has Hoopla!
- an antibiotic
- a treatment for parasites
- a disinfectant (Here's recipe to make your own herbal thyme & lavender cleaner.)
- and a tasty culinary herb
Hardiness: USDA zones 5 to 9
Diameter: Spreading ground cover
Height: low to about 6 inches.
Use dried or fresh thyme leaves.
Herbs That Aid in Digestion (among other things)
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) - herbaceous low growing plant
In permaculture, we know wherever dandelion is, you have a reliable "dynamic accumulator" ally in your lawn. A plant which mines your soil for nutrients and stores it in its leaves. So chopping and dropping the dandelion leaves is not a bad idea to promote soil fertility.
Its benefits don't stop there. Until the mid 20th century, dandelion (which takes its name from the French, "Dent de lion "tooth of a lion") was commonly used medicinally to help with:
- liver ailments
- arthritis due to the presence of teraxasterol which is known to help reduce the effects of osteoarthritis
Today, we know dandelion to be:
- a huge source of inulin, which is known to lower blood sugar in diabetics and is also a "prebiotic"
- nutritionally high in micronutrients and phytonutrients (Rosalee de la Foret)
Hardiness: USDA zones 4 to 9
Diameter: 1 foot
Detox tea formulas almost always have dandelion in them. The dandelion roots are often roasted during the winter-time and the flowers and leaves are used when they appear from spring to early fall.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) - a root crop with a single stem of pinnate leaves (having opposite leaves on each side of a common stem axis)
I want to include ginger because it is such a medicinal powerhouse! Like garlic, it is also a root crop that would fill in one of the 7 layers in a permaculture food forest designed to make use of all the space you have in your herb garden!
Ginger is known to:
- relieve anti-inflammatory pain (Note: Not all kinds of physical pain). Pain caused by menstrual cramps, arthritis, pain after exercise
- warm you up when you are cold because it is "moves the blood" or in herbalist lingo, is "diffusive."
- make you sweat or is a "stimulating diaphoretic"
- help when you are dizzy or nauseous
- act as an anti-microbial agent
- help prevent cancer
- Plus it tastes good!
An Herb for Heart Health
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp) - medium-sized tree
Hawthorn has been a prized herbal remedy for the heart throughout the ages in Europe and North America.
It has shown to decrease:
- heart failure
- fatigue and
- palpitations in patients who took it as a supplement to the cardiac treatments.
- And in China, it's a popular remedy for diarrhea.
Hardiness: USDA zones 3 to 9
Diameter: Crown of 5-6 feet
The leaves, flowers, stems and especially the fruit of this tree are used in teas, tinctures (preserved in Vodka or some strong alcohol) and made into different kinds of vinegar, jellies and syrups.
Build Your Very Own Herb Garden
Do you want to design or re-design your very own herb garden?
The "Build Your Own Herb Garden" course can help you do just that! It includes:
- guided lessons on simple steps to building your herb garden
- a workbook to design & plan your herbs using permaculture principles
- examples of herbs to consider and their uses