Grow Your Own Medicine
Interested in experimenting with some herbal remedies? Here are twelve you might want to get to know.Posted Jun 28, 2016
With the explosion of interest in alternative medicine and increasing numbers of resources available online, it’s easier than ever to dabble in using herbals to support health and treat or prevent common ailments, from headaches and colds to insomnia and anxiety.
While many herbs are available in natural food stores and online as supplements, you can grow quite a number of them yourself and turn them into teas, salves, and tinctures. As I’ve learned more about these remedies, I’ve begun harvesting a mix of leaves to infuse into relaxing bedtime teas. My herb of choice is lemon balm, but I often add a few yarrow leaves, catnip, and bee balm to the pot for additional benefits.
Precautions for Using Medicinal Herbs
Many herbs used for culinary purposes, such as mint, are generally considered pretty harmless, but others may have unwanted interactions with commonly-used drugs and medical conditions, so be sure to do your research and check with a medical professional if you have any concerns. A number of herbs are to be avoided during pregnancy.
My go-to resource is the Complementary and Alternative Medicine Guide from the University of Maryland Medical Center, which has extensive information on the uses, side effects and interactions for herbs commonly available as supplements (though not some well-loved garden herbs that aren’t sold in commercial preparations). You’ll notice in a number of cases that there haven’t been many controlled studies on a number of these herbs, so herbalists are relying on centuries of folk wisdom about their uses and safety. Use caution when trying a new herb and be sure to check possible interactions with medications and conditions before consuming.
Many herbs have multiple uses, from helping the body fight off infection to improving digestion or sleep. Many also repel insects. Here are some great herbs to start with in your own medicinal herb garden.
Herbs for Relaxation and Sleep
- Bee Balm
- Lemon balm
Herbs that Support the Immune System and Treat Common Ailments
Herbs for Digestion
- Bee Balm
- Lemon Balm
Herbs for Wound Healing and Pain Relief
- Bee Balm
Besides being a drought-tolerant favorite of many pollinators, fragrant bee balm has long been used by the Oswego to ease pain from insect bites and as a tea soothing for digestion and relaxation. Its flowery-citrus scent (a treat when you brush by it in the garden), reminiscent of the bergamot fruit oil used in Earl Grey tea, explains its other name, bergamot. American colonists turned to bee balm or “Oswego tea” after boycotting British tea imports in the late eighteenth century.
Bee balm flavors can differ widely by region and variety, so the bee balm enjoyed by colonists made a mellower tea than the spicy version popular in the southwest, where it’s used in place of oregano in cooking.
Borage is thought to support adrenal function and reduce inflammation, which can be helpful in the treatment of colds and fever as well as inflammatory conditions like arthritis. The leaves have a melon-cucumber flavor that’s lovely in a cold drink, or they can be brewed as tea to extract medicinal compounds. The stems, seeds, and roots are also used in medicinal preparations. The purple flowers (removed from the tough stem) are edible, and though they don’t taste like much, they make beautiful decorations for salads and desserts.
Bonus: Bees love borage, and it’s reputed to help with disease resistance when used as companion plant for tomatoes and other garden favorites. Be forewarned – borage is a prolific self-seeder and will likely turn up all over your yard. And your neighbors’ yards. This plant gets around. But it’s easily pulled, so it shouldn’t cost you too much extra weeding time and is worth welcoming to your garden.
Besides making you immensely popular with neighborhood cats, catnip is a great addition to sleep-promoting tea infusions. I gather some to add to my lemon balm for the fresh herbal teas I make all summer.
Catnip is also reputed to help alleviate the symptoms of colds, fevers, and indigestion, and the compound that attracts cats, nepetalactone, is currently being studied for its insect-repellant properties. Having some plants in your yard may help keep mosquitoes away, and you can also steep the leaves to make your own insect spray.
A commonly used herbal for tea, this pretty flower makes a gentle and relaxing drink. Both Roman and German chamomile are considered effective for calming frazzled nerves. Chamomile can also soothe stomach pain and be used topically as a skin soother. Chamomile is also useful as an ingredient for homemade salves.
A popular herb for cold prevention, Echinacea’s efficacy for this use remains in question (plus many supplements turn out to contain little Echinacea!). However, Echinacea has long been used medicinally to alleviate pain and inflammation, and lab studies suggest it may also have antiviral, hormonal, and antioxidant properties.
Hyssop is a beautiful, drought-resistant perennial that bees love. With a sweet, licorice-y flavor, hyssop leaves make a delightful tea used to soothe colds and sore throats as well as digestive issues. Hyssop is an antispasmodic, so it relieves muscle pain while helping with respiratory conditions. Laboratory studies have also supported its use as an antiviral. In addition to teas and tinctures, hyssop may be used in baths, salves, and poultices.
Yet another member of the marvelous mint family, Lavender is prized for its soothing smell, which has been shown to increase sleep duration when diffused into the air of hospital patients. Putting a bouquet by your bedside can help prepare your mind and body for sleep. A sniff when you wake in the night might be all it takes to send you peacefully back to dreamland.
Lavender can also be added to your sleep-promoting teas or used topically for pain relief. It also has anti-microbial properties. Dried lavender sachets can help deter moths from eating your woolens.
Lemon Balm is the main ingredient in my sleep-promoting tea. A member of the mint family, lemon balm does a nice job spreading itself around the yard without being quite as invasive or tenacious as mint. It forms attractive clumps that you can harvest for a flavorful tea all season long and dry for winter use. I noticed a significant improvement in sleep quality when I started drinking a big cup of strong lemon balm tea most nights.
Nettles are a notoriously nutritious green, and can also be dried or used fresh for teas or tinctures thought to help with respiratory function and prevent and relieve allergies. Nettle can also be used topically in salves for pain. Its anti-inflammatory properties may make it useful for treating arthritis and eczema.
Nettles have slightly prickly leaves that will sting on contact, so plant nettles in a low-traffic area of your garden. Nettles are perennials, so once your nettle patch is established there is no work needed to enjoy the benefits of nettles for many years.
Besides making a delicious tea or sprucing up a cold summer drink, mints of all sorts have excellent medicinal uses, from relieving indigestion and headaches to repelling bugs. Peppermint can also work as a decongestant and expectorant and makes a good addition to teas for treating coughs. Peppermint appears to have antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties as well.
There are two types of skullcap, American skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) and Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis). American skullcap is grown for its leaves whereas Chinese medicine use the root of the Chinese variety.
You can use the leaves of American skullcap to make tinctures that alleviate anxiety and are thought to promote sleep. Skullcap is also believed to protect against neurological disorders.
Yarrow has sedative properties and helps to relieve muscle spasms and inflammation. It is also used to fight infection and heal wounds. Roman soldiers carried yarrow in their packs to staunch wounds. The leaves, flowers, and stems are all used in medicinal preparations. Yarrow is a drought-tolerant perennial available in many beautiful colors and makes a great addition to any flower or herb garden.
How to Use Your Home-Grown Herbs
Most herbs can be used fresh or dried and prepared as a tea or infusion, which is tea left to steep several hours or overnight to extract more of the plant’s beneficial compounds.
Want to dig deeper into herbal remedies? There are dozens of other herbs to explore. The herb-savvy folk I know highly recommend books by herbalist Rosemary Gladstar. You can also check out The Herbal Academy, which offers online herbalism courses and access to a library of resources.
You can find seeds for a number of the plants mentioned above (and some that are not) in the Medicinal Seed Vault.
What remedies might you grow this season?
Susannah Shmurak is an enthusiastic advocate for healthier, more sustainable lifestyles. She shares practical tips about gardening, food, and low-impact living at HealthyGreenSavvy.com.