My husband is a landscape architect by training. This has been very beneficial to our farm over the years. Sometimes, though, it has caused friction when I want to assert my need for plants to have a “purpose” beyond texture and structure. To head off potential disagreements, I learned long ago to look among the common landscape plants for specimens that could serve double duty. You would be surprised to know the number of medicinal plants that are being used to landscape your local supermarket or housing development. Here are some annuals and perennials you should look out for.
1. Echinacea (Echinacea spp.)
Medicinal Parts: leaves, flowers, root
With so many Echinacea plants being used in landscape applications, it was confusing to me to find the plant on the United Plant Savers’ list of endangered medicinals. We are doing a good job of passing around Echinacea purpurea, but we are in danger of losing some of the less showy varieties of this important plant. It is perfectly acceptable to leave your Echinacea alone and just harvest the leaves and flowers for their benefit in the immune system. If you are looking for a truly unique way to participate in plant conservation and grow a beautiful garden, try E. angustifolia or E. tennisseensis.
2. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Medicinal Parts: leaves and flowers
I see why this plant is so often used in landscape applications. Its ferny green leaves provide a delicate texture to any setting and the flowers come in a variety of colors. Here in the United States, most herbalists agree that the white variety is the most medicinal. This leaves many to question what they might do with all the other colors of yarrow. I believe that you can use just about any cultivar in a similar fashion as long as the leaves aren’t too greatly modified—there is one cultivar with yellow flowers that has a silver, fuzzy leaf that I might not use medicinally. Yarrow has a long history of use as a styptic, showing up in the battlefields of the Iliad and even those of WWI. It’s a hormone balancer and fluid mover. I like it topically for sprains.
3. Pansies (Viola tricolor)
Medicinal Parts: flowers and roots
In the early spring and late fall it is common in my area to see pansies tucked under just about every housing development sign. These hardy little plants love cooler weather and give us that first glimpse of color and the last gasp of the season, for which I am always grateful. Many are surprised to find that they are not just pretty, they also have a tradition of being used for health. They have even held a spot in the U.S. Pharmacopeia, a compendium of drug information, at different times throughout history. Pansies excel in topical applications, often being associated with eczema. In Europe, pansies have a longer history of use where they are well known to be effective in expelling congestion from the chest and serving as an anti-inflammatory.
4. Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans)
Medicinal Part: leaves
Bugleweed is a popular ground cover to plant underneath trees that tend to provide enough shade that grass won’t grow. We have a patch of this beautiful, purple tinged, plant growing under our oak tree here at the farm. I love the contrast its lightly pink flowers make against the dark foliage and love to watch it spread out into the yard at the edge of the tree’s drip line. Bugleweed is not a hugely popular medicinal these days, as it has been eclipsed by plants with more chemical activity. In Culpepper’s days, though, bugleweed was pretty important. Some herbalists still recognize the plant’s high tannin content as being useful in healing up wounds and as a styptic. For this reason it is sometimes commonly called woundwort. Internally, it has a folkloric history of application in the lungs for cough and congestion, as well as internal bleeding within the digestive tract.