When it comes to growing herbs, it’s easy to want to start growing everything you read about. However, as many overeager gardeners have learned, it’s easy for your garden to get out of control — and that’s not sustainable for your sanity.
As you get your feet wet with medicinals, there are a few herbs you’ll definitely want to have by your side. These herbs are safe to use on a regular basis, they’re easy to grow, and most of your preparations will include at least one of them. In short, these plants are well-loved for a reason, so get your herb garden off to a healthy start by planting them first.
Chamomile (pictured at the top of this article) is a flower in the Aster-aceae family, making it a relative of the daisy. It’s noted for its cheery yellow–and-white flowers, lacy foliage and pineapple scent. There are two types of chamomile to grow: Roman (Chamaemelum nobile) and German (Matricaria recutita). Despite their different scientific names, both varieties are used interchangeably.
Harvesting chamomile is usually a summer pastime, though if you’re lucky, you may get a few plants that continue to bloom through a fall frost. Typically, it’s the flowers you’ll harvest, but the leaves are also collected in some parts of the world for therapeutic use.
If you keep your patch picked daily, it will continue to bloom all summer long. In any given patch, the flowers don’t all bloom at the same time. This is the real challenge of chamomile. Each bloom must be picked at its peak if you want the best benefit and flavor, and this takes a lot of time.
Start harvesting chamomile flowers in the morning after the dew has evapo-rated but before the sun is high. Select the flowers that are nearly open, pinch the stalk just below the flower head, and pop off the bloom. Collect them in a tightly woven basket.
The flowers that are done blooming give you an opportunity to collect chamomile seeds or allow the plants to self-seed next year’s patch. Be careful with self-seeding if you like to keep tight control of what grows in your -garden or flower beds; chamomile will -happily spread everywhere.
You might know chamomile best as an ingredient in nighttime teas, but the truth is it can do more than help you get a little shut-eye.
- Teething Babies: Chamomile is one of the very best herbs for easing the pain of teething. You can soak a washcloth in chamomile tea and freeze it. The resulting teether can make a bit of a mess, but it won’t stain. The relief it gives is worth a soaked shirt.
- Anxiety: Chamomile is a gentle nervine, which means that it feeds and tones the nervous system. For anxiety, it has a long track record. In fact, the longer you drink chamomile tea on a daily basis, the more calming you will find it.
- Upset Stomach: The digestive benefits of chamomile are one great reason to let your tea steep longer. The bitter compounds found in chamomile don’t come through until after it has been infusing for longer than your average tea bag. A cup of chamomile tea when your stomach is churning can be just the thing to settle things down, especially when it’s caused by an emotionally difficult day.
- Inflammation: When a mild anti–inflammatory is needed, reach for chamomile. Whether internally or externally, such as in the eyes, a chamomile tea is an easy way to calm and soothe irritated tissues. (However, if you’re sensitive to chamomile, avoid using it for this purpose.)
Be aware that there are rare reports of a topical -hypersensitivity to chamomile. The potential pool of people affected are those who are also allergic to other members of the Asteraceae family, such as ragweed. If you develop a rash while picking chamomile flowers, avoid using them externally or internally.
Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum), also called tulsi, is in the same genus as sweet basil. The plant looks a lot like our common garden basil, but its stems and leaves have purple undertones.
Holy basil is easy to grow and can be transplanted from seedlings or direct-seeded in a shallow bed. It likes full sun and a lot of water. It will only overwinter in zones 10 or 11, so in temperate zones, you’ll need to bring in a plant or two to enjoy when the snow flies. Harvest the leaves before the flowers form, and as with culinary basil, the more you harvest, the more the plant will produce.
This herb is considered an adaptogen, meaning it helps the body fight stress, and it has a long list of benefits. In Ayurveda, a traditional system of medicine with its roots in India, holy basil is classified as a rasayana, meaning it nourishes the body, encourages health and leads to a long life. The plant is also antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory, promotes a healthy immune system, is good for digestion, and supports the nervous and circulatory systems.
Holy basil has been extensively studied and has been shown to lower blood glucose levels, as well as the high triglycerides and cholesterol that tend to accompany Type 2 diabetes. As a bonus, holy basil has been tested in those who are concurrently taking diabetic medication. This is a really important note, as some herbs that are used for blood-sugar control are not safe to use for people already on a prescription. While many things are safe in moderation when enjoyed in food, that might not always be the case when it comes to this sort of interaction.
Happily, there is not much concern in using holy basil. With centuries of human use and a slew of modern clinical research, we know a fair bit about this plant. Not only can it be tinctured and encapsulated, but it tastes wonderful. Holy basil has an anise-like flavor that is delicious in a tea all on its own or when added to any number of culinary treats. (Check out a recipe for a holy-basil pesto on page 69.)
There are more than 20 species of lavender (Lavandula spp.), each with multiple varieties. Most have the signature purple buds, but there are some in shades of pink, red and white, adding diversity to an herb gardener’s options. Healthy lavender plants of all varieties can produce for 10 to 20 years.
As a Mediterranean herb, lavender likes hot, dry, sunny climes, and it seems happiest in gardens located along large bodies of water that have their own warm microclimates. While difficult to grow from seed, you can grow from purchased seedlings or cuttings instead. It likes room to grow, so depending on the size of the lavender variety, give each plant at least 2 to 3 feet of surrounding space. One thing every lavender grower will agree on is that lavender doesn’t like wet feet, having more to do with the soil type than the amount of water it’s given. Loose, well-drained, alkaline soil that’s not too rich is key.
Lavender is said to have been used as a perfume by ancient Greeks and Romans and as a disinfectant and insect repellent since the Middle Ages. Even today, the majority of lavender is produced for its essential oils and fragrance production, and because it’s soothing to the nervous system and lifts the spirits, it’s not difficult to understand why.
Lavender can also be included in remedies for headaches, toothaches, nerves and digestive issues. In your own garden, harvest the flower buds for flavoring for everything from vinegars to baked goods to reap the medicinal benefits. You can also make bath -products, sugar, wands, sachets and dried flower arrangements.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is so easy to grow that it is often considered a nuisance. Start one plant in your flower bed and you will soon find it -transplanted all the way around your house. I am more than fine with this, as it makes a nice ground cover.
Lemon balm grows happily in both full sun and partial shade. To get the best benefit out of it, harvest just as the tiny yellow flowers are developing. At this point, the leaves are lush and full. If you wait until the blooming is over, lemon balm gets spindly and you will have fewer leaves to harvest.
Lemon balm is a supreme nervine, and the leaves can be used for any kind of nervous-system distress. It’s shown clinical abilities for focus, ADHD and emotional outbursts, acting specifically to calm the anxiety that is -generated when someone feels out of control.
Try lemon balm in a topical oil to soothe illnesses that affect the nerve endings, such as chickenpox, shingles and various types of herpes. It’s amazing how powerful such a gentle herb can be. Only those who are struggling with hypothyroidism will need to exercise caution when using this herb. I also love that it is so tasty it can be picked fresh for a delicious sun tea or shredded into a salad. Even the pickiest palates will eat it with enthusiasm.
Lemon balm is antibacterial and antiviral, as well, making it useful around the house as my favorite dusting cleaning sprays.
Writer Gertrude Stein once said, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” But all roses are not created equally when it comes to their medicinal benefits. You can choose varieties for both the petals and the hips, but stay away from the hybrid tea rose, a very delicate member of this family that isn’t useful from a healing standpoint.
If you want to grow roses for medicinal purposes in your home garden, here are some varieties to choose from and their uses.
Rosa Canina: If you source rose hips from an online herbal retailer or read about them in a book, it’s likely that it’s referring to the dog rose (above), which is grown specifically by those looking to harvest only the hips. The shape of the fruit on this rose is more elongated than hips that set on other rose varieties. This shrub is a little less hardy, successfully growing in zones 3 to 7. There is some evidence that R. canina hips contain more vitamins and minerals than other rose varieties.
Rosa × Damascena: The belle of the ball, this beautiful rose (above) is the premium source of rose essential oil. The best is grown in Bulgaria, but you may find this rose growing in large areas of cultivation throughout Europe and the Middle East. It’s hardy between zones 5 and 9. This variety is a bit finicky and requires more pruning than the other two. Look for either the autumn or summer varieties, and reserve them early as they sell out at most retailers every year.
Rosa Rugosa: The rugosa rose (above) is a hardy shrub that is a good choice for zones 3 to 9. It grows well in full sun, but it can take some partial shade, though you might not get as many blooms. There are many varieties: Just look for a color and scent that you like, and you’ll soon have a very large shrub filled with beautiful roses. There is very little need for pruning, and suckers can be controlled by mowing next to your beds. You can harvest flowers and hips from this type of rose. The hips are best after a light frost in the fall.
In cooking, body care and health supplements, the parts of the rose most often used are the petals. Roses have astringent phytochemical properties and can also be used medicinally to address emotional issues, such as depression. Most varieties produce hips, the fruit of the rose, which is used medicinally for its high levels of vitamin C and, more importantly, bioflavonoids. This combination is particularly helpful in several ways:
- strengthening blood-vessel walls
- protecting against infection
- improving liver function
- decreasing blood cholesterol and the risk of heart disease
If you plan to use the hips for tea alone, simply use them as is, seeds and all, but if you want to cook with them, separate the flesh from the seeds. Cut each tiny fruit open, and use a small spoon to scoop out the insides. Surrounding the tiny seeds you will find a nest of fine hairs, which can be irritating to the mouth and throat, so be thorough in removing them.
Once you’ve mastered these favorites and discovered more about your medicinal needs, you can slowly expand your garden, getting to know each and every plant on a personal level along the way.
This article appeared in Healing Herbs, a 2018 specialty publication produced by the editors and writers of Hobby Farms magazine. Aside from this piece, Healing Herbs includes articles on herbs that can help with pain relief, sleeplessness and stress relief; herbs for teas; how to cut and dry herbs; how to prepare and preserve herbs; how to forage for medicinal herbs; and becoming an herbalist. You can purchase this volume, Hobby Farms back issues as well as special editions such as Living Off the Grid and Best of Urban Farm by following this link.