Herbs are among the most common sources for pharmaceutical products. From aspirin, derived from salicylic acid found in white willow bark and other plants, to menthol, derived from a variety of mints, medicinal herbs form the backbone of the modern pharmacy. Pharmaceutical companies invest billions to extract and concentrate and emulate the natural compounds found in common medicinal plants. In addition, many common over the counter remedies for stomach upsets, cold symptoms, headaches and other common ailments draw directly from herbal sources. But you don’t have to lay out big bucks to take advantage of the healing powers of herbs. You can grow many common medicinal herbs in your own home garden. Here are ten of them.
Chamomile tea is one of the Western world’s most widely known herbal medicines. Many people drink a cup of chamomile tea to help them relax before sleep and ensure a better night sleep. The tea is made from the dried flowers of the chamomile plant, a hardy annual that happily self-seeds. It grows to about 30 inches and needs little care. The dainty, daisy-like flowers are a pretty backdrop for many other herbs.
Back in grandma’s day, tummy troubles were often treated with a peppermint lozenge or hard candy. All of the mints appear to quell nausea and settle queasy stomachs. The Romans, in fact, used to end a meal with a cup of peppermint tea to help digestion and reduce gas. Mint grows so easily in home gardens that most gardeners will warn you to confine it so that it doesn’t take over your entire herb patch. The easiest way to do that is to plant your mint in a container rather than in the garden itself.
A member of the mint family, lemon balm shares its ability to quell a queasy stomach. It also has been shown that lemon balm can help relieve cold sores and shorten the length of time it takes them to go away. Lemon balm tea is a natural sedative that has shown some effect in calming stress. It grows well in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 through 9, but needs mulching in Zone 4 to survive the cold winters. Lemon balm has a distinct lemon flavor that makes delightful tea and is a delicious addition to soups, salads and recipes.
These days, lavender essential oil scents everything from fabric softener to air fresheners. Tea made with lavender flowers may help relieve gas and restore appetite, but its most popular use is stress relief. Sprinkle lavender flowers in your bath to enjoy the sedative effect, or use dried flowers in a neck pillow or sachet to help you distress. Lavender is a tender perennial that grows about 18 inches tall. In northern regions, it needs to be brought indoors to survive the cold temperatures. In Southern gardens, it lives quite happily for years, spreading its soothing scent.
Elder is a popular hedge plant in the U.K., and grows just as happily in most parts of the U.S. In spring, elder bushes sprout dainty, delicate flowers that have long been used to make elderflower champagne and elderflower tea, both of which seem to have a potent antiviral effect. In the summer, the flowers give way to black berries, often used to make elderberry wine and elderberry cordial, general health tonics that may help relieve congestion and coughs.
Rosemary for remembrance, Shakespeare said, and science seems to agree. Rosemary oil appears to enhance the memory, while rosemary in your meal or as a tea seems to reduce gas and intestinal upset. The shrubby bush is high in antioxidants, and some substances in it seem to prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine, a brain chemical associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Rosemary grows best in areas that resemble its Mediterranean coast home – sandy soil, full sun and warm temperatures – but if can be coaxed to grow in your garden in other places if you bring it indoors when the temperatures drop.
Evening primrose oil is often touted as a cure-all for so many things that it’s hard to believe the hype. While there are lots of claims – and reason to believe that many of them will prove to be true eventually – the facts support using evening primrose oil to treat allergy-related eczema, PMS symptoms, some menopause symptoms and essential fatty acid deficiencies. Evening primrose is so easy to grow that many people consider it a weed. The biennial with bright yellow flowers likes dry, open fields, so choose a spot that gets sun and isn’t too sheltered. The biennial reseeds itself, and isn’t as invasive as many weeds – in generally, it’s quite well-behaved in garden beds.
Also known as purple coneflower, this member of the daisy family has a long tradition both as a decorative plant and an herbal medicine. A main ingredient in many over the counter cold remedies, Echinacea seems to reduce the symptoms and duration of colds if you take it early enough. You can use the flowers to make a tincture or the ground roots to make a tea. The coneflower grows happily in full sun throughout the U.S. To make the most of the pretty flowers, plant coneflowers among lower-growing bushy herbs to camouflage the stalky stems and let the flowers nod above the foliage of other plants.
This member of the parsley family originated in the Mediterranean, but it grows quite happily in most areas of the U.S. The feathery foliage, aromatic seeds and bulbous roots are best known for flavoring food, but fennel has a long tradition in medicinal history. Today, it is approved to treat digestive upsets in Germany, and to reduce congestion in upper respiratory infections. Some studies suggest that boiled extract from the leaves may help reduce blood pressure. Don’t plant them near coriander, dill, tomatoes or potatoes for best harvest.
You may think of garlic as a food flavoring, but the herb has a dual identity as one of the best-regarded medicinal herbs in the world. Its documented benefits include lowering cholesterol, lowering blood pressure, improving circulation and helping to prevent yeast infections, colds, the flu and some cancers, especially those of the gastrointestinal tract. Its thin, graceful stems and puffy flowers make it a lovely addition to the garden – and it tends to repel most garden pests, making it a valuable member of your herb family.