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Growing Healing Herbs

Growing Healing Herbs
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During those late winter months, we gardeners have to content ourselves with our own type of porn—gardening catalogues. We fantasize about the hundreds of plants we’d love to grow, then check our wallets and get back down to earth in plotting out what our real garden will hold come spring.

Then suddenly March 21st arrives and we are actually ready to do some serious work, up to our ears in clods of dirt, compost and seeds to make things bloom again, but often we are still weighed down with winter’s cold and flus exacerbated by the allergies that bedevil us when the trees start budding. Why not kill, as it were, two birds with one stone? Indulge our love of growing things and help regain our health after a long, germy winter? Fill your herb garden with these healing plants and get back on the road to sunny good health.

Here are 7 medicinal herbs that anyone can grow:

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

This is a perennial herb with tiny, aromatic leaves that can grow in any sunny location, even thriving between rocks, and living through both winter freezes and summer heat. The scent of thyme comes from a volatile oil, thymol, a powerful antiseptic phenolic compound. Used in a gargle, thyme gets rid of bad breath and mouth sores and can help with laryngitis and tonsillitis. Crushed fresh thyme applied to the neck is even believed to reduce throat infections and inhaling the vapors helps with nervous exhaustion, but the most important use of thyme is in treating respiratory tract infections. Thyme extract, taken by mouth, relives whopping cough, asthma, chest congestion and bronchitis. Mix a teaspoonful with honey to help the medicine go down.

Rosemary (rosmarinus officinalis)

Rosemary is of the same family as mint though it looks more like a woody shrub. The suffix of its Latin name officinalis means it has been used a medicinal herb for centuries but we are only now rediscovering its uses. Known as the herb of remembrance, the carnosic acid in it has been shown to prevent brain damage and neurodegeneration of the hippocampus induced by beta amyloid peptides (these are implicated in Alzheimer’s). Rosemary oil improves cognitive function and reduces brain aging and it is showing potential in cancer treatment. Use the leaves in cooking and in herbal tea.

Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)

Roman Chamomile flower heads can be made into a soothing tea to ease a troubled mind as well as a griping stomach (think of Peter Rabbit). Use fresh or dried flowerheads. Put a handful in a bowl and pour boing water over them. Steep for 20 minutes and drain. Drink the tea when you feel anxious or unsettled or are suffering from insomnia. A tablespoon will help stomach upsets, a gargle will relieve mouth ulcers and cooled chamomile tea will help eczema if you bathe the skin with it several times a day.

Peppermint (Menta x piperita)

Possible the oldest of the medicinal herbs, Peppermint is also one of the easiest to grow. Plant it apart from other herbs as it will take over the garden space or container you use. A tea made from a handful of peppermint leaves calms the stomach and can relieve gas pans. Carrying a few springs with you when you travel can even help prevent motion sickness. It is a natural breath mint and can even be crushed into a dog’s water to eliminate that awful doggie breath. Peppermint also has a mild analgesic action and relieves headaches and muscle cramps. With its active ingredient being menthol, peppermint has a cooling effect on the skin. Make a poultice of the leaves and apply it to the skin to relieve itching or burning from inflammation or allergies.

Aloe Vera (Aloe Barbadensis Miller)

Being a succulent, aloe vera requires very little care and even thrives in poor soil. Just give it a sunny location where there is no danger of frost and you will have one of the hardiest of plants. The jelly-like pulp inside mature leaves can be directly put on cuts, burns, or on skin inflamed by eczema or just plain dryness. Not only is it an excellent moisturizer (though a bit sticky) it has mild antimicrobial effect and is anti-inflammatory. The pulp may even be eaten and regular use can prevent constipation, ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome.

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

The delightful fragrance of lavender flowers has long been used to treat headache and depression through aromatherapy. A handful of flowers (in cheesecloth) floated in the tub or dried flowers under your pillow help you get a relaxed sleep and the antiseptic and antibacterial properties of lavender allow you to infuse the flowers in water to wash damaged skin, clearing acne and accelerating wound healing.

Echinacea (E. purpurea/E. angustifolia)

Echinacea is in great demand during flu season as it has an immunostimuatory action that helps the body fight bacteria and viral infections. A tincture made of steeped flower buds and/or roots in a tincture of pure alcohol for 4-6 weeks (then filtering out the liquid) works best.

Remember that herbs should be used with caution as they contain powerful compounds. Start with less, test your tolerance and look for allergic reactions. Don’t try to treat every condition with its natural ingredient (for example, foxglove contains digitalis, used for heart conditions, but too much can kill, rather than cure you. Leave such things to your medical practitioner.) But the next time you are unable to sleep, grab a cup of chamomile tea and put a few drops of lavender on your pillow rather than popping a sleeping pill. You may thank your garden as you drift off.




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