has been used by humans for thousands of years for everything from cuts and bruises to cancer, and is still a primary source of healing in most of the world. Herbal medicine in the form of pills, powders, tinctures, salves, and other solutions has also found a permanent spot in many North American medicine cabinets today.
But you don’t need to go farther than your herb garden to find a wide variety of healing substances that can take care of a number of minor ailments, from headaches and stomach upsets to cuts and scrapes.
Plant an apothecary garden
Most herbs should be in the garden or growing in pots by now, but there’s still time to add a few for healing purposes. It’s already well into the growing season, so your best bet for success is to buy herb plants at the nursery rather than starting them from seed.
Most herbs are hardy survivors and thrive on benign neglect. Most need a sunny location and well-drained soil that’s not too rich. They may also require regular watering if they’re in pots or growing in a particularly hot and dry part of a garden. The key is not to kill with kindness by overfeeding or overwatering.
Start your apothecary garden with a few basics, such as mint, lemon balm, lavender, rosemary, and, for a lively splash of colour, calendula—all are easy to grow and chock full of health-inspiring aromas and healing substances.
Mint—particularly its primary, spicy-sweet constituent, menthol—finds its way into many of our foods, medicines, and beauty aids. Like so many other flavourful culinary herbs, mint is a powerhouse of antioxidants and has many cosmetic and healing uses—breath mints, chewing gum, and toothpaste wouldn’t be as refreshing without its flavour. You don’t need a trip to the store to get some, however. Go natural and chew a sprig of freshly picked mint for a quick mouth freshener.
Mint treats upset stomach or indigestion and eases headaches, as the menthol can help calm muscle spasms. Menthol is a natural decongestant that also helps loosen phlegm, and some people combine mint with tea to help relieve sore throat.
Some claim that brewing a tea with mint leaves works as a great remedy for general pain. Just pour a cup of boiling water over 1 Tbsp (15 mL) chopped fresh mint leaves and steep to desired strength.
In the garden
Mint should be contained in some way or it will take over an entire herb bed. Either confine it to a pot or planter or sink it into the ground in a bottomless container, such as an old plastic bucket. Mint likes a moist soil and will thrive in partial shade.
This fragrant herb
—a member of the large mint family—is considered a mood-lifter, particularly in relieving restlessness and anxiety that may accompany menopause or symptoms of PMS.
Fresh lemon balm leaves may be brewed into a mild, lemon-flavoured tea; drying the leaves takes away most of their scent. Drinking the tea may reduce indigestion, flatulence, and bloating, and could help speed the healing of cold sores. Steep for 10 to 15 minutes, let cool, then apply the liquid with organic cotton balls to the cold sore as often as you can until it disappears.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women should not take lemon balm.
In the garden
Lemon balm is a perennial that prefers a fertile, moist soil. It will happily spread its seeds unless flowers are kept cut back.
The slender purple flower stalks are beloved by bees, and its heady fragrance is a favourite in colognes, soaps, and sachets. The name lavender comes from the Latin word lavare, or “to wash,” and it was used in baths to purify body and spirit. Modern research backs up that notion, indicating that inhaling lavender’s scent has a calming effect.
There’s growing evidence to suggest aromatherapy with lavender improves sleep quality, lifts mood, and promotes relaxation in people with sleeping disorders. It may also reduce agitation in patients with dementia. In Germany, lavender flowers have been approved as a tea to treat insomnia, restlessness, and stomach irritations.
Oral use in children is not recommended and could cause constipation, headache, and increased appetite in some people. Some may also be allergic to the herb.
In the garden
Lavender is a Mediterranean native that prefers a sunny, dry location.
This fragrant, woody herb is often used in aromatherapy to increase concentration and memory and to relieve stress. Although more studies are needed, it is thought that rosemary can also help relieve muscle pain and spasms, stimulate hair growth, and treat indigestion. A recent study indicates the aroma of rosemary could also increase memory speed in elderly adults.
Unless there is an allergic reaction, rosemary is harmless for both adults and children when used as a food spice. However, rosemary leaves are rich in volatile oils, and consuming large quantities of the leaves can cause serious side effects, including spasms, coma, and fluid in the lungs.
Pregnant women should avoid rosemary as a herbal remedy, as high doses of the herb increase the risk of miscarriage. People using prescription medications should consult a health care practitioner before using any amount of rosemary as a health remedy.
In the garden
Rosemary hails from the Mediterranean and grows well in a warm, sunny location. It will survive mild winters, but must be sheltered from extended freezing.
Also known as pot marigold, the cheery orange and yellow petals of this plant have been used in herbal remedies since the 12th century. Calendula is not the same as the marigold plant that’s often seen in flower beds, although its use as a landscape plant is now widespread as well. The petals are edible and add beauty and extra nutrition to salads.
Calendula is high in flavonoids and has been used to treat internal problems such as stomach ulcers and menstrual pain, but there isn’t enough scientific evidence to rate its effectiveness for these conditions. However, research suggests calendula does work topically for minor cuts, burns, and bruises.
Although calendula is used in many commercial herbal preparations to treat skin problems, you can make a water-based compress at home by steeping 2 tsp (10 mL) calendula flowers in a cup of boiling water. Let cool, strain out the flowers, and use the compress for up to an hour to treat minor burns, cuts, scrapes, insect bites, and other skin irritations. Repeat up to four times a day until healed.
Note that people who are allergic to plants in the daisy and aster family, including chrysanthemums and ragweed, may also have an allergy to calendula.
In the garden
Calendula is easy to grow, and if you let a few flower heads go to seed this season, you’ll be rewarded with volunteers next year. Plant them in a sunny garden spot or in pots, but watch for aphids and other pests. Remove any pests as soon as you see them.
It’s called the “first aid plant,” and for certain purposes, it deserves that name. Aloe vera has been used as a herbal remedy for thousands of years for both external and internal healing of conditions such as diabetes, asthma, epilepsy, and osteoarthritis.
Today it’s found in many commercially produced soaps, shampoos, and skin care remedies. The plant itself sits on many home windowsills as a soothing remedy for minor burns and scrapes, though it has not been found as effective in healing deep wounds. The part used to treat skin problems is the clear gel inside the thick, fleshy spiked leaves.
Aloe vera’s skin, meanwhile, has powerful laxative properties that can be toxic at high doses. As a result, the US Food and Drug Administration banned aloe-based laxatives in 2002 because of insufficient information regarding their safety.
In the garden
Aloe vera is a succulent plant that can be found growing wild in tropical and temperate regions. In Canada, it will not survive our winters and must be brought indoors when the weather gets cold.
Like other succulent and cactus plants, aloe requires well-drained, sandy soil and bright light to prosper. Let the plant dry out completely before watering.
During low-light seasons, aloe will go dormant and will require almost no watering. During the growing season, the plant will produce side shoots known as “pups,” which should be cut and planted in fresh soil for further growth.
Proceed with caution
It’s recommended that you consult a knowledgeable health care practitioner both to determine a specific dose to fit your needs and to learn of any possible side effects.
Before you begin treatment with herbal first aid remedies, remember that certain substances can trigger side effects such as allergies. They can also interact with other herbs, supplements, and medications. As well, most oils extracted from herbs should only be used topically, not orally.
Finally, the common medical wisdom is that pregnant women should avoid using herbal remedies, except with the supervision of a health care practitioner.