Planting A Medicinal Herb Garden

Why go to the drug store for medicine when you can have many medicinal remedies for a wide variety of ailments growing right in your own back yard?! It's easy. It's fun. It's inexpensive. It's very rewarding. And you don't have to be a master gardener to do it!

Many medicinal herbs are easy to germinate, easy to grow, and will give you a bountiful harvest throughout the summer, fall, and even winter. Most herbs like a nice sunny spot, though many will tolerate only a half day's sun, or filtered sunlight. Of course if you go the extra mile and fortify your soil with compost, seaweed, grass clippings, a little limestone, and maybe even some animal manure (best if aged), you can have a spectacular herb garden that will keep you happy and healthy throughout the year. Here are a few herbal suggestions for getting started.

VALERIAN (Valerian officinalis) is one of the herb world's best nervine relaxants. This is the guy (or gal!) that helps you get to sleep after a stressful day. It loves full sun but will take a bit of shade. Valerian has a beautiful arching foliage that is alternately leaved, and has a large white flower head, perhaps like Queen Ann's Lace. I have seen it grow in my own medicinal herb garden to a height of five feet. In June when it blooms and the wind is out of the southwest, the fragrance carries right down into our shop through the back door and just fills the old pine board building, and is it sweet! We use the root of this plant and, as with most roots, we harvest in the fall when the energy of the plant has returned below ground. When the root is fresh it has little fragrance, But as it dries it takes on the very characteristic odor that makes most people think of sweaty gym socks! Don't laugh until you smell it for yourself! Personally, I adore its earthy richness, but each of us has a completely unique constitution. You must decide for yourself if Valerian is one of your "herbal allies."

FEVERFEW (Tanacetum vulgare) is a profusely-flowering, bushy perennial (when winter has not been severely cold) whose florets look very much like our old friend Chamomile: little white petals surrounding a yellow center. However, Feverfew's petals radiate horizontally while Chamomile's tend to droop. Medicinally, we use this herb for aches, pains, and fevers (as its name clearly implies), but its most famous use is for migraine headaches. Because it is very bitter and not pleasant to the taste, it might be best to tincture this herb, then add to a little juice to make it more palatable. Or, if you do dry it for use as a tea, blend it with other yummy herbs like Lemon Balm, Chamomile, or some of the stronger mints.

ECHINACEA (Echinacea species) is probably the most popular herb in the western world. It is indigenous to this country and, thus, you should not have a difficult time growing it — especially if you stick to the variety "purpurea" which grows and blooms profusely in the Cape Cod area. It is a stimulant to the immune system and is used to treat colds, flus, and infections including ear aches and yeast infections. It blooms for five or six weeks and thus is an excellent garden ornamental as well as a superior medicinal herb. You may use all parts of this plant: roots, herbaceous (stems and leaves), flowers and seeds. Don't forget to save some of the seed heads in October or November for next year's planting.

COMFREY (Symphytum officinale) is one very aggressive plant! This is the bully of the garden! The weight-lifting Bubba (or Bertha!) that just can't stop growing! A few plants should be sufficient for home use (maybe even just one?) Comfrey grows so fast that you can take at least three cuttings per season and not harm the plant. It is used primarily for cuts, wounds, scrapes, etc., either in the form of a poultice or as a salve. It causes cells to proliferate more rapidly, thus healing over a wound. Can also be used effectively as a tea or tincture for ulcers as, again, it heals wounds. Be cautious when using internally as there has been a hot debate for many years over whether or not one of the alkaloids in Comfrey may injure the liver, although people have been using Comfrey for hundreds of years with very few reported problems. Use it sensibly, perhaps no more than three cups per day for not more than three weeks. This indispensable plant really shines, however, when used as a salve, along with the flower buds of our indigenous friend St. Johns Wort, and the flowers of the old-fashioned Marigold, or Calendula. This combination is used by almost every herbalist in the western world, and for good reason; it is fabulous for eczema, psoriasis, dry and cracked skin, scrapes, bruises, diaper rash, and on it goes. Every home in America ought to have a jar of homemade Comfrey salve at the ready!

VIOLET (Viola odorata) may be planted in the shadier parts of the garden, or property. You probably never thought of this common, fast-spreading little beauty as having medicinal qualities but it has been used successfully to treat cancers, especially of the mouth and throat. Violet is also used for colds and coughs, to dispel mucous and soothe inflamed mucous membranes, for sore throats, and for headaches and fevers. Gather the fresh leaves and make a tea or tincture for help in dealing with swollen breasts or breast cancer. It is taken not only internally, but is also used externally as a poultice.

CALENDULA (Calendula offinicalis) makes a spectacular show of bright yellow and orange blossoms. It loves full sun. The seeds form quite early in the season and you may be able to sow a second crop with them and have more flowers before the fall frosts! Calendula is a great anti- inflammatory both topically for bug bites, rashes, infections; and internally for digestive problems including ulcers, ulcerative colitis and heartburn.

BLACK COHOSH (Cimicifuga racemosa) likes a little shade, as its native habitat is the borderland between hardwood forest and field. Its lovely white, fuzzy flowers on spikes bloom in mid to late summer. I have seen Black cohosh grow as high as seven feet and it is spectacular! In the nursery business it is sometimes (appropriately) called "Fairy Candle." Medicinally, it is an excellent anti-spasmodic used frequently by women experiencing painful menstrual cramps or by women going through the menopausal years. I use this herb in several formulas to help relieve the muscular pain associated with fibromyalgia or Lyme disease, as well as stiff muscles and joints from exercise and for lower back pain.

CATNIP (Nepeta cataria) is not only for your cat! I like to say that it's a good remedy "for rampaging children!" It is an excellent relaxing herb, and is lush, lovely and fragrant in your garden. Use other mints as well for their cooling and tonifying properties. Try Chocolate Mint, Orange Mint, Lemon Balm, as well as the usual Peppermint and Spearmint. All of the mints make great summertime teas because the energetics or properties of the mints are "cooling" — being very aromatic, they open your skin pores, thus promoting perspiration, and through evaporation, a cooling effect.

ELECAMPANE (Inula helenium) is a member of the sunflower family. It grows three to six feet tall and thus would do well at the back of the garden! Harvest the second year roots in autumn and use for thinning the mucous, for strengthening the lungs, as an expectorant, and for coughs and wheezing. Its leaves are huge and the flowers have lovely, spider-like yellow petals in mid to late summer.

WOOD BETONY (Stachys betonica) is an adorable plant and one of my personal "herbal allies!" I love its compact growth, dark green foliage, and lovely blue spiked flowers that bloom for many weeks in mid summer. It is an excellent ornamental as well as a medicinal. Use it for headaches, migraines, nervous system rejuvenation, as well as for bronchial catarrh. As with other nervines (excepting Valerian) the foliage is the part of the plant used for your tea or tincture. This plant is a premier addition to the modern herb garden that incorporates a variety of culinary, medicinal and ornamental plants.

HYSSOP (Hyssop officinalis) is a woody herb that forms a beautiful little hedge up to two and a half feet tall. You could border one or several sides of a small garden, enjoying the profuse, tiny blue blossoms in mid to late summer. Shear it in late summer to thicken it up, possibly using it as a windbreak for more tender occupants of the garden. Tincture it for treating colds and congestion. Hyssop is also used to treat the Karposi's sarcoma found in more advanced stages of HIV infection.

LEMON BALM (Melissa officinalis) is the best herb for a delicious summertime tea! The coolness of lemon in a plant of the mint family — yum! It's flower is not conspicuous, but the delicious fragrance of its bruised foliage is, so go out and pick the leaves any time between mid-May and late September for a very fresh and refreshing herbal beverage. Pick and dry the leaves (preferably in early summer) for later use as a relaxing hot tea in fall and winter. Herbalists call Melissa "the cheery herb" because of its spirit-lifting quality. As a tincture it can be used for herpes sores and, as either tea or tincture is a nourisher for an exhausted nervous system. Lemon balm prefers a slightly shady home in moist, rich garden loam. We do quite well with it at the farm in Brewster, so the thinner soil of Cape Cod is not a huge problem. Grow lots!

WILD INDIGO (Baptisia tinctoria), like Echinacea, is a great immune system enhancer. As an ornamental it is somewhat vinelike and has strikingly blue flowers that develop into large seed pods. Leaves are flat and paddle-like, adding a unique foliar texture to your garden.

WORMWOOD (Artemisia absinthium) is one of the most bitter herbs in the world — reportedly only one drop of tincture in 50,000 parts of water is still detectable to the taste! As its name implies, it is used to expel worms and parasites, but also, as with all other bitter herbs, it enhances the digestion by stimulating the bile and digestive enzymes. Take a few drops in an ounce or two of water before meals. As a garden ornamental, it is especially effective in the "moon garden" because of its soft, silvery foliage that reflects moonlight. It wants to grow to four feet or more, at which time it gets a bit "leggy," so trim it back once or twice a year to keep it fuller. One of its cousins is the Silver Mound Artemisia that you find in nurseries and garden centers.

HOREHOUND (Marrubium vulgare) is a very useful herb to have in the garden. The leaves are used to treat coughs, lung problems, and hoarseness. It is often used in a syrup or in lozenges for those conditions. Its unusual, wrinkled foliage is unmistakable, and the flowers are arranged in little balls, one above the other with spaces between, along the main stalks. The bees love it!

ST. JOHN'S WORT (Hypericum perforatum), the current "star" of the herb world, can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as Prozac, and it grows everywhere! Its sunny yellow, five-petaled flowers bloom on the day named for St. John the Baptist— on or around June 22nd. Plant some on your own property in a sunny, sandy location, and see if it will spread as the years go by, then harvest and make your own products. Infused into olive oil, it is better than Aloe for burns and sunburn, as well as joint and muscle aches and pains. One of the most useful of the medicinal plants, let it naturalize itself for future generations.

CHINESE ASTRAGALUS (Astragalus membranaceus) was, until recently, only available from Asian sources, but since it grows so well in the United States more and more people are now planting it. It germinates quite easily and only takes seven days! I suggest planting a dozen at least. Astragalus is one of the very best herbs for boosting a depleted deep immune system, or bone marrow reserve immune system (vs. the superficial, or secretory immune system for which Echinacea and Wild Indigo are so helpful). This extraordinary herb can be used with people who have frequent colds/flus/infections, or with those undergoing chemotherapy where the immune system has been greatly depleted. The root is not harvested for at least four years, preferably longer. It has a delightfully sweet taste, and I suggest using it in soups and stews in the cold seasons. (I call this Immunity Stew). I highly recommend planting Astragalus (if you can find it!), as I believe that the demand for good, organic root will be strong in years to come, but even more importantly, because we need to be taking this herb frequently in order to rebuild our immunity which has been severely compromised by the profligate use of antibiotics, corticosteroids, and the toxins of everyday life.

CHINESE CODONOPSIS (Codonopsis pilosula), an herb which I feel the same way about as I do Astragalus — plant it now and save your health! The nickname for this plant is "poor man's ginseng" because it acts so much like ginseng — energizing, immune supporting, and helping us to adapt to the stresses of contemporary life on planet Earth. But it is much easier to grow and far less expensive. As an ornamental, it is a vine that loves to climb. Thus it would be nice on a stake, trellis, or perhaps climbing up a lamp post, or over an arbor. The flower is a large, deep- throated bell that is a pale creamy green with veins of lavender. Seed pods may be gathered in late autumn and saved for the following year. As with Astragalus and true Ginseng, you should grow this plant for four or five years before harvesting the root. And like Astragalus — the root is sweet and a perfect addition to Immunity Stew.

GINKGO (Gingko biloba), the oldest tree species on the Earth — over 200 million years old — can be thought of as our "connection with the eons." It represents stamina, endurance, overcoming-the-odds and surviving, persistence, and our will to overcome adversity and thrive! Plant one in a very special place in your garden and allow it to be "the ancient one" that looks over and protects all the other "junior" plants. In the autumn when the leaves begin to turn yellow, harvest them and make a tincture. Hundreds of scientific studies and clinical trials have shown Ginkgo to be effective in increasing the circulation to the brain, thereby helping memory and increasing mental alertness. It is the Ginkgo's gift to us. Give him/her a revered place in your garden (and in your life…)

Medicinal herb gardening is easy, lots of fun and extremely rewarding both in the medicines that can be made for free and in the gorgeous blossoms and foliage textures that will make your garden the pride of the neighborhood. Help carry on our Western herbal traditions by teaching others about the wonderful healing qualities of the herbs in your garden!

Stephan Brown is a self-taught practitioner of traditional western herbalism. He owns an organic medicinal herb farm on Cape Cod on which he grows plants for his herbal apothecary and crystal shop, Great Cape Herbs. He is also known to many as The Ginkgo Man for his love of the world's oldest tree. Contact Stephan at Great Cape Herbs, 2628 Rt. 6A, PO Box 1206, Brewster, MA 02631. Phone: 508 896-5900. Email: Website: