Spring planting time is nearly here. This month, I’ll mention 4 of my favorite plants to grow and harvest here in the Midwest. Each one is uniquely beautiful, and makes an excellent addition to the medicine chest.
Gardening is a moving meditation that engages our senses, thankfully distracting our overly conscious and busy brains. It makes our will and body strong with tasks that inspire us to stretch and move as we strive to achieve our botanical goals. And as we are creating space and/or growing our own medicines for our next cup of tea or an illness in the unseen future, we come to realize that gardening itself is medicine.
While I am the most precarious of gardeners, every year I relish in the self appointed task. I find that there is no shortage of ideas for gardens or things to plant, merely shortage of space, being in the city. And that it’s far more difficult to narrow the field of things to put in than it is to come up with a place to begin from.
When I begin to think of what to plant, I always consider need-my own families and those of my clients. Here are a four plants that I love to use on a regular basis. They are valuable to have around and oftentimes get overlooked for the more popular genus. But they grow well in our climate, and are medicinally versatile. If you don’t already grow them, my hope is that you will find them exciting additions. And if you already do, perhaps you will realize a new use.
Four of My Favorite Plants to Grow (This Year)
Blue vervain leaves and flowering tops (Verbena hastata): Tastes: acrid bitter; Energetics: sedative, diaphoretic, diuretic, bitter tonic and antispasmodic, anti-anxiety, soothing anti-inflammatory in cases of nervous and hot headaches, once considered an aphrodisiac. Best way to use the plant: fresh plant tincture; Growing conditions: Needs full sun and well draining soil. Does beautifully in a prairie garden.
Blue vervain’s prostrate stems grow up 2-3 feet. It’s thin, lance shaped leaves grow up to 7 inches long and are tough to feel, while it’s blue flowers penetrate the eye and invoke a sense of relaxation.
Blue vervain has a long and colorful history as a healing agent. According to Maude Greives, vervain is derived from the Celtic ferfaen; fer, ‘to drive away’, and faen, ‘a stone’, identifying its ability to expel urinary gravel. Verbena, the Latin, translates as ‘altar plant’, a title possibly given by Roman priests, who believe it was one plant responsible for healing the wounds of Christ on the Mount of Calvary.
Blue vervain is acrid bitter, sometimes making one shiver as it relaxes the nervous system. I have seen strong men quake after taking just a few simple drops. I use it for nervous system tension that results in exhaustion and is accompanied by an attachment to those who need things to be their way. It also serves the very sensitive who are prone to autoimmune disorders and/or anxiety that results from an excess of nervous system tension and tightness in the spine and neck.
When Blue vervain relaxes nerves that are functioning in excess, it allows energy to disperse, increasing blood circulation (not by heating and stimulating, though), opening the pores of the skin, and supporting digestive and urinary function.
Some general symptoms it is specific for: high fevers that won’t break, headaches that are hot and move from one part of the head to the other, anxiety and depression with hormonal imbalances, stress related digestive problems (with lemon balm), food poisoning and autoimmune disorders that are made worse by stress and anxiety.
Lemon balm leaves and flowering tops (Melissa officinalis): Taste: Pungent, sour; Energetics: antiviral, mild hypotensive agent, anti-anxiety, sedative and calming, diaphoretic, mild carminative antispasmodic to autonomic nervous system when affecting the stomach and respiratory tract, nervine tonic; Best way to use the plant: Fresh plant tincture. But also strong infusion of tea (1-2 tablespoons in 1 cup of hot water for 3 min.). Many recommend that because of the volatile oils it is best to use any dried plant up quickly. I say store it well, and use it in less than a year. Growing conditions: Grows in full sun or part shade. Does best in soil that drains well. This plant can become invasive. Be sure to harvest and cut back well.
Lemon balm is a plant of the mint family. The leaves sit opposite each other on a stem that is square. They look similar to peppermint, though they have a more distinct heart shape to them. The flowers are tiny and white. They are sweet to see. The plant grows to about 4 feet in height, and almost looks like a low growing bush.
Lemon balm’s name reflects its taste and action. It has a lemony taste whose sour undertones overpower it’s pungency. And balm because it is soothing, just as a balm is defined as a soothing agent.
Lemon balm is most widely known as a nervine tonic, meaning it improves the function of the nervous system. It’s affects, however, are felt far wider. It soothes the autonomic/automatic nervous system response to stress, thereby calming a nervous stomach (butterfly stomach), palpitations and anxiety that results from hyperthyroidism, and coughs that occur from a nerve spasm as opposed to a muscle spasm. Specifically, this plant is a wonderful ally for those who tend towards stress as a result of overstimulation.
Sample formulas: with hawthorn and motherwort tincture if extreme anxiety; with peppermint, and fennel if extremely bloated and nauseous
Holy basil leaves and flowering tops (Ocimum sanctum): Taste: aromatic, pungent, warm, sweet; Energetics: diaphoretic, diuretic, adrenal adaptogen, digestive tonic, carminative, antibacterial, antioxidant, antiviral, expectorant, immune stimulant/modulator, anti-inflammatory, anesthetic (dulls nerve pain), cell regenerating (improves the elasticity of skin and speeds healing); Best way to use the plant: This plant tinctures well, but can also be dried and taken as a tea. Infuse 1 teaspoon-1 tablespoon of dried herb in 8 oz. of hot water for 5 min. Growing conditions: Grows in full sun. Needs soil that drains well.
The leaves of the holy basil, known also as tulsi, are slightly oval, much like European basil, but they are toothed around the edges. The stem is slightly purple, and the scent of the plant is a combination of basil and clove-pungent and spicy.
Revered by the Hindu for thousands of years, holy basil is to occupy nearly every home. It is considered a sacred protector, and can be found on altars and in front of houses.
The plant itself is a panacea (heal all). If you consider it’s energetics and uses, you may notice that it supports nearly every system of the body as a tonic. It is used in India for coughs, fevers, colds, indigestion, asthma and fatigue. It’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties speed healing and cell regeneration, as well as cell repair.
Holy basil also has the ability to clear the mind, balance the adrenal glands, having a strong restorative effect on the adrenals and balancing cortisol production. It can help lower stress related high blood pressure, and is specific for a cluttered and foggy mind.
I have found it helpful for daytime use in those needing to rebalance sleep cycles, from former addicts to stressed out insomniacs.
Marshmallow root (Althea officinalis): Taste: sweet, salty, cool and mucilaginous Energetics: powerful demulcent for dry tight tissue (respiratory, throat, colon, bladder), emollient to dry skin, anti-inflammatory; mild anti-spasmodic, diuretic, anti-inflammatory, expectorant, mild laxative, tissue tonic for dry membranes. Best way to use this plant: the tea is the only effective method. The best way to extract the medicine is to bring ¼ oz. to a boil in 1 quart of water. Turn the fire off once boiling, and let sit overnight. Strain and drink as needed throughout the day. Growing conditions: Full sun with moist soil.
Althea officinalis native to Egypt and Africa. Althea, a Greek word means ‘to heal’. And this soft tall plant certainly knows how to do that. It grows 3-4 feet high, and has 3 inch oval leaves that are so soft. The flowers re like all mallow flowers, and their stamens are unified, taking on a kidney shape.
Marshmallow root is a medicine with a specific purpose. It moistens, decreases inflammation when excess dry reigns, soothes irritation, and can express mucous. It is a diuretic and mild laxative as well, making it excellent for those with extreme dry and atrophic conditions and urinary infections with irritation.
I have found it an indispensible tool with my eldest daughter, who at the age of 1 had a tendency toward recurrent croup. It soothes the dryness and swelling in the larynx and throat, and acts as an anti-spasmodic. From here I have found it effective for any respiratory infection, upper or lower, throat or lung, that tended towards extreme dry. Think not only bronchitis, but dry sore throats, and laryngitis as well.
Marshmallow root is a smart and effective healer. The cooling sweet nature brings balance to extreme conditions. It coats the area in distress, softening the tissue and restoring water content in the cells. This doesn’t merely affect the dryness, but also decreases inflammation, acts as an antispasmodic and expectorant.
Make Your Own Medicines
Once you have grown your plants it’s time to harvest and make the medicines. For information on how, check my website for part 2 of this article, where I will tell you how to make fresh plant tinctures. You can also refer to the book Making Plant Medicines, by Richo Cech.
If you have a garden, think of incorporating these plants. If you are new to herb gardening, you may want to reference an article I wrote years ago titled, Build a Bond with Nature: Grow Your Own Medicines. It gives very basic ideas about preparing your plot and other plant ideas. It can be found on my website, www.redrootmountain.com. I also recommend you check out the plants and work of another local herbalist, Jane Hawley Stevens. Not only does she make plant medicines to sell (Check the Willy St. Co-op for her products) and teach classes, but she also sells beautiful garden plants! Her website is http://fourelementsherbals.com/.