Winters’ Herbal Heroes from your own backyard
We instituted a rule about 8 years ago only to plant edible plants in the garden. It started with a hiss and a roar, replacing boring bushes with Chilean guava and miniature grapefruit trees. Lemon and feijoa trees went in around the fence-line to replace the previous trees when they succumbed to age. Bay leaves and avocado now grace corners of the property, while rhubarb and rosemary are taking over the side path. I loved the new rule, until one day I looked around and saw only green. I realised there was not a flower in sight. A monotone of green leaves in all shapes and sizes. I love flowers! This was not good for my happiness and no good for the bees either! And so began the next phase. Edible flowering plants! Or at least colourful ones. Being a herbalist I naturally turned to herbs. In went lavender, calendula, thyme, chamomile, nasturtium, lemon balm, sage and Echinacea. As well as now being a joy to look at, the result has been a renaissance for me in terms of using my garden as a medicine cabinet.
I use herbs everyday in the clinic with clients. I have 130 odd different tinctures with which to blend personal formulas for each person and complaint. But even I had gotten away from the roots of herbal medicine and it’s genesis in the garden.
Using what nature provides, and you’ve helped cultivate is so rewarding. It also fosters a connectedness to nature sorely lacking in most peoples lives. I highly recommend turning your garden into a natural pharmacy. A place you can turn to in every season to nourish your family and treat minor ailments, while teaching your children the value of gardening and the beautiful potential of plants. Let your kitchen nurture your family with teas and soups, balms, tinctures and inhalations. Remedies you can grow and prepare yourself.
Below are a few of the herbs that will get you started on the way to your own garden pharmacy. Try it!
Lemon verbena is one of my most favourite smelling herbs. A brush of your hand through its leaves douses your senses in a fresh lemony sweet perfume good enough to eat. The only drawback is the way it thins out and dies back a bit in winter months. For this reason you might want to plant it in a large container that you can relegate to behind the shed for a few months in winter. Use leaves off the tree in summer and spring and trim whole branches to hang and dry for use in winter.
Using it at home: Use 3-6 fresh leaves or 6-12 dried leaves as an infusion. Cover with a cup of boiled water and a lid, and let it steep for a good 10 minutes before drinking. Keeping the steam from escaping means you wont lose any of the volatile oils.
Benefits: This herb contains potent compounds called limonene, nerol, flavonoids and geraniol, among others. They all work together to make lemon verbena a great winter remedy for fevers and the aches, pains and headaches that can accompany the common cold. It’s so pleasant that I recommend drinking it daily through winter as a preventative.
According to an old saying garlic is said to be ‘As good as ten mothers’. Well, we know that’s not true! But it does speak to the value and stature given to this pungent herb when it comes to the wellbeing of the family. Growing it yourself is surprisingly easy. Get an organic bulb, break into cloves and plant each clove about 5 cm deep. Give them full sun and harvest in summer when the tops die back. Leave them to dry for a week before plaiting the stems and hanging in a dry dark place. It will last till winter easily. Most of us are aware of garlic’s medicinal qualities but not many people seem to know that the benefits are vastly reduced once garlic is cooked. Cooked garlic in meals will still have some great benefits, but if you have an acute immune issue get ready for some raw garlic goodness.
Using it at home: Crush or slice a large clove and let sit for a couple of minutes. This damage to the garlic cells triggers a process by which one of the most therapeutic compounds in garlic, allicin, develops. Eat this raw garlic clove (one per person, 2xdaily if sick) mixed into olive oil on top of veggies, or simply in water or a teaspoon of honey. Don’t cook or heat it if possible.
Benefits: Garlic has well known antibiotic properties which are very helpful for bronchitis, sinusitis, bacterial cough and nasal congestion.
Note that more than 1 clove of garlic per day could interact with warfarin medication and can cause nausea or diarrhoea in some people.
There are many varieties of thyme but you want common garden thyme for the purpose of a winter remedy. They have very tiny leaves so plant a few around the garden so you can harvest plenty when needed. Thyme contains a powerful essential oil called thymol. Thymol is a wonderful antiseptic and has been used to medicate bandages and as a component of mouthwashes such as Listerine for example. The other main medicinal components are carvacrol and rosmarinic acid, both possessing highly antiseptic properties as well.
Using it at home: Harvest the leaves and stems and use roughly a tablespoon at a time to make tea (an infusion). Cover with boiled water and a lid, and let it steep for a good 10 minutes before drinking.
Benefits: The antiseptic properties in Thyme are amazing for throat infections and a wet or dry cough. Drink 4-6 cups of the tea daily.
Sometimes called Sage the Saviour, sage was one of the four herbs in the famous ‘Thieves remedy’ which was used to ward off the plague. It contains some of the same essential oils as thyme as well as it’s own unique ones such as Thujone. Easy to grow in pots, or the ground it’s a wonderful addition to any aspiring garden apothecary.
Using it at home: Harvest 6 fresh sage leaves, crush them gently between your fingers and steep, covered, in boiling water for 10 minutes. Remove the sage and drink. Add small amounts of honey to taste, but only if needed. Drink 4-6 cups a day until well.
Benefits: In winter, sage will be your saviour for your sore throat and running nose. The rest of the year it’s digestive calming properties will soothe sore tummies and regulate the hot flushes of menopause. Being antiseptic and anti-inflammatory it can work topically on the gums and mouth, making it a wonderful gargle for gingivitis (in combination with manuka). I’m sure at least one member of your family will benefit from sages’ many uses.
I hope this gives you the inspiration to turn your garden into the healthy haven it can be, and to let the heart of the home, your kitchen, become your workshop and your pharmacy.