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Grow a Beautiful and Practical Garden of Medicinal Herbs

Updated on March 19, 2016
Passiflora incanata, the medicinal species of passionflower
Passiflora incanata, the medicinal species of passionflower | Source
Meadowsweet flowers
Meadowsweet flowers | Source
Rosemary flowers with honeybee
Rosemary flowers with honeybee | Source

A medicinal herb garden may be the easiest of all gardens to grow, and it’s likely to prove one of the most useful, especially since there is quite a bit of overlap between medicinal and culinary herbs. Several of the same herbs that add a special touch to cookery can be used in teas to soothe minor ailments.

This is a selection of medical herbs that are among the easiest to grow and most generally useful. Most are naturally pretty and tidy in their habit of growth—the sole exception being Sweet Annie, which will require some control. All require full sun.

Most medicinal herbs are unspectacular as flowering plants. Creating a charming herb garden is mostly a matter of arranging the plants somewhat artistically and including “hardscape,” such as flagstone paths, raised beds, birdbaths. Since mints and rosemary are best grown in pots, planting these in large attractive pots will also add visual appeal.

A medicinal herb garden typically makes a fine “fragrance garden,” since so many medicinal herbs have fragrant foliage that will release its scent when brushed, or after a rain.

Some of the medicinal plants included here do happen to produce beautiful and lavish bloom: Echinacea and Rudbeckia. Including these will add still more visual interest to the medicinal herb garden. Passionflower is, of course, a vine that produces beautiful and unusual flowers in late summer. I’ve also included Bible Leaf, for its early summer bloom, fragrance, and historical interest.

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)

Lemon balm is my granddaughter’s favorite herbal tea—it has a delicious lemony flavor.

Lemon balm has traditionally been used to soothe digestive problems and for its calming effect.

According to Maude Grieve, in A Modern Herbal, “It was formerly esteemed of great use in all complaints supposed to proceed from a disordered state of the nervous system....John Evelyn wrote: 'Balm is sovereign for the brain, strengthening the memory and powerfully chasing away melancholy.' Balm…'comforts the heart and driveth away melancholy and sadness.' Formerly a spirit of Balm, combined with lemon-peel, nutmeg and angelica root, enjoyed a great reputation under the name of Carmelite water, being deemed highly useful against nervous headache and neuralgic affections.”

Modern research somewhat bears out these traditional uses: According to Wikipedia, “It is used as a…mild sedative, or calming agent. At least one study has found it to be effective at reducing stress.” In addition, “Recent research found a daily dose of the tea reduced oxidative stress status in radiology staff that were exposed to persistent low-dose radiation during work… The extract of lemon balm was also found to have exceptionally high antioxidant activity.”

Gerard advised using lemon balm as a poultice for wounds, bites, and stings. Grieve also tells us that it is useful for fevers: “It induces a mild perspiration and makes a pleasant and cooling tea for feverish patients in cases of catarrh and influenza.”

Taken altogether, lemon balm is an excellent addition to the home herb garden, and the lemony flavored tea a pleasant safeguard against many of the ills and stresses of modern life.

Lemon balm is a carefree perennial plant to grow in the garden, very hardy and tolerant of a wide variety of soil conditions. It grows about 18-24 inches tall, into a rounded, bushy shape that requires no attention from the gardener. Lemon balm reseeds itself, but does not become aggressive.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Rosemary is one of the most useful and beautiful herbs you can grow, both for medicinal and culinary use. The dark green, needle-like foliage is fragrant, too.

While gardeners in areas of the country north of Zone 9 will not find rosemary reliably hardy, it is easily grown in containers that can be brought indoors over winter. The only hitch here is that rosemary needs quite a large container, if it is to survive. In regions where it is hardy, rosemary is a good-size shrub, and it will quickly come to resent a small container, but with a large enough container, it will be happy enough over winter, if placed near a sunny window. Once indoors, its foliage will perfume the air all winter long.

Culinary uses for rosemary are well known and nearly endless. The author of Under the Tuscan Sun mentions placing moistened sprigs of rosemary on the coals while grilling, to impart its flavor to meats, and if you grow rosemary in the garden, you’ll always have some handy for this and other culinary uses.

Rosemary tea is an old remedy for headaches and migraines, and a tea of the leaves mixed with a little borax is an old-time remedy for dandruff. Sprigs of rosemary laid among clothes will both scent them and repel moths. Rosemary tea is also a tonic for digestion, nervous disorders, and a stimulant to both memory and mood.

Thyme (Thymus officinalis)

Thyme is perhaps most valued as a culinary herb, being indispensable in, for example, turkey stuffing. It also makes a nice addition to things like salmon patties and crab cakes.

Thyme has quite a wide range of medicinal uses. The tea was formerly much used for whooping cough, as well as for colds, fevers, and sore throats, and Culpepper tells us that, “It is of great comfort to the stomach.” Grieve says, “Thyme tea will arrest gastric fermentation.”

Oil of thyme is a powerful antiseptic. Grieve tells us, “It is used as an antiseptic lotion and mouth wash; as a paint in ringworm, in eczema, psoriasis, broken chilblains, parasitic skin affections and burns…. It is most useful against septic sore throat, especially during scarlet-fever.”

In Grieve’s time, thymol was one of the most extensively used antiseptics, and was used to medicate gauze and wool for surgical dressings.

I have used oil of thyme successfully to remove plantar warts, and oil of thyme mixed with skin creams or lotions to destroy scabies. Jeanne Rose, in Herbs and Things, says that an infusion of thyme can be used as an external skin wash for scabies. She adds, “It is also used in dentifrices and mouthwashes, and as a specific for hookworm.”

Thyme is easily grown but prefers well-drained soils.

Sweet Annie (Artemisia annua)

Sweet Annie has been discovered to be highly effective for the treatment for malaria and is finding use for quinine-resistant strains of the disease. The herb has a long traditional use in Chinese medicine for fevers, colds, and diarrhea, and, used as a poultice, for nosebleeds, boils, and abscesses.

Sweet Annie destroys malarial parasites, lowers fevers, and checks bleeding.

Artemisinin, one of the plant’s constituents, has proved to be a dramatically effective anti-malarial against multi-drug-resistant forms of Plasmodium. Clinical trials have shown it to be 90% effective and more successful than standard drugs. It is as effective as quinine in treating malaria. Although there is an increased risk of relapse with the use of artemisinin, in a trial of 2000 patients, all were cured of malaria.

Home gardeners may find it useful, dried or made into a tincture, for the treatment of fevers, especially.

The foliage is fragrant has been used in wreaths and potpourris. (To me it smells more like camphor than perfume.)

Sweet Annie is easily grown in the garden—perhaps too easily. It reseeds exuberantly, which means that you will have an overabundance of it, next year. It is also rather tall-growing, to five or six feet in height, and its appearance is a trifle weedy, despite its delicate, finely cut foliage.

Sweet Annie can be grown as a tidy and rather charming addition to the herb garden by keeping it trimmed to two or three feet in height. The leaves and flowers can be dried for medicinal teas or used to make an herb vinegar for use in fevers.

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)

Chamomile is, of course, one of the favorite herbal teas for everyday use. It’s available in every grocery store and in bulk at health food stores and herb dealers.

It is used mainly to soothe upset stomachs, relax nervous tension, and provide restful sleep. According to Grieve, chamomile “may be given freely in teaspoonful doses to children, for whose ailments it is an excellent remedy. It acts as a nerve sedative and also as a tonic upon the gastro-intestinal canal. It proves useful during dentition in cases of earache, neuralgic pain, stomach disorders and infantile convulsions.”

I’ve given chamomile tea often over the years for children’s tummy aches, sometimes combined with mint or lemon balm. It’s good to include in any tea for children’s ailments of all kinds.

It grows about 8-24 inches in height and produces small, daisy-like spring flowers. Chamomile is an annual, but it reliably re-seeds itself. While both the leaves and flowers can be used for making tea, usually just the flowers are harvested.

Catnip (Nepeta cataria)

According to Grieve, catnip tea, “producing free perspiration, it is very useful in colds. Catnip Tea is a valuable drink in every case of fever, because of its action in inducing sleep and producing perspiration without increasing the heat of the system. It is good in restlessness, colic, insanity and nervousness, and is used as a mild nervine for children, one of its chief uses being, indeed, in the treatment of children's ailments.

Catnip and chamomile are the two “children’s herbs,” traditionally used for children’s complaints of all kinds, and often given in combination.

Its nervine properties are said to make it useful for headaches, too.

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)

According to Maude Grieve, in A Modern Herbal, “It is a valuable medicine in diarrhea, imparting to the bowels some degree of nourishment, as well as of astringency. It is also considered of some service as a corrector of the stomach…and almost a specific in children's diarrhea.

“An infusion of 1 OZ. of the dried herb to a pint of water is the usual mode of administration, in wineglassful doses. Sweetened with honey, it forms a very pleasant diet-drink, or beverage both for invalids and ordinary use.” Grieve also tells us that the root, “was formerly considered a specific in fevers.”

Meadowsweet also contains small amounts of salicylates, which are similar to aspirin. According to Wikipedia, Felix Hoffman developed acetylsalicylic acid (modern aspirin) from the salicin derieved from this species, and adds that chewing a piece of the root is a good natural remedy for headaches.

Meadowsweet makes a pleasant-tasting herbal tea—unlike willow bark, the more familiar natural source of salicylates. (A decoction of willow bark is very bitter.) Madowsweet also has the advantage of soothing the stomach, rather than upsetting it. For an especially good tasting tea, combine with lemon balm, mint, or some other favorite herb.

Meadowsweet is an attractive plant in the herb garden, wih its graceful foliage and froth of tiny white flowers. Although it typically grows in moist meadows—and should be given extra water during dry spells—my own meadowsweet has thrived for several years in a fairly hot, dry area of the garden.

Mints (Menta spp.)

All mints are valuable medicinally, as well as for making delicious herbal teas. While peppermint is the species of mint most often suggested for medicinal use, other mints, such as spearmint and chocolate mint, are equally useful and effective.Mint tea is one of the finest and most pleasant remedies for ordinary indigestion, upset stomachs, and queasiness.

In Natural Healing with Herbs, Humbart Santillo remarks that, “Peppermint is one of the oldest household remedies. It is excellent for chills, fevers, colic, dizziness, gas, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dysentery, and hysteria. Peppermint is good for spasms and convulsions in infants.”

Mint probably gets more practical use than any other herb you can grow. It is the “go to” for stomach upsets in both adults and children, whether caused by adults enjoying that extra helping or by children bouncing around in the car after too much fast food. Mint tea is also excellent to give when children are languishing on the sofa with the latest “bug” that’s going around.

Mint, of course, can be combined with other herbs for all of these purposes. Chamomile settles the stomach and is calming. Lemon balm soothes the digestion and helps headache and restlessness. Catnip, too, is often included in teas for children, for its relaxing and mildly sedative effects.

Mint is not only easy to grow, it is extremely invasive, spreading everywhere by underground roots. Hence, mint is best grown in pots. Go with a large pot, if possible. Most mints are very hardy and will overwinter outdoors, even in pots.

All mints are easily grown from cuttings. To propagate, simply cut off six or eight inches of the tops and put them in a glass of water. They will produce roots in a week or two and can then be transplanted. Be sure to give them enough water. One of the prettiest and most delicious mints is chocolate mint.

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)

The medicinal species of this vine, P. incarnata (aka, “maypop” or “wild pomegranate), is hardier than most people realize. It is said to be hardy to Zone 5—or even Zone 4, if given a heavy mulch.

This passionflower is reliably hardy in my area, near Kansas City, on the border of Zones 5 and 6, and I grew up enjoying the gorgeous 2 ½-inch-wide late-summer lavender flowers. My mother grew a tangle of passionflower and perennial sweet peas next to the garden gate. This is a gorgeous combination, by the way, and always buzzing with bumble bees when in bloom.

In the South, passionflower can become aggressive and is a common cornfield weed. It is said to have been cultivated by the Indians for its edible fruit, but don’t count on the fruit ripening in Zone 6 or further north. Rather like hardy figs, passionfruit will only ripen in the North during exceptionally hot summers. Because the fruit doesn’t ripen in more northerly areas, it doesn’t get out of control. The vine grows 6-7 feet tall and needs a trellis—as well as full sun and rich soil. Passionflower can be very floriferous in good soil.

Passionflower herb is used medicinally to treat nervous anxiety and insomnia. According to Wikipedia, some studies have shown anxiety-reducing effects and significant reduction of the symptoms of withdrawal from dependence-producing drugs.

This hardy and medicinal species of passionflower is fairly easily grown from seed—bearing in mind that germination is likely to be poor and slow. In other words, plant a dozen seeds and expect two or three to germinate, and allow them at least a month to get around to it, and often two months. Passionflower seeds germinate best if given warmth, and should be germinated as you would tomato seeds. One source of seeds for P. incarnata, as well as other species of (non-medicinal) passionflowers is jlhudsonseeds.com.

If you fall in love with passionflowers, you may want to try growing the blue passionflower (Passiflora caerulea), which has larger 3-4 inch flowers, and is said to be root hardy to Zone 6 or 7. It is the blue passionflower that was immortalized in Tennyson’s “Come into the Garden, Maud”:

There has fallen a splendid tear
From the passion-flower at the gate.
She is coming, my dove, my dear;
She is coming, my life, my fate;
The red rose cries, "She is near, she is near;"
And the white rose weeps, "She is late;"
The larkspur listens, "I hear, I hear;"
And the lily whispers, "I wait."

It might be best to grow the blue passionflower in pots and bring it indoors over winter. It can be grown from seed in the same way as P. incarnata, and with about the same rate of success. That is to say, you can grow it from seed: Plant lots, keep warm, wait long, and expect two or three seedlings.

Echinacea (Echinacea spp.)

Echinacea, or purple coneflower, is probably the single most valuable medicinal plant you can grow. Purple coneflower grows about three feet tall and gives a long season of bloom in mid to late summer, and the flowers are beautiful: large purple daisy-like flowers with orangey centers. Echinacea requires little care and will reseed itself if given half a chance, yet it will not become invasive.

Dig the root in the second year to make Echinacea tincture, or dry the root for medicinal teas.

Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.)

Black-Eyed Susans are low-maintenance perennials that provide a lavish late-summer display of brilliant yellow flowers and grow about three feet in height. Gloriosa daisies are among the cultivated varieties of Rudbeckia and are truly stunning.

Several Rudbeckia species, it turns out, have unsuspected medicinal uses—unsuspected by me, anyway. A tea of the leaves has been used to treat urinary tract infections, sores, and wounds.

But here’s something even more interesting: Some sources indicate that the roots can be used in the same way as Echinacea. (Echinacea root is wonderfully effective for the treatment of UTIs.)

In one study that compared the immunostimulatory activity of Rudbeckia speciosa with those of Echinacea angustifolia and Echinacea gloriosa, Rudbeckia was found to have a stronger effect than the two Echinacea species.

Echinacea was in fact previously included in the genus Rudbeckia, so the two plants are very closely related. I have not been able to find information about the medicinal activity of particular Rudbeckia species, other than that mentioned above, nor have I personally tried using Rudbeckia roots in the same way as Echinacea roots, as this is new information to me. I believe I will try using them this way—an experiment that will be quite easy for me to carry out, since the vacant lots near me are now bursting with a late-summer bloom of Black-Eyed Susans.

It sounds to me like Rudbeckia has a place in the medicine garden.

Bible Leaf (Tanacetum balsamita, Chrysanthemum balsamita)

Also called Costmary or Alecost, the name Bible Leaf comes from the historic use of the leaves as scented bookmarks.

The plant produces a patch of somewhat long and broad tongue-shaped leaves, from which flowering stems rise two or three feet tall, with loose clusters of small daisy-like flowers in early summer.

Maude Grieve, in A Modern Herbal, tells us that the plant “emits a soft balsamic odour—pleasanter and more aromatic than that of Tansy.” This is a wonderful plant, partly for its historic interest. In the 1500s, Lyte tells us that it was then “very common in all gardens,” Gerard says “it groweth everywhere in gardens.” Parkinson mentions it among other sweet herbs in his garden.

The plant is now rarely grown, but is a charmer that I think should be revived. It has a number of historic medicinal uses, and is perhaps best used burns and wounds, because of its somewhat astringent and antiseptic properties. It is also used to scent potpourris.

Frankly, I think it is a bit strong smelling and reminiscent of camphor—but I love it anyway.

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