There’s something rather lovely about an English herb garden smelling sweet in the middle of summer and attracting a multitude of butterflies. For thousands of years herbs have been grown for their medicinal purposes and herbal teas were the norm for a variety of ailments obviating the need to go to the doctor.
As far back as the 11th century medicinal herb gardens became the preserve of monasteries and by the 16th and 17th explorers had brought back more exotic species. Their uses were immortalised by the 1660 publication of Culpepper’s Herbal, a book still used today.
Gradually apothecaries began appear in the UK’s major towns selling a variety of herbal medicines and natural remedies such as witch hazel and fig syrup. However, modern medicine put paid to the acceptance and popularity of herbal remedies in the 1940s until the end of the century when the upsurge in complementary medicine began.
The current trend towards herbal remedies has prompted many people to grow their own again, for medicinal and culinary purposes. It means they have a regular supply of the herbs and that they know they haven’t been sprayed with unwanted pesticides. However, medicinal herbs should never be consumed by anyone taking medication without consultation with their doctor or a registered medical herbalist.
Plotting the patch
When picking the spot to grow your herbs try to make sure it gets plenty of sun where it’s protected from the wind. The soil should drain well and if you compost your fruit and vegetable waste it will help to encourage healthy growth of the herbs.
Herbalist Anne McIntyre says, ‘If you’ve got the room I’d be inclined to divide the plot into culinary herbs and medicinal herbs. Culinary herbs are easy to grow – the twiggy ones such as rosemary, sage, parsley, thyme and oregano can be taken from cuttings, while coriander, basil and dill can be grown from seed.
‘If you want to grow mint I’d put it in a pot on its own or it takes over the patch completely. All of these herbs are great for use in cooking or for making teas.’
The medicinal properties of culinary herbs:
• Rosemary – put the leaves in a tea to improve circulation, and relieve headaches
• Sage – a tea of sage helps to relieve hot flushes in menopause and can be used as a gargle for sore throats
• Parsley – chewed raw it takes away the smell of garlic on the breath and is a diuretic to relieve water retention
• Thyme – antibacterial and antifungal, soothes sore throats in a gargle
• Coriander – the leaves can be used in cooking or teas to aid digestion
• Basil – the leaves made into a tea are good for digestion and for edgy nerves
• Dill – used in baby’s gripe water the seeds can be chewed to ease digestion or menstrual cramps and for bad breath
• Mint – used in salads or four or five leaves cut up and made into a tea is good for upset stomachs, indigestion, and sinusitis.
How to make an infusion or tea
Put the leaves, flower or seeds in a teapot and fill up with boiling water. Allow to steep and pour through a strainer and drink as tea, or cool to use in a compress.
There are a number of medicinal herbs that make a very attractive feature in any garden. ‘You could have a selection of herbs including Echinacea, Lemon Balm, Yarrow, Pot Marigold, Borage, Evening Primrose, and Lavender,’ says Anne McIntyre.
Echinacea: Echinacea angustifolia or purpurea. Native to north America it has been used as a medicine by Indian tribes for thousands of years. They chew the plant, put it in soups to ward off infection and heal snake wounds, boils and abscesses with it.
‘Echinacea grows easily from seed and even though it’s a perennial you can collect the seeds and plant them for the following year,’ according to Anne McIntyre. ‘You can use a handful of leaves and flowers to boost the immune system, keep away colds and flu, ward off infections and relieve arthritis.
Roses: Anne McIntyre suggests that you grow old- fashioned roses which look and smell beautiful in the centre of the medicinal herb garden if there’s room! ‘Rose oil contains quercetin, tannin and the petals have antiseptic, astringent and antibiotic properties. You can make a delicious tasting tea from the petals which is great for calming you down, improving mood, cooling anger and frustration and relieving a range of inflammatory problems. As a compress the tea makes a good lotion for calming inflammatory skin conditions.’
Lemon Balm: Melissa officinalis. It was considered a symbolic plant which was used to send messages between lovers and to signify sympathy. It was claimed by Nicholas Culpepper that it ‘driveth away all troublesome cares and thoughts of the mind’.
A member of the mint family Lemon Balm is easy to grow in pots or the herb patch. The cut up leaves make a flavourful tea which is are good for relieving anxiety and tension, good for digestive problems, and warding off the cold sore (herpes) virus.
Yarrow: Achillea millifolium. Often found on the side of roads and in hedgerows, yarrow was believed to be used in the Trojan War over 3,000 years ago. ‘It can be easily grown from seed and the flowers and leaves can be made into a tea to relieve fevers, colds and catarrh, diarrhoea and heavy periods,’ Anne explains. ‘Externally it can be used as lotion for varicose veins, but it should not be used by pregnant women.’
Evening Primrose: Oenetheris biennis. Well known to women as a solution to PMT, evening primrose is originally a native American herb but grows wild in Europe and is easy to cultivate. The yellow flowers open late in the day and only last for one evening – hence the name.
Anne says, ‘The oil from the seeds is particularly known for its high content of GLA (gamma-lineolic acid) which supplies many of the essential fatty acids the body needs for optimum health. Evening primrose oil is a traditional remedy for menstrual and problems such as PMS, for hot flushes in menopause and for arthritis.’
Pot Marigold – Calendula officinalis, was named by the Romans because it bloomed on the first day ‘calends’ of every month. It’s an annual plant which flourishes in the British climate and its familiar orange flowers have antifungal, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. According to Anne McIntyre, ‘The petals can be made into a tea which serves as an excellent healing lotion for athlete’s foot, cuts and abrasions, as well as inflammatory and infected skin conditions. They look stunning when added to salads and rice and improve digestion and absorption of nutrients as well as boosting immunity!’
Borage: Borago officinalis. Traditionally had a reputation for giving courage and was often given to men intent on proposing marriage. ‘An annual self-seeding plant it grows well in Britain and the leaves and flowers have a reputation for relieving fever, easing coughs and colds, reducing fluid retention and lifting the spirits. The oil from the seeds contain GLA (gamma-lineolic acid), an essential fatty acid, and is also known as Starflower Oil which is renowned for easing arthritis, menopausal symptoms and high blood pressure.’
German chamomile: Matricaria chamomilla. About five of the daisy-like flowers are needed to make a chamomile tea which is well known for calming and also eases bloated and upset stomachs. The wet flowers from the tea can be made into a compress to use on itchy skin or eyes. Chamomile grows easily from seed in the UK but needs to be replaced every year – it is said that if we get many more hot summers, a chamomile lawn will be the answer!
Lavender: Lavendula angustifolia. No herb garden would be complete without lavender for its aroma, its pretty flowers and its medicinal properties. A perennial hardy it doesn’t take much work once it’s in and cuttings can be rooted by placing in a well watered pot of compost. A lavender tea made from a teaspoon of fresh flowers or leaves with a half pint of water can help to relieve a bloated stomach, headache and it can make you sleep well – a sprig of lavender under the pillow has the same effect.
The wild patch
If you want to grow nettles for their blood purifying properties they could take over so best to put them in a wild patch of the garden. Made into a tea they can help to ease arthritis, helps kidney and bladder, prostate enlargement and chronic toxic states such as arthritis or severe skin complaints. Nettle soup is made by combining with potatoes and onions!
Anne McIntyre, registered medical herbalist, practises in Gloucestershire, Wales and London, 01451 810096, www.annemcintyre.com
Her books, The Top 100 Herbal Remedies and Drugs in Pots are available at Amazon – click on our Amazon carousel on the home page
Anne gives guided walks and holds open days in summer at her own herb garden in Gloucestershire which represents A Journey Through A Woman’s Life. The garden has been featured on BBC Gardener’s World
To find a registered medical herbalist contact: The National Institute for Medical Herbalists, www.nimh.org.uk 01392 426022