Excerpts from the Medicine Chest Garden
-- an ongoing column by herbalist Donna d'Terra
Mullein (Verbascum thapsis)
Mullein is a respiratory herb, par excellence, that tones and reduces inflammation of the respiratory tract. To use in this way, take dry leaf and crumble it by hand or in a blender. Put 1/2 cup herb, loosely packed, into a quart jar, pour in boiling water to fill, and put on the lid. Let this steep approximately one hour. Then be sure to strain the tea well. First, strain out the leaves using a colander and then pour the liquid through a paper coffee filter.
Drink this tea, hot or cold, 1 to 3 cups per day. It's mild tasting, but if you don't like the taste, it can be sweetened with honey or maple syrup, or cut with juice, to taste.
Other parts of the plant are also used for medicine. The yellow flowers that bloom on the tall flower stalk can be collected and infused fresh in olive oil to create an herbal oil that is used topically for bruises and wounds, and also used, a few drops at a time, as an ear oil for ear infections.
A tincture of the root is considered to be a urinary astringent and has been used for bedwetting and incontinence.
Centuries ago, Mullein was a preeminent garden plant. Now it is considered a weed and is most commonly found in dry fields, meadows and pastures. If you collect Mullein from these areas, be sure the plants are at least 200 feet away from any roads, so that they won't be contaminated with car exhaust.
If you plant this useful herb in your garden, it will reseed itself year after year. (Plant starts are available at many garden nurseries.)
Mullein is a biennial, living for two years. The first year it grows a rosette of leaves close to the ground. In its second year, it puts up a flower stalk that can reach upwards of 8-10 feet. Ideally, the leaves are harvested in the first year, or the spring of its second year, before it grows a flower stalk.
Basil (Ocinum basilicum)
Many people are familiar with basil as an ingredient in the popular recipe called "pesto" that includes basil leaves, garlic, oil, nuts and cheese. Less well known is that sweet basil has medicinal properties as well. The leaves added to food are an aide to digestion, helping to ease gas, colic, stomach cramps, and indigestion in general. Basil is considered a vermifuge; that is, it can kill intestinal worms. It is also a gentle sedative for mild disorders such as tiredness, nervous irritability and anxiety, and can be used for headaches and insomnia that are due to stress and tension. For these uses, a tea or tincture of fresh leaves can be taken. Externally, basil vinegar is used for bites and stings. The crushed fresh leaves rubbed directly on the skin are an insect repellant.
Basil is native to Africa and Asia and eventually found its way to Europe and America. The use of basil dates back to ancient Babylon. It has been used in wedding rites and funeral pyres. As recently as the early twentieth century, camphor basil was grown in volume and distilled as camphorated oil, an important medicinal during both World Wars.
There are about 150 species of basil. Its inability to withstand cold temperatures has led it to be classified as an annual. It requires a warm sunny location. Cutting back the blossoms and uppermost leaves will keep basil bushy and provide a succession of cuttings throughout the summer. Basil and tomatoes grown together are said to provide each other with insect protection and vigor, and enhance each other in the salad bowl and crock pot.
With a rolling pin, bruise the leaves and stems of about 1/4 pound of fresh basil, and put them in a gallon jar. Pour in organic apple cider vinegar to the top of the jar (place a piece of wax paper under the lid before screwing it down to prevent a reaction of the metal lid with the vinegar). Let it steep two weeks, strain and bottle, adding a sprig or two of fresh basil to the bottle.
This vinegar makes an excellent addition to salad dressing. It can be used as a marinade for carrots, cucumbers, green peppers, summer squash, etc., to produce overnight "pickles". You can also add this vinegar to soups, stir fry and casseroles for a subtle tanginess.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
British Herbalist David Hoffman tells a story about his introduction to herbs. While traveling around Europe in the 1970's, he was suffering from insomnia. After many days without much sleep, he arrived at The Findhorn Community in Scotland. Someone there gave him a cup of valerian root tea, and he slept for 24 hours!
Herbs are not "one size fits all", so someone else might not have the same results, but it is a safe herb to use, so perhaps worth giving a try if you have an occasional bout of insomnia. Try a teaspoon of the tincture about a half hour before retiring. You may need a little more or less, but try the teaspoon first. A small percentage of people are stimulated, rather than sedated, by this herb. If you are one of those, then valerian root is not for you.
Other uses for the root tincture or tea are nervousness and anxiety, and for muscle spasms, including bronchial spasms, intestinal cramps and menstrual cramps. It is usually combined with other herbs for those purposes. (If you make a tea from the root, infuse the root in a covered pot, rather than simmering or boiling it, to keep the essential oils intact.)
Even if you don't plan to use the root, valerian is a lovely plant to grow in your garden. It prefers part sun, part shade, and can grow to a height of 5 feet. Sow seeds in Spring or buy a plant start. Make sure you are planting Valeriana officinalis and not the ornamental also called "valerian".
Valerian is native to Europe and West Asia and has naturalized in North America, especially in wet places. Recorded use of valerian goes back to the writings of Greek and Roman physicians. More recently, it has been used to flavor tobacco, soaps, candy, and perfume. One of its folk names, "phu", speaks to the strong smell of the root. Some people think it smells like sweaty socks! Cats love the smell and go wild over it in the same way they do over catnip.
Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia)
Recently, I visited Harvest Moon Farm in Laytonville where there are 9 acres of Lavender under cultivation. That is 30,000 plants and quite a sight to behold! It inspired me to write this month's column on lavenders. There are many types of lavender, but here I will be referring to English Lavender, or Lavendula angustifolia. Medicinally, lavender boosts the immune system, fights infections, acts as a tonic to the nervous system, and is generally relaxing and uplifting.
Because of its many uses, it has been called "The Swiss Army Knife of Herbs". Here are some simple ways to use the flowers, once they have been stripped off the stems.
Fill a small muslin bag (available at fabric or craft stores) with the flowers. Use the bag's drawstring to slip over the bathtub faucet so water will run through it as the tub fills. Put a lavender filled muslin bag inside your pillowcase to help you sleep soundly, or tuck it in a drawer to scent your clothes and repel moths.
In the 16th Century, healing headpieces were made with lavender flowers stuffed inside a skullcap which was worn to cure a headache. Somewhat easier and also effective, would be to put 1 tablespoon each lavender and chamomile flowers in a 12 oz. mug, pour boiling water over and let it steep, with a lid on, for 10 minutes. Strain out the herbs and drink, adding honey, if you prefer.
Add lavender flowers to apple cider vinegar in a glass jar with lid (putting wax paper under the lid) for 2 weeks or so, strain and use the vinegar directly on bug bites and stings, sunburn, or, as a hair rinse.
Try this recipe with fish or spread over corn-on-the-cob
Cream 4 tablespoons butter with 2 teaspoons each of fresh minced lavender flowers and rosemary leaves.
Peppermint (Mentha x piperita)
It has been said that growing the herb peppermint is like taking in a stray cat-you feed it, you give it some water, and it is yours forever! Peppermint has the reputation for spreading quickly and taking over the garden. To avoid this, cultivate this useful herb in a bed surrounded by a board or rock barrier about 10 inches deep, or grow it in a container that's at least 6 inches deep.
Peppermint prefers part sun and part shade, and grows best with at least an inch of water per week. You will need to begin with a plant start, since peppermint is a hybrid cross between two mints, and so will not reproduce true seed. Or, you can snip stems from someone else's plants, strip off the bottom leaves, put them in a glass of water for a few weeks until they sprout roots, and then plant them.
Once your plants are 6 to 8 inches tall or more you can "give them a haircut", trimming off the top half of the plant to use. The plants will usually produce several harvests in this way. Then just before the plants flower (this is when the essential oils are highest), harvest the plant down to the ground. Hang these bunches upside down in the warm shade just until dry. Strip the leaves from the stems and store them in a glass jar in a cool dark place. Store leaves as whole as possible to keep the essential oils intact, then break them into small pieces just before using.
Peppermint tea is made by putting a handful of dry crushed leaves into a teapot or jar, cover with boiling water, put the lid on, and steep at least 15 minutes and up to several hours for a stronger brew. Drink hot or cold.
The tea is a good remedy to help with indigestion, stomach cramps, nausea and motion sickness. A traditional "sweating tea" - sometimes used for colds and flu's, is equal parts peppermint leaves, yarrow flowers, and elder flowers, infused as a hot tea. The menthol in peppermint is cooling and a mild pain reliever, so this herb is used in liniments and lotions for aches and pains.
A very simple refreshing drink is made by putting a handful of fresh peppermint leaves and a few slices of lemon in a pitcher of spring water.
Peppermint has been used by people since the beginning of recorded history. It was found in Egyptian pyramids, accepted as payment for taxes in ancient Palestine, and worn by Romans as garlands for thought and concentration. Peppermint is the third most popular tea in the world, after black tea and chamomile.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
Calendula derives its name from the "calendar''; because of its long flowering season - in some locations, every month of the year.
Plant seeds or start in the spring in a sunny location. Once flowering begins, pick new flowers every few days and dry them in the shade. Then chop the dried flowers, loosely filling a jar with them; cover the flowers with olive oil filling the jar to the top. Put the jar in a paper bag, place the bag on a sunny windowsill for 2 weeks or so, and then strain out the flowers, and you will have excellent healing oil for the skin. Your Calendula oil can be used externally for chapped skin, bruises, insect bites and stings, cuts, and is great for burns.
When I was growing up, my Mother taught me, as she was taught, to put butter on burns. When she was a child, over 80 years ago, cows were grass fed except in winter, when there wasn't enough green grass. Consequently, the butter from these cows would be white, instead of yellow. Calendula petals were added to color the butter yellow. It was the Calendula that was healing the burns, not the butter!
Calendula petals (not the center of the flower) are edible and make a lovely addition to soups and salads.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
An herb that most people recognize by sight and by scent is Rosemary. I think of it as a dependable "workhorse" herb. It is ready to use 12 months of the year (although it is most potent in the warmer months) and it is often found in home gardens.
What is not so commonly known is that it is a powerhouse of tonic "green" medicine for healthy digestion and circulation, for a strong memory, and much more. As a tonic, Rosemary can be easily integrated into one's food and drink. Mince the fresh needle-like leaves and add them to your stir-frys, soups and casseroles. Its flavor pairs well with meat, eggs, potatoes, winter squash, red vinegars and marinades. The blue flowers are not as medicinal, but are edible and look lovely in salads. Put a small, whole sprig into a pot of tea that you are steeping, or steep 3-4 sprigs in red wine for 2 weeks. For a hint of Rosemary flavor, try using a denuded stalk for a shish-kabob skewer.
As recently as World War I, Rosemary was used to clean and fumigate hospitals. This speaks to its antiseptic, antibacterial and antifungal properties. A strong infusion (fresh chopped herb steeped 10 - 15 minutes in boiled water in a covered pot) can be used as a wound wash or soak. This same infusion works well as an antiseptic gargle for gums, sore throats or canker sores, or as a hair rinse.
Rosemary can be grown from seed but spring cuttings have a high success rate; or you can buy a plant start. Plant in full sun and well-drained soil. "Trailing" Rosemary is often used in landscaping for hillsides and rock walls. I recommend the upright varieties for general use because you will get more plant matter for the garden space. Whatever type you plant or already have, experiment with the many ways there are to use this workhorse of an herb.
Donna d'Terra is a Willits-area herbalist who has been teaching herb classes for 20 years.
For more information on Donna's classes, click here
Medicine Chest Garden is a project conceived and developed by Donna d'Terra. Medicine Chest Gardens are similar to the 'Victory Gardens' but containing essential and easy-to-grow herbs. Donna writes about and encourages the creation of these gardens locally.
Thank you to Horizon Herbs for their wonderful photographs of herbs as used above!
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Last modified: November 5, 2017