A question I regularly get asked is which herbs I most recommend for the home medicine garden. An excellent question, actually, though one that I shall find very difficult indeed to narrow down! In the end, I decided to pick thirteen herbs, one for each full moon of the year. Here they are, with a few of their medicinal indications, a little about how tall they like to grow, and any particular care instructions I have found that they need.
1 – Plantain. (Plantago lanceolata). This beautiful and often ignored plant loves to grow in the grass, in the garden, in verges and waysides and anywhere it can get its feet down. Plantain is a wonderfully versatile herb, providing soothing skin washes for insect bites and stings, healing ointments and balms for bites, stings and problems like chickenpox, as well as a superb internal medicine for sinusitis, hayfever, chest complaints and, used alongside nettle, to build resistance to allergens. It doesn’t grow particularly tall, so fits well mid border.
2 – Rosemary. (Rosmarinus officinalis). Generally regarded mainly as a culinary herb, rosemary is superb for lifting the spirits, as well as being a useful heart and circulatory tonic in its own right. Not only that, but it is well suited to the digestive system, helping the body to cope with fatty foods more easily. I also add it to balms for sore muscles and joints, for pulled ligaments and rheumatic complaints. This beauty can grow fairly tall, so plant in the middle or towards the back of your herb garden so it doesn’t smother smaller plants. Rosemary likes full sun and well drained soil.
3 – Lemon Balm. (Melissa officinalis). Another great herb for the mind and emotions, lemon balm is calming and soothing. It has been used alongside raspberry leaf as a women’s tonic, as well as to relieve problems like IBS. Drink mid afternoon to ease stress, late evening to encourage restful sleep, and any time of the day to promote clear thinking. This lovely grows quite tall and will take over your herb garden if you let it. My advice is to keep picking the flowering spikes during the summer before the plant can set seed, unless you particularly want a garden full of lemon balm (I can think of worse things!)
4 – Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria). One of our native British wildflowers, Meadowsweet is a beautiful sight in the summer when adorned with a crown of cream flowers. It is also a superb antacid, great for acid indigestion, as it settles the levels of stomach acid as well as normalising the amount produced. This plant grows fairly tall, so towards the back of the border is probably best, though first year plants tend to be fairly titchy.
5 – Elder (Sambucus nigra). The first plant I ever got to grips with back when I first began dabbling in herbs, the Elder will always have a special place in my heart. It is, to my mind, the darling of the medicine garden, as the buds make a great infused oil for bruises, bumps, strains and sprains, the flowers will help the body to sweat, and can be used to break fevers as well as improve circulation, and the berries make a juice that is packed full of anti viral properties as well as vitamin C – and those are just the first uses I think of off the top of my head! Elder tends to be a fairly shrubby tree, so plant this one separate from the rest of the garden and lavish lots of attention on it. There’s a pretty good likelihood that you already have Elder growing in or near your garden anyway, so have a look around first.
6 – Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Yarrow has a long reputation as a wound healer, and makes a great wash or balm for healing minor cuts and grazes. The fresh leaves can be used to make a poultice to heal cuts of all sorts. Internally the herb supports a healthy circulatory system, as well as promoting a sweat when drunk hot. Yarrow is mat forming until late summer, when it sends up stately stems of white and sometimes pink flowers, so closer to the front of the border should work just fine.
7 – Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum). Until very recently considered little more than a weed, Herb Robert has quite the reputation as a prophylactic against cancer, perhaps due to its free radical scavenging properties. I use it in balms and creams for the skin to heal minor wounds, and internally to mitigate metabolic syndrome alongside lifestyle changes as it can assist the body with regulating blood sugar. It is an excellent wound healer – the darker red the leaves, the more astringent its properties. It can also be used to dry up mucous membranes in cases of diarrhoea and related issues. This one sprawls readily and creates lacy veils of leaves and mauve flowers with a rather pungent aroma. Middle of the border is best, though again you probably have it growing wild!
8 – Calendula (Calendula officinalis). Pot Marigold, or Calendula, has been use for quite some time now as an all round wound healer, infused into oils to make gardener’s hand balms. Internally it promotes healthy liver function and can shift the lymph system to encourage healthy and clear skin – a good all round tonic for clearing toxic stuff out of the system. Grow yearly, in pots or dotted in among other herbs. Sprinkle the petals into salads or fritters.
9 – Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). The gardeners amongst you will be despairing at the inclusion of this next individual! Dandelion is, however, superb medicine, with the flowers making a lovely infused oil for sore muscles, aches and strains especially with emotional links, the leaves giving a wonderful diuretic to relieve water retention, and the roots giving a brilliant digestive tonic that promotes healthy digestion and liver function. Not such a garden nuisance after all!
10 – Nettle (Urtica dioica). A superb all round tonic, nettle will take over half of your garden given a small chance! For all that, nettle is a superb all round tonic, with gentle diuretic and lymphatic properties. Drink it regularly to improve your overall health and to ward off brittle bone disease. It is also superb for boosting the immune system and helping the body to fight off allergens, making it a valuable ally against hayfever. I would advise not planting this in the garden, as it will take over – instead, if you already have a patch, let it do its own thing and gather the leaves in early spring. Nettle seed for the kidneys can be gathered in August and September, and the root dug up in November and December.
11 – Sage (Salvia officinalis). This fragrant plant is wonderful for cooking with, but can also be used to make a great tea for sore throats. It has been used to relieve hot flushes and to moisten up the joints and tendons, and is also used to help the body metabolise fats. It is quite an oily plant, so best suited for people who feel rather dried out! Sage can also be used as a nerve tonic. Sage will grow quite shrubby and bushy over time, so cut it back regularly to encourage new leaves to grow in.
12 – Thyme (Thymus vulgaris). Thyme is full of potent anti bacterial properties, making it a really useful herb for infected conditions, especially things like chest infections, where it can be added to a plantain salve to make a chest rub. Thyme also helps the digestion where too much phlegm and damp is produced, and can also be added to natural household cleansers and antibacterials. Low growing, and can be put at the front of the border.
13 – St Johns Wort (Hypericum perforatum). Last but not least is the noble St John’s Wort, bearer of bright yellow flowers full of red pollen. St John’s Wort is a great nerve remedy that can be used externally for sore muscles and joints, nerve pain such as shingles and sciatica and any other sore, bruised, inflamed conditions, as well as for minor cuts and grazes. Internally, aside from the common usage to ease depression, SJW is a potent liver detoxifier, which is why it is not suggested that it should be used alongside orthodox drugs. I’m told that SJW is drunk commonly in Germany as a daily tonic herb, a practice I thoroughly approve of! I use SJW for insomnia and anxiety as well as depression, as it has a wonderful nerve tonic effect that can be really beneficial.
Over the winter I will put together another list of 13 herbs that may also be useful for the herb garden, but these 13 are my main herbs, ones that I use regularly and highly value in my garden. I hope you enjoy them and build up good working relationships with them!