Natural Remedies: Grow Your Own Medicine

Fill your garden with flowers and herbs that treat common health conditions. Grow high mallow, mullein, horehound, purslane, chickweed, amaranth, bee balm and more.
By Ana Nez Heatherly
June/July 1995
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Grow natural medicine as close as your front door.
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I'm sure the neighbors had many questions the day I went out, dug up the lawn, and started planting weeds instead. The fact is, it was not a sudden notion. For years I'd been seeking out and studying native plants for healing, food, and other uses. When I speak of "natives," I refer to any herb, indigenous or naturalized, which has been in our country for decades and has made its home here. Some plants were already in my flower beds; but, as I brought more in from the fields, the space shrank.

My pioneer grandmother was Celtic, a healer versed in the use of herbs; and my mother, whose Cherokee blood was given her by her mother, also practiced healing. I remember going out through the woods and into the "holler" to gather plants for food and medicine. This stuck with me even when I pushed the old ways aside to become a nurse.

Later, as I mellowed, the old and new began to merge. Working with elderly patients as a home health nurse, I found that most of these people were on numerous medications they were unable to afford. When I left my job, I was still bothered. What if I were in that situation? At the same time, my doctor was expressing concern that I had been taking certain prescription medicines for too long. However, since the symptoms persisted, I made the suggestion that I substitute herbs. I was braced for the laughter; but, surprisingly, he readily agreed. My medicinal garden was born.

High mallow

Malva sylvestris was one of the first plants which just seemed to show up without being invited, and it is one I use frequently. It grows one to three feet tall, and has straight, hairy stems and underleaves. The leaves are shiny green on top, roughly heart-shaped and lobed. The flowers are fight purple with darker veins on their five petals. Other types of mallow maybe used as well, including hollyhocks. The plants are grown easily from seeds and will bloom in about six weeks. They are also easy to transplant and the young plants can be bought from nurseries, where I've seen them called French hollyhocks. In moderate climates, the plants may bloom well into the winter.

Mallow is soothing when used for indigestion, heartburn, stomach problems such as ulcers and gastritis, and sore throats. It may also be used for skin inflammations. Its properties are attributed to a high content of mucilage. Mallow root can be made into an ointment or used as a poultice. Crushed, boiled, and folded into a cloth, it may be placed on boils, sores, or ulcers. A simple medicinal rub can be made by adding dried, powdered root to any vegetable oil, shortening, or petroleum jelly.

The tea is prepared with one tablespoon of fresh leaves, stem, root, flower, or all parts. If you use dried herb, decrease amount to a rounded teaspoon. Place it in a cup of cool water and let sit several hours. All herbal teas are made in the same proportions: one rounded teaspoon of dried, or one tablespoon of fresh herb to one cup of water, usually boiling. This is a pleasant drink, reminiscent of hibiscus, when the flowers are used. The young leaves are good cooked and they also make thickening for soups.

I make up a pint or quart of the tea, store in the refrigerator, and replace it after five days. That way it is available for heartburn or indigestion when it sneaks up on me. If I want a tea without having to wait for it, I make it double strength, pour into ice trays, and freeze. Add one cube to f cup water, stir until melted, and it's ready.

It makes no difference as to the season as far as harvesting is concerned, but it is best to gather when the plants are in bloom. The whole plant may be pulled up in preparation for storage, or just the leaves and flowers. Wash the leaves, stems, and flowers gently with cold water, but use a brush on the roots to clean the dirt off. The uncut plant may be hung up and dried, or it can be frozen. Dry off plant or leaves with a towel before putting in a plastic container for freezing. I do both, but most frequently I dry only the leaves and flowers, then the plant can continue to produce.

Frozen herbs retain a better flavor, but drying can be more practical when it comes to storing. The dried herb should be put in an airtight container. If you choose to freeze it, it can be put in plastic bags after washing and drying with a towel.

Mullein

One of the most striking plants found in my garden is mullein (Verbascum thapsus). It grows up to six feet from a large basal rosette flower at its base. The furry, gray-green leaves are as big as five inches by 16 inches. The leaves have been used in folk medicine to prevent pregnancy, but also to ensure conception. The tall, woody stem reaches up to six feet in height ending in a long head with butter-colored flowers which make a pleasant tea for sipping and relaxing.

This is a naturalized plant from Europe which is used primarily for coughs, colds, and fever. It also acts as a mild diuretic and anti-inflammatory. The flowers are reputed to have a slight sedative effect. Prepare tea by pouring boiling water over the leaves, flowers, or both, and steeping for 10 minutes. Strain through a coffee filter to remove the fine hairs.

You can make an oil to use on small wounds and hemorrhoids by packing a jar with herb leaves and covering with cool vegetable oil. Let sit for two weeks, strain, and put in fresh leaves, then allow to sit for an additional two weeks. Strain and bottle.

The oil thus produced can also reduce the pain of minor ear irritations and ear ache. DO NOT apply drops to ears if there is a chance that the eardrum has been ruptured, however. Such situations should be handled only by a physician.

Historically, mullein has been considered to hold magical power against evil and disease. Today, its use for upper respiratory problems is widely accepted in Europe and among people along both sides of the Mexican-American border. The plant does well in poor soil and tolerates cold and heat well. It can be transplanted or grown from seed.

The leaves may be used at any time. The flowers appear in early summer and may be picked off as they develop. The stem continues to grow and produce blooms. These, along with the leaves, are easily dried. I lay them on wicker trays or paper and when thoroughly dry, store in an airtight container.

A word of caution: Although most references consider mullein safe, Peterson Field Guides (Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants) by Foster/Duke (1990) states the leaves contain rotenone and coumarin. For this reason, I would suggest that pregnant women not use the tea of the leaves. This could act similarly to aspirin in preventing blood from clotting.

Whether it is used for medicine or purely ornamental, it is worth planting.

Horehound

Marrubium vulgarc is another plant introduced from Europe. It has become naturalized and is found growing extensively throughout the United States. Many are familiar with horehound candy. It has been used as an expectorant for coughs and colds for centuries. 7-lie plant has a unique appeal in the garden by contrasting with the more showy plants. Horehound grows in low clumps with upright stems covered with down and topped with small, wrinkled leaves that are a dark, dusky green. Old farm sites frequently have colonies of horehound growing about. The plant is plentiful in the wild and can also be found in nurseries. Harvesting the leaves and stems may be done at any time while there are leaves. It may be dried, frozen, or used fresh.

Cough syrup is a favorite method of preparation. Begin by boiling a small handful of leaves and stems. An easy method is to use equal parts of the tea and honey heated to a boil. Store in the refrigerator or in a dark bottle with a cork, since syrups can ferment. I have a jar in my fridge that still contains syrup I made last year that I still use. This is good to use along with mullein after congestion appears.

Echinacea

Native Americans have used the purple cone flower (Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea angustifolia) for well over a thousand years. If you have been considering the idea of holding people in awe of your magical ability to plunge your hands into boiling water, walk on hot coals, or pop them into your mouth without injury, the Winnebago Indians and other tribes had a secret that was supposed to do just that—a quick rinse of echinacea juice before the exhibition. Not interested? Good, don't do it; that's a dangerous way to live. Actually, the use of this plant is much more practical and far-reaching.

The purple cone flower is a widely known medicinal herb, one of the most popular used by Native Americans. As pioneers began to depend on available cures for headaches, toothaches, swellings, insect stings, or snakebites, they added Echinacea to their own collection of available medicine plants.

In 1992, The Journal of the American Botanical Council and the Herb Research Foundation reported that constituents in the echinacea plant "...protect against systemic infections by Lystra monocytogens and Candida albicans (a common yeast infection)." This was followed in 1994 by a segment on CBS in which Dr. Bob Arnet offered a remedy for colds and flu; again, his candidate was echinacea. He cited another physician, pediatrician Jay Gordon, M.D., of Cedars Sinai Medical Center, who had been using echinacea effectively for treatment of ear infections and colds on his young patients.

Personally, I have found echinacea to be effective in overcoming infections and colds, and reducing swelling and pain in tissues and joints. A tea may be made from fresh, frozen, or dried roots and flower heads. Two methods of producing a tincture can be employed. The first is to weigh five ounces of dried, ground herb, then measure 15.5 ounces of grain alcohol (I Use Everclear—DO NOT CONFUSE WITH RUBBING ALCOHOL) and 7.5 ounces of distilled water. Mix the liquids in a canning jar and add the herbs. Cover with plastic wrap and seal with a lid. Let sit for two weeks, shaking the jar twice a day. The second method begins with five ounces (one part) finely chopped fresh herb and 10 ounces (two parts) of grain alcohol. Mix and bottle as in the first method. Let sit for 10 days. Strain and seal in dark bottles (dropper bottles are ideal). Dosage varies according to need, but 1/2 (30 drops) to one teaspoon (60 drops) of the tincture mixed with water or juice, three to five times daily, is a dependable amount.

The flower heads may be gathered as they ripen, and used fresh or dried. The roots are good, but the root system is not big enough to warrant digging it up until after about the third year. In some areas of the West it is prolific; but in a garden, it takes a large number of the plants, with now ones added each year, to supple the mots.

Purslane

Portulaca oleracea ca is a near relative to the commercially sold moss rose. This plant has been used frequently by Native Americans and colonists in the treatment of health problems. It was used for burns, headache, caterpillar stings, and stomachache. It is reported that it aids in lowering blood pressure and is a diuretic.

Today it is best known for its nutritional value since it is a good source of vitamins A and C, calcium and iron, and riboflavin. The whole above-ground plant is good as a stir-fry vegetable or cooked in stew or soup for thickening. The fresh plant maybe used at any time. The seeds can be made into flour or stored for later use.

The plant is found growing in waste places and can be transplanted easily or started from seeds. Although there is some question in books as to whether the moss rose can be used as well, I have used them interchangeably and can tell no difference. There is one caution: Purslane is a bit sour because of the oxalic acid it contains. Spinach also contains this, and it can prevent the absorption of calcium, resulting in a depletion in the body if eaten in massive amounts. Moderation is the key to any food or spice.

Chickweed

One plant you probably already have in your garden is chickweed (Stellaria spp.). It is one of those which is usually unwelcome and hoed up quickly. Medicinally, the entire above-ground weed is boiled and used for urinary tract inflammations and can be used as a poultice for boils. A hot compress of the plant can be applied to finger and toe joints (those close to the skin) to relieve the pain of arthritis. The oil (as described in section on mullein) is soothing for skin rash. Chickweed is also an excellent source of vitamin C.

Plants can be transplanted or started from seed and begin growing in the winter, becoming very invasive as the seasons move into spring and summer. When the weather becomes hot, the plant begins to die down until next winter. Use the aerial (above ground) part of the plant fresh, frozen, or dried. If you still have an abundance, try eating it. The tender parts are good as a nibble, a salad, or cooked.

Amaranth

Amaranthus, also known as pigweed, has a long and colorful history. Delena Tull, in her book A Practical Guide to Edible and Useful Plants, says that amaranths were grown by the Aztecs. When the Spaniard Hernando Cortes invaded the Aztec homeland in 1519, he found this was one of their major crops, destroyed it, and made the growing of this plant a crime punishable by death. However, it is still grown and depended upon for food in some areas of Mexico.

In the United States, its uncultivated plants are mostly green and small. Although considered edible, the green type is not as effective medicinally as the red. The larger, well-known red cockscomb is an eyecatcher with its burgundy color and height of up to six feet. The heavy plumes contain seeds which can be used as cereal or made into bread when dry, and young plants can be eaten as greens. The plumes must be picked when the seeds just begin to fall. When dried, the head is pounded to release the seed, then winnowed.

The leaves are harvested when the plume is heavy with flowers and seed. The leaves are dried and used as an astringent, applied topically to cold sores. Made into a tea, they can be used for sore throats, diarrhea, and hemorrhoids.

The seed may be planted early in the spring; however, when new seeds tell from an early crop, I got a second late in the summer. Plants call also be bought from some nurseries.

Monarda

There are several species of bee balm (Monarda), and all have been used by Native Americans as a pleasant tea and medicine. All these plants are mints, and there are a variety of colors and tastes from which to choose. The purple horsemint or lemon bee balm (Monarda citriodora) has a strong fragrant odor and has been used by Cherokees as a beverage and medicine to aid sleep and to bring down fevers. Horsemint contains citronella, an ingredient in some perfumes that is used as an insect repellent. It can be crushed and rubbed on the skin for this purpose. Citronella candles are familiar to many who picnic outdoors at night.

The yellow horsemint (Monarda punctata), closely related to purple horsemint, also has medicinal qualities. Thymol, a substance found in this plant, is used today in cough medicine.

Osage or wild bergamot (Monardu didyma) has brilliant red flowers and is a favorite among the Cherokees. According to Paul B. Hamel and Mary U. Chiltoskey in their book Cherokee Plants, tea made from the flowering top has been used for stomach problems, flatulence, hysterics, flu, and as a diuretic and a sleep inducer.

All the above bee balms have similar characteristics and may be bought from nurseries as plants or seeds. Harvesting should be done when the flower is in full bloom. To dry, hang in warm, dry place, put in a paper bag, or lay on drying rack. If you're using a new plant, you should watch for allergies. Try only one at a time, and then only a very small quantity. This applies whether it is used topically or internally. And just as Dr. Dickson pointed out in the previous article, consult your doctor. Don't assume you have a certain condition and end up treating the wrong thing. I have had some very cooperative physicians who were even interested in what I was doing. There have been several M.D.s telling me to try alternative methods or to "go back to the old ways." And as I'm sure you know, high fever, difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness, as well as any unusual skin color such as extreme redness, blueness, or severe paleness, cold clammy skin, chest pain, or severe burns, injuries, or any other serious symptoms, require professional medical advice as soon as possible. This is just a start. Many over-the-counter drugs can be replaced with herbs; in fact, they are often safer, and certainly cheaper. These plants are often free, and they require little care except keeping out choking grass (after all, they are weeds). Without knowing it, you may already have started your garden pharmacy.

Migraine Tea

This tea has a very fine flavor and so can be enjoyed daily for many months. It is also recommended as a morning wake-up drink or breakfast tea, since the essential oil of rosemary causes vasodilation, promotes peripheral blood flow, and generally stimulates and refreshes.

6 parts rosemary leaves
4 parts peppermint leaves
4 parts balm leaves
4 parts sweet violet
3 parts feverfew
6 part sweet violet flowers

Laxative Tea

Several medicinal herbs stimulate intestinal peristalsis. Herbs of this type contain socalled anthraquinones and, though helpful in relieving occasional constipation problems, have damaging side effects Oust as mineral laxatives do) if they are taken regularly for a prolonged period of time. Their chronic use can lead to habituation and/or counterregulation, so that the laxative becomes ever less effective, higher and higher doses are required, and the bowels stray further and further from the ideal of self regulation. Sluggishness of the bowels can be treated with absolute effectiveness and no risk by the consumption of sufficient fiber, ballast materials, and water.

5 parts senna pods
5 parts buckthorn bark
4 parts senna leaves
2 parts raspberry leaves
2 parts fennel
1 part peppermint leaves
1 part calendula flowers


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