Best Medicinal Herbs for Difficult Growing Conditions

Pick the best medicinal herbs to grow in shady, swampy, or dry environments.

chives in red pot

Even gardeners living in demanding climates can grow medicinal herbs.

Photo by iStock/hmproudlove

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Gardeners encounter a broad spectrum of growing environments. Fortunately, good gardening practices can mitigate seemingly challenging situations, such as poorly draining soils, deep shade, or extremely dry conditions. Adding compost, sand, and pumice to poorly draining soil improves one’s chances of growing hyssop. Increasing available light by trimming trees enlivens a border where valerian is desired. Installing shade cloth and drip tape allows burdock to grow in the desert.

This article, though, gives suggestions for the best medicinal herbs that can thrive without such intensive practices. When we observe nature in the raw, we can see the bright blue flag blossoming at the edge of a swamp, the trillium expressing regally in the forest’s deep shade, the jewelweed volunteering in wet ditches, and the sporadic rains of late winter bringing the desert to life. Nature has a way of covering herself with a protective green blanket, and we humans can encourage natural herb gardens by introducing the right plants to a landscape.

Even gardeners living in difficult climates can grow medicinal herbs. All the medicinal plants I describe below, and include in the “Best Medicinal Herbs” list at the end of this article, have healing or soothing properties.

Healing Herbs for Shade

As a proprietor of a seed company, I receive inquiries from gardeners in every conceivable environment. I’m always surprised to hear the complaint, “My place has no sun! What can I grow in the shade?” Shade is great! Shade usually comes from trees, and trees shed leaves that fall to the ground and become rich, moist soil. Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra, Zones 4 to 7) grows well in these conditions, and its berries are traditionally used to boost the immune system to hold off a cold or the flu. When purchased as bare-root or potted stock, the elderberry can be planted under larger trees and then pruned as it develops.

Also a shade-lover, black cohosh (Actaea racemosa, Zones 3 to 9) naturalizes readily, and is in all ways an easy keeper. Approved by the German Commission E for safe medical use, black cohosh root is used to treat premenstrual discomfort and menopausal symptoms. Although difficult to start from seed, it may be procured as potted plants, or transplanted as dormant roots in fall that will emerge vigorously the following spring. Plant the roots deeply to protect the stems against collateral damage from dogs and deer, and space the plants at least 4 feet apart — black cohosh gets big!

When asked about shade-tolerant cover crops, I often suggest herbal covers. Bugle (Ajuga reptans, Zones 3 to 9) is a plant known for its ability to heal wounds. It makes a trouble-free carpet with showy purple blossoms, requiring no particular maintenance after it’s established. Plants set 2 feet apart will cover the ground within a year or two. Sweet violets (Viola odorata, Zones 5 to 8) also thrive in partial shade, and if planted on receptive ground, they too will produce small, purple flowers that delight the eye and can be used as a cough remedy, especially for bronchitis. Shady, moist zones may be planted by broadcasting the seeds of plantain (Plantago spp., all Zones), while stinging nettles (Urtica dioica, Zones 3 to 10) may be sown in less-traveled areas. Nettles are an extremely nourishing spring edible, and plantain leaves are often used topically as a poultice for wounds. Spread plantain and nettle seeds in very early spring, or use root cuttings or potted plants. Nettles will appreciate a nitrogen-rich top dressing of compost to get started, but should reappear yearly with no additional input. When harvesting, wear gloves or else learn to enjoy a day or two of tingling hands!

Healing Herbs for Damp Soil or Swamp

One day, while boating through the Okefenokee Swamp, the shallow-bottomed craft I rode in pushed aside wrist-thick rhizomes of giant, white water lilies while yellow-bellied fish cavorted in our wake. Later, sitting on the boards of a dock that jutted into the swamp, I threw chicken bones to the alligators and mused about gardening in very wet places. Calamus (Acorus calamus, Zones 3 to 8) came to mind first. This aromatic monocot grows in ponds or slow-moving water, where it filters and purifies while providing protective habitat for small fish and ducklings. Difficult to grow from seed, my recommendation is to make root cuttings from established stands or to buy potted plants. Plant calamus (also known as “sweet flag”) in mud at the water’s edge or in shallow water. This rhizome can be used internally for gastrointestinal problems.

I recommend Babylon weeping willow (Salix babylonica, Zones 5 to 9) as the best-ever waterside tree, and the salicin in its bark is a natural pain reliever and anti-inflammatory. Furthermore, the dangling branches of a willow will sweep across peppermint (Mentha x piperita, Zones 3 to 10) planted below, releasing its bright aroma to the wind. A few mint plants or root cuttings nestled into the moist soil will soon grow into a tough cover that prevents erosion, makes a tasty pond-side chew, and entertains with showy flowers. Looking for a good low-growing herbal ground cover for moist areas? Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris, Zones 3 to 10) is a woundwort par excellence, doesn’t mind wet feet, grows low, spreads vigorously, flowers prettily, and companions well with other herbs. Selfheal can readily be direct-seeded or started in pots and then transplanted. It naturalizes easily. Alsike clover (Trifolium hybridum, all Zones) also makes a thick cover in moist ground. This plant is a nitrogen fixer that grows well in association with larger water-lovers, such as Angelica (Angelica archangelica, Zones 4 to 9) and marshmallow (Althaea officinalis, Zones 3 to 9). These self-sustaining medicinal plants are well-loved by herbalists and are singularly attractive and useful when grown in a moist apothecary garden. Angelica root can be used to treat loss of appetite and spasms of the gastrointestinal tract, while the natural mucus found in marshmallow roots, leaves, and flowers soothes inflammation of the urinary and respiratory organs.

Healing Herbs for Dry Landscapes or Desert

Looking out across a desert landscape, your eye may be wearied by browns and muted reds, but then attracted to the bright promise of green glowing from a shady cleft or canyon waterway. Look to nature for clues on how to work with desert environs.

Nirgundi (Vitex negundo, Zones 5 to 9) is one of my favorite shrubs that’s adaptable to drylands. Also known as “Chinese chastetree,” this plant is easy to start from seed but is also available as potted stock. A newly planted nirgundi may require mulching and watering for a year or two until it becomes self-sufficient, but established trees thrive in drylands. The tree bears long-lived aromatic flowers and its fruits, leaves, and stems are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a malaria preventative and to treat symptoms of the common cold, among other things.

Nirgundi may shade a small water feature. Water is considered particularly precious in a desert landscape, and if a small pond can be provided with water that circulates, all kinds of life (bees, butterflies, lizards, hummingbirds, small mammals, and even deer and coyotes) will be gratefully attracted! At the edge of such water, yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica, Zones 7 to 10) makes a pretty planting. You can press seeds into damp soil at the water’s edge, set in potted plants, or take rooted runners from established plants and carefully transplant them.

Yerba mansa creates a dense, aromatic patch and is resistant to seasonal dehydration. The plant produces cone-shaped flowers with bright-white petals and then dies back, dropping quite a bit of biomass where it grows, and thus creating fresh soil while reducing alkalinity and dispersing environmental toxicity. Yerba mansa is antimicrobial, and the root can be used for abscesses or other wounds that need constant drainage.

Osha (Ligusticum porteri, Zones 6 to 9) remains stout and strong on dry landscapes. Sow seeds in fall for germination in spring, and mulch with forest debris. Grow a nurse crop of buckwheat nearby to shade the seedlings and discourage weeds. After the osha roots dig in, the plants will find their own water and return yearly to flower and seed. Osha root can help clear mucus from sinuses and lungs to alleviate breathing problems.

Even in the desert, common soils contain a seed bank of flowers, herbs, and woody species that germinate, grow, and blossom when stimulated by sparse seasonal rains. Seeds of sweet Annie, wild bergamot, California poppy, Flanders poppy, California chia, epazote, and desert marigold may be mixed with sand and strewn in fall or early winter to emerge, flower, and exert their healing influence in the heart of nature.

Best Medicinal Herbs for Shade, Swamp, and Dryland

You can learn how to take advantage of the healing properties of these medicinals in my book Making Plant Medicine.

HERBS FOR SHADE

Easy Starters:

• Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa)
• Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
• Bugle (Ajuga reptans)
• Nettles (Urtica dioica)
• Sweet violet (Viola odorata)

Grow For Diversity:

• American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
• Balm of Gilead (Cedronella canariensis)
• Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
• Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides)
• Bowman’s root (Gillenia trifoliata)
• Celandine (Chelidonium majus)
• Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)
• Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis)
• Morning glory (Ipomoea spp.)
• Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)
• Tibetan gentian (Gentiana tibetica)
• Trillium (Trillium erectum)
• Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla)
• Virginia snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria)
• Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa)

HERBS FOR DAMP SOIL OR SWAMP

Easy Starters:

• Alsike clover (Trifolium hybridum)
• Angelica (Angelica archangelica)
• Babylon weeping willow (Salix babylonica)
• Calamus (Acorus calamus)
• Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)
• Peppermint (Mentha x piperita)
• Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris)

Grow For Diversity:

• Blue flag (Iris versicolor)
• Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
• Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri)
• Bugleweed (Lycopus virginiana)
• Butterbur (Petasites spp.)
• Camus (Camassia quamash)
• Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
• Chickweed (Stellaria media)
• Datura torna loco (Datura ceratocaula)
• Devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus)
• Gravel root (Eupatorium purpureum)
• Plantain (Plantago spp.)
• Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)
• Sweetleaf bergamot (Monarda fistulosa var. menthifolia)
• True unicorn root (Aletris farinosa)
• Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula)

HERBS FOR DRYLAND OR DESERT

Easy Starters:

• California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
• Crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum)
• Desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata)
• Epazote (Dysphania ambrosioides)
• Nirgundi (Vitex negundo)
• Sweet Annie (Artemisia annua)
• Yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica)

Grow For Diversity:

• Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
• Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis)
• Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
• Fernleaf biscuitroot (Lomatium dissectum)
• Gumweed (Grindelia robusta)
• High Desert Four o’Clock (Mirabilis multiflora)
• Manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.)
• Mexican elderberry (Sambucus mexicana)
• Mormon tea (Ephedra nevadensis)
• Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)
• Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
• Savory (Satureja spp.)
• Scented geranium (Pelargonium capitatum)
• Southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum)
• Stillingia (Stillingia sylvatica)
• Torch aloe (Aloe arborescens)
• White sage (Salvia apiana)
• Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
• Za’atar (Origanum syriacum)


Richo Cech is the founder and owner of Strictly Medicinal Seeds. He’s the author of the essential herbal reference, Making Plant Medicine. A second edition of his compendium Growing At-Risk Medicinal Herbs offers information on about 20 native herbs of North America and Hawaii.