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The endless days of summer sunshine are truly a blessing of the season. But sometimes high summer heat can stand between you and all the outdoor fun to be had, especially in these unpredictable times of escalating climate crisis and record heat waves. Whether you’re gardening, jogging, or simply relaxing in a backyard hammock, herbal allies are here to help ease the effects of summer’s heat on your body, helping you get the most out of this vibrant season!
Every bioregion has its own herbs that lessen the effects of heat and sun. I recommend learning the weeds in your own backyard: Every place has its own distinct natural medicines that nurture the people and animals that live there. Get out there and meet your plant neighbors!
The herbs profiled here are easy to source, easy to grow across most of North America, and safe for most people to enjoy. Whether you grow them or buy them from a local herbalist or food co-op, they’re an excellent place to start using plant allies to cool off.
Cool Customers for Hot Dates
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is one of my favorite hot-weather herbs and the backbone of my daily summer tea. The leaves have a wonderfully fresh, sweet, lemony-minty flavor; even the mere fragrance when you brush against them along the garden path is transformative. Lemon balm is physically and emotionally cooling, dispelling excess heat and stress. Its calming, grounding energy helps us to settle into our bodies in the present moment, brightening our minds and our experience of the world around us, and helping us get the most out of long summer days. Lemon balm is safe for most people.
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Borage (Borago officinalis) is one of the most cooling herbs. It has a cold, moist nature, similar to cucumber; in herbalism, we call such plants “demulcent.” Borage is immediately cooling to an overheated body, and can be used before activities to help prevent overheating. As well as cooling the physical body, borage is calming and soothing to a frazzled, overheated nervous system. When moments of stress or exhaustion make us vibrate like a taut wire, overreacting to minor, everyday stresses, borage helps to cool this overheated responsiveness. Borage is also specific for trauma and grief, helping us to stand strong, heal, and flourish; the old phrase “borage for courage” comes to mind.
Borage leaves and flowers are most appropriate in water-based preparations, such as tea or frozen yogurt, because the gooey goodness doesn’t extract well in alcohol-based remedies. Borage isn’t recommended during pregnancy, but is otherwise safe for most people.
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St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is a famous traditional remedy for sunburn. It’s a powerful antioxidant and skin-healing vulnerary. Externally, the leaves and flowering tops can be infused in oil to protect exposed skin from sunburn and oxidative damage from daily sun exposure. The oil can be applied directly or blended into a cream. It can also be taken internally as a tincture to decrease oxidative damage at the cellular level, a treatment of particular interest to people with a history of skin cancers. St John’s wort tincture is specifically indicated for people who have viral outbreaks from sun exposure, especially cold sores, because its antiviral properties help keep chronic viral infections at bay, especially if you combine it with lemon balm. St John’s wort oil can easily be made into lip balm for this use.
St John’s wort is safe for most people, but some people may experience photosensitivity, rashes, or burns when taking large daily doses of hypericin, an isolated, concentrated constituent of St John’s wort available in some commercial products. This effect is especially likely when St John’s wort is combined with other medications, so only use whole plant extracts of St John’s wort if you’ll be spending time in the sun. Some people may experience photosensitivity reactions when using whole plant extracts of St John’s wort, so — as always — trust your gut to teach you the lessons of your own body. Those who take daily pharmaceuticals that pass through the liver should use caution and consult their herbal professional, because St John’s wort can alter liver function, making the amount of time medications are active in the body unpredictable and unreliable.
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Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum, O. tenuiflorum) is a gloriously scented flower in the mint family, sacred in Hinduism, and a major pillar of Ayurvedic medicine. It’s an adaptogen, an herb that brings whole-body balance by balancing the endocrine system — hence its reputation as an ally for stress, which is mediated through hormones. The leaves and flowers are particularly appropriate for those coping with depression or anxiety. Another of its adaptogenic functions is to regulate metabolism; although we often hear about metabolism as it relates to digestion and weight, it also regulates our sleep cycle and the body’s heating and cooling mechanisms. Tulsi balances our response to the physical stress of hot weather and exertion. It increases our ability to cool ourselves through perspiration, opening of blood vessels, and managing our metabolic rate. It’s also an antioxidant, protecting cells from oxidative damage during sun exposure. Tulsi is easy to grow throughout North America; treat it like you would basil.
Like St John’s wort, tulsi increases the function of the liver, so those who take pharmaceuticals that are metabolized by the liver should use caution and consult their herbal professional to avoid unpredictable concentrations of medication in the blood.
Hibiscus (Hibiscus spp.) is a powerhouse of a cooling antioxidant. I use both roselle (H. sabdariffa) and rose of Sharon (H. syriacus) in my practice. Roselle hibiscus makes the tart sorrel drink from the Caribbean. I first learned about this plant from Juliet Blankespoor of the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, who uses it in the heat of North Carolina summers as a refreshing iced drink. Roselle calyces — the outer part of the flowers — make a gorgeous deep-red iced tea, alone or with other herbs, to protect skin from oxidative sun damage and to lower overall body temperature, guarding against sunburn, heatstroke, dehydration, and skin cancer. In warmer climates, it’s a beautiful landscape plant; in cooler climates, such as my home in Vermont, it can be grown as a potted plant and brought out in late spring. I use rose of Sharon flowers similarly, but since it blooms at the very end of summer, growing the two together is a nice way to ensure a steady supply of cooling antioxidant tea throughout the hot months.
Cooling Summer Recipes
Improving our ability to cope with heat is only going to be more important as the climate crisis accelerates. What can we do in our daily lives to increase our resilience in this era of unpredictability? Likewise, how can we lessen our reliance on fossil fuels and air conditioners? Using cooling herbs in food, drink, and remedies is one step toward more eco-conscious comfort in hot weather.
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Frozen Yogurt Infusions
Yield: 3 cups, or about 4 popsicles.
- 1 cup lemon balm, tulsi, or hibiscus iced tea
- 2 cups plain whole-milk yogurt or labneh
Strain any solids out of tea and use an immersion blender to mix with yogurt or labneh. The infused yogurt will solidify more in the freezer, but it won’t freeze completely solid. Freeze in popsicle trays for a satisfyingly cool treat on a hot day. Modify the ratio of tea to yogurt to your taste, or add seasonal berries for extra flavor and texture.
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St John’s Wort Oil Infusion
Yield: 1 pint.
- 1 pint fresh St John’s wort flowering tops and leaves, finely chopped
- Olive oil
- Fresh calendula or lavender flowers, finely chopped (optional)
- Almond or jojoba oil (optional)
Pack a pint canning jar with St John’s wort and other herbs, if using. Add organic olive oil and other oils, if using, until the herbs are completely submerged. Cover and steep on a sunny windowsill for 24 hours, and then move to a dark, dry place for 1 to 2 weeks, until the oil is bright-red and fragrant. Apply directly to the skin to protect from sun damage, or use the oil in a cream, lotion, or lip balm.
Herbal Ice Cubes
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Make a strong tea of any of the herbs featured in this article, and freeze in ice cube trays. When cubes are frozen, they can be stored in jars or bags in the freezer. This is a fun and easy way to save water-based herbal medicines, and the ice makes a great base for summer cocktails.
Garden Iced Tea
Yield: 1/2 gallon.
- 1 handful lemon balm leaves
- 1 handful tulsi leaves and/or flowers
- 1/2 handful borage leaves and/or flowers
- 1/2 handful roselle or rose of Sharon flowers or calyces
These amounts are approximate and can be adjusted to taste. Feel free to add other fragrant garden herbs as they call to you: mint, lavender, or a few sprigs of bee balm all make lovely additions.
Put the kettle on. While you wait, finely chop and blend together the herbs. Put chopped herbs into a large glass pitcher or jar; I find that a half-gallon jar works well. Pour boiled water over herbs, cover, and steep until cool. When cool, pour tea through a mesh strainer to remove plant matter. Sweeten with raw honey for a probiotic and electrolyte boost. Garnish with fresh lemon or lime slices.
Juliette Abigail Carr is a registered herbalist with more than 15 years of experience teaching and administering herbal remedies. She believes the ability to heal ourselves and our families is a birthright, not a commodity to be sold. Find more information and herbal recipes on her website.