Growing Medicinal Herbs for Plant-Based Healing

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Growing a medicinal herb garden is a wonderful way to form a deeper relationship with plants that have a long-standing place in the home apothecary.
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Greek mullein is a biennial with soft, wholly leaves. Yellow, flower-covered spikes shoot up the second year.
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Combine marshmallow root, juniper berries and goldenrod with strong alcohol to create a UTI-treating tincture.
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Both the roots and leaves of common comfrey (Symphytum officinale), can be used in a poultice to speed the recovery of topical wounds.
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Elecampane root is believed to fight infection and suppress cough. It’s traditionally used in tincture form whenever infection settles deep into the lungs and results in a hacking, unproductive cough.

On a freezing winter night many years ago, my wife and I saved our young daughter’s life with an onion poultice. Our struggling daughter woke in the middle of the night so congested she could barely breathe. With some quick thinking and the help of a few common ingredients we had on hand in our wooden yurt and garden, our daughter’s breathing returned to normal within an hour. To be able to immediately help a dangerously ill child by using simple, nearby ingredients is a valuable skill. Having experienced firsthand the self-empowerment that comes from knowing the healing potential of plants, I’ve dedicated my life to finding, disseminating and growing medicinal herb seeds. Here are some of the healing plants — all of which you can grow at home — I’ve found most effective for treating common infections and ailments.

Herbal Remedies for Ear Infections

Our early success with growing medicinal herbs inspired me and my wife to more carefully prepare our home apothecary. Ear infections were a frequent challenge in our home, so we learned to treat symptoms early to avoid deeper infections that could lead to burst eardrums. Our best herbal remedy for ear infections relies on the antibiotic activity of raw garlic and the mucilage found in mullein flowers. Every year, we make fresh mullein-garlic ear oil to administer when symptoms of an ear infection first appear.

Remedy. To make the oil, fill half a glass jar with fresh mullein flowers and then top the jar with cloves of fresh, crushed garlic, skins intact. Cover the herbs with organic olive oil and mix thoroughly. Tie clean muslin or several layers of cheesecloth over the opening of the jar to prevent bugs and debris from falling in, and leave the jar out in the sun to macerate. After a week, strain the contents through a clean cheesecloth and allow the infused oil to settle overnight. The next morning, decant the oil to remove water and any impurities that may have settled to the bottom. To decant, pour the oil through a cheesecloth filter into a clean, dry receptacle. Store the finished oil in labeled glass bottles kept out of direct light. To use, warm the oil slightly by immersing the bottle in warm water, and then administer by squeezing a single drop into each ear. Massage a few more drops into the skin and neck behind the ear. Use this mullein-garlic ear oil until symptoms of an ear infection disappear.

Growing Greek mullein.Verbascum olympicum is a biennial plant that makes a wide rosette of felt-like leaves in its first year. The rosette gives rise to a candelabrum of bright-yellow, flowered racemes the following spring. The seeds are light-dependent germinators that sprout quickly when pressed into the surface of soil. The plant prefers full sun, is drought-tolerant, and is a common “weed” that thrives in Zones 5 to 9.

Home Remedies for Urinary Tract Infections

When my wife and I first began selling medicinal plant seeds, people often asked whether we knew how to treat a urinary tract infection (UTI) with herbs. Over time, we developed a simple formula that gives almost instant relief; it relies on the soothing leaves and flowers of goldenrod. We combine goldenrod with mucilaginous marshmallow roots that we grow in our richest garden beds. Juniper completes the formula with its powerfully antiseptic purple berries.

Remedy. To make a UTI tincture, combine 2 cups fresh goldenrod leaves and flowers; 2 cups chopped, fresh marshmallow roots; and 1/4 cup fresh or dried juniper berries in a blender, and cover with vodka. Thoroughly blend the ingredients and then pour into a half-gallon glass jar. Shake the jar daily for 2 weeks to make sure all the ingredients stay submerged, and then strain the contents through several layers of cheesecloth into a clean receptacle. Squeeze the cheesecloth to release every last drop of medicine. Allow this tincture to settle overnight, and then decant and store in amber glass bottles out of direct sunlight. When you begin experiencing symptoms of a UTI, drink a large glass of water that includes 2 dropperfuls of this tincture, 5 times daily. Also, avoid processed foods and sugar.

Growing goldenrod.Solidago canadensis is an herbaceous perennial that thrives in Zones 4 to 9. Although you can start the plant from its extremely tiny seed, it’s easiest to transplant a root cutting. Goldenrod does well in full sun to partial shade and prefers moist soil. It’s an enthusiastic spreader.

Growing marshmallow.Althaea officinalis is an herbaceous perennial that grows well in Zones 3 to 9. The seed requires scarification (a light scrub on medium-grit sandpaper) before sowing, and is best started in flats or pots in a greenhouse and then transplanted to a garden as a sturdy seedling. Marshmallow grows well in sun or partial shade.

Growing juniper.Juniperus communis is an upright, evergreen perennial that thrives in full sun in a wide range of soils throughout Zones 3 to 9. The tree is dioecious (with male and female cones on separate individuals), so to obtain the berries used in herbal medicine, you must grow both sexes. Juniper makes an excellent privacy fence and windbreak. Plus, if you plant several juniper trees in a line, fertile berries are bound to form. The green berries can take a year to ripen to purple. This ripening generally happens in autumn, which is also when you should harvest the berries for medicine.

Herbal Remedies for Cuts and Wounds

Treating cuts immediately will help avoid deeper complications, such as infection. Yarrow, with its dark-green, deeply cut, aromatic leaves, is the herb of choice for treating deep wounds. We plant yarrow in spring, pressing the seeds into a naked bed. Within a few months, it’s creeping about, ready to send up stark, white flowers.

Remedy. A poultice made from crushed yarrow leaves applied directly to a wound helps promote healing. Another option is to fill a large basin with hot water, Epsom salts and several dropperfuls of calendula tincture. Soak the wound for 20 minutes, occasionally submerging the ailing limb into a bucket of cold water. Pat dry with a clean towel and leave the wound open and exposed to fresh air. If the wound is deep, apply a comfrey poultice after the calendula soak.

To make a comfrey poultice, dig deeply delving comfrey roots from the ground and wash thoroughly. Combine the roots with fresh comfrey leaves in a blender and add just enough water to blend. Cover the wound with up to 2 inches of this mucilaginous comfrey goo, and leave it on for an hour or until the pain subsides. After 2 or 3 such treatments, the danger of infection should give way to a healthy regeneration of tissue.

Growing calendula.Calendula officinalis is a pretty annual, the quintessential medicinal herb that grows well across the United States. The plant is a vigorous self-seeder, and after it’s introduced, it will volunteer readily for years to come. Preferring to germinate in the cool soils of early spring, the oddly shaped seeds may be sown directly into the garden in furrows about an inch deep. Tamp well after sowing to ensure good soil-seed contact, which increases germination rates. Thin the seedlings to at least 6 inches apart. Calendula prefers full sun and regular watering.

Growing comfrey. There are two general types of comfrey: common, or “true,” comfrey (Symphytum officinale) and Russian hybrid comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum). True comfrey has bright-purple flowers and winged leaves. Russian comfrey demonstrates hybrid vigor and grows larger and faster than true comfrey. Both types have the desired medicinal properties and will reproduce readily from bits of root left in the soil.

Herbs for Colds

For years, I prescribed echinacea tincture to people suffering from colds and flu, but I always yearned for something stronger. After growing my own elderberry trees and harvesting the berries for syrup, I realized I’d found what I was looking for — a wonderful preventive to, and treatment for, the common cold. Elderberry syrup delivered the medicine in a form so sweet and tasty that instead of chasing kids with a dropper in hand, I was hiding the bottle so they wouldn’t self-medicate! (For a simple, delicious elderberry syrup recipe, check out Making Elderberry Syrup.)

Remedy. Common colds are uncomfortable to be sure, but they get worse if infection settles deep into the lungs and a hacking, unproductive cough sets in. Traditional Chinese medicine calls for elecampane tincture for such situations because it’s believed to fight infection and suppress coughs. To make an elecampane tincture, follow the directions given earlier in this article for the UTI tincture, but use only clean, dried, ground-up elecampane root.

Growing elecampane.Inula helenium is a perennial that grows in Zones 3 to 8. You must sow seeds near the soil’s surface because light stimulates their germination. Start the seeds in pots or flats, and transplant them to your garden after they’re established. Elecampane appreciates moist soil and partial shade. Dig the roots in the fall of the plants’ second year of growth.

Growing elderberry.Sambucus nigra is a woody perennial and multi-stemmed bush (sometimes considered a small tree) that loves nitrogen-rich, acidic soils and grows well as an understory to larger trees. You can start elderberries from seed, but they’ll take several years to reach maturity. To do so, soak the dried berries in water overnight, and then rub them through a tea strainer to reveal the small, tan, flattened seeds. In fall, sow the seeds in flats or pots and mulch well. Germination occurs mid-spring to early summer. After the seedlings show two sets of true leaves, move them to individual pots and grow for another year or two until they’re sturdy enough to transplant. You can also save time by purchasing a healthy elderberry start from a nursery.

Richo Cech is the founder of Strictly Medicinal Seeds (previously known as Horizon Herbs), an all-medicinal seed and plant company based out of Williams, Oregon. He is the author of Making Plant Medicine and The Medicinal Herb Grower, available fromStrictly Medicinal Seeds.