Plant a Medicinal Garden, Part 1: Immune-Boosting Herbs

Reader Contribution by Susanna Raeven
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While arctic temperatures hover over New York state like a stubborn fog and the weather forecast announces another fresh snow blanket covering the Northeast by tomorrow, I like to huddle up in front of the wood stove and think about the herbs I am going to grow at Raven Crest Farm this season. It lifts my spirit, gets me into spring mode and is something I enjoy doing and sharing very much. And so I like to share a series of blogs with you that introduces easy to grow medicinal plants with powerful healing properties that are a feast to the eye, make delicious herbal teas and effective tinctures, attract beneficial insects and wildlife and are good companion plants for vegetables and fruit trees. Planting a medicinal herb garden will bring new and exciting aspects to your green world with many healing benefits to reap.

This 5-part blog series will cover herbs that are highly beneficial for different body systems: the immune system, the respiratory system, the digestive system, the female reproductive system, the nervous system, and the integumentary system (the skin).

The majority of the medicinal herbs introduced here are perennials that die back in winter and re-emerge in spring, or self seeding annuals that become well established after the first year and will keep beautifying your garden for years. I am adding just a couple of tender annuals because their strong medicinal properties and delicious taste in tea is simply worth the effort of planting them again and again.

No matter if you are buying seeds or seedlings, check the Latin name of the plant and make sure you are buying the correct medicinal variety. The ornamental varieties bred for extra showy looks often lack the medicinal properties we are after.

With these versatile and beautiful plant spirits in your garden you can fill your medicine cabinet with home made, affordable herbal remedies for the cold and flu, respiratory infections, sore throat, toothaches, candida, gastrointestinal infections, ulcers, herpes simplex, sleeping problems, anxiety, stomach upset and indigestion, cuts, wounds, burns, insect bites, allergies, stress, ear infections, headaches, PMS and menopause symptoms, and mild pains.

Who needs to go to the pharmacy? I don’t. And neither do you with these green alleys in your backyard.

Echinacea (Echinacea pupurea)

Yes, echinacea – the oh, so well known purple cone flower. This easy to grow, 3-4 foot tall perennial, hardy in all temperate zones, prefers full sun but will tolerate part shade. Echinacea is a self seeding, beautiful showy wildflower that attracts many butterflies, such as monarch and swallowtail. Harvest the young flowers and upper leaves in late summer. If you have enough plants in your garden and you can part from some of them, harvest the root in late autumn after the plant has died back.

Echinacea Benefits

This is a very versatile herb and all parts of the plant – blossom, leaves and root – have anti-viral properties, give great immune system support and are soothing to the mucus membranes.

You can combine Echinacea with sweet Annie, elecampane and spilanthes for even more anti-bacterial action. It is a good remedy for urinary tract infections when combined with Oregon grape root, horsetail, and uva ursi.

When you blend echinacea tincture with other herbal extracts, use at least 2 parts echinacea and 1 part of the other tinctures each, as echinacea requires a higher dosage to be effective.

How to Make a Tincture

Make a tincture of the fresh plant to prevent and shorten the flu and cold. If you are tincturing the root, wash it thoroughly and cut it into small pieces. 

Rosemary Gladstar’s instructions for How to Make Echinacea Tincture can be used to make other herb tinctures as well. The basic steps are always the same, simply substitute echinacea with a different herb.

Elecampane (Inula helenium)

Elecampane is a very large perennial from the sunflower family that grows 5-7 feet tall and does best in full sun or partial shade. It is hardy to zone 4-9 and its pretty yellow flowers attract an astonishing variety of butterflies and other pollinating insects. It will shade smaller plants with its very large leaves so give it ample space. You will be amazed how enormous it becomes after the first year. Since you will most likely end up planting it to too close to other plants, it is accommodating that you harvest only the roots and thinning the plant in the fall or spring in this way also provides you with its powerful medicine.

Health Benefits of Elecampane

Elecampane root has strong anti-bacterial properties and is also an expectorant, meaning that it helps to expel phlegm during respiratory infections and heals the lungs. I can be used for bacterial infections, asthma and bronchitis. The tincture has a bitter taste and therefor a good digestive aid.

Make a tincture with the fresh roots after 2 years. Combine with echinacea and sweet Annie tincture for a powerful cold and flu remedy.

Sweet Annie (Artemisia annua)

Self seeding, 3-6 feet tall, hardy annual from the wormwood family with feathery leaves that release the loveliest, sweetest aromatic scent when touched. Most likely, you will want to touch and smell it every time you go out into your garden. Deer does not enjoy its scent and it can be direct sown along the sunny edges of your vegetable garden to make a deer repellant hedge.

How to use Sweet Annie

Although not the showiest plant, as the tiny little blossoms are barely visible to the eye, sweet Annie is a very potent anti-viral and anti-bacterial remedy for deep seated infections, such as a stubborn flu and Lyme disease co-infections. Known in traditional Chinese medicine as qing-hao, it has been successfully used to treat cases of malaria.

Make a tincture from the fresh upper leaves and young blossoms and blend with echinacea and elecampane tincture for broadband anti-biotic action.

Or make a sweet Annie vinegar. Use the tincture instructions above, substitute the alcohol with apple cider vinegar and let sit for 2-3 weeks. Use it all winter long in your salad dressing to prevent infections of any kind and keep the cold and flu away.

Spilanthes (Acmella oleracea)

A frost sensitive annual in temperate climates that grows 1 foot tall and spreads quickly, with red veined leaves and unusual, red and yellow button-like blossoms. You might already grow spilanthes as an ornamental in containers without knowing that you introduced a potent medicinal herb to your garden.

Health Benefits of Spilanthes

Spilanthes earns its common name, toothache plant, from the fact that the blossoms and leaves create a numbing and tingling sensation in the mouth when chewed. Try it, you will be surprised by the intensity. It literally feels like rubbing Anbesol on your gums.

The tincture from the leaves and young blossoms has also shown anti-viral and anti-bacterial action in studies and can be combined with other immune supporting herbs, such as the ones presented here.

Echinacea, elecampane, and spilanthes are all herbs that work well for acute infections. As a long term preventive astragalus is a better choice.

Astragalus (Astragalus)

Astragalus is a hardy perennial in the pea family that has been used in TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) and Ayurdevic medicine (the ancient art of healing from India) for thousands of years. The plant grows 2-4 feet tall and its sweet pea blossoms become so heavily loaded with bees and bumblebees that the stems are sometimes bent down towards the ground. Only the roots are harvested and it takes 2-3 years for the plant to bloom for the first time and 4 years for the roots to mature and develop the sought after medicinal constituents. Astragalus is best direct sown and then thinned, the seedlings do not transplant well. Find a sunny spot in the outer areas of your garden and let the plant mature, your patience will be rewarded with riches.

How to use Astragalus

The sweet tasting root is an excellent medicine that works on the deep immune system by increasing white blood cell production in the bone marrow. White blood cells are then transformed into neutrophils, macrophages, antibodies and T4 killer cells – all important players in your immune response to infections. In TCM astragalus is used a a lung qi tonic to increase resistance to infections and the ability to recover faster from respiratory ailments. It is also helpful in cases of anemia.

You can cook large chunks of astragalus root in soups and stews and turn your food into medicine.

Make a tincture from the root and do not combine it with other herbs. Instead take it as a daily preventive for at least 6 weeks before the cold and flu season starts, so your immune system has been built and strengthened when you need it. Astragalus is a very good herb for the elder, whose immune system is weakened and who face challenges recovering from infections of any kind. Do not take astragalus during an acute infection. Take a break and switch to the herbs mentioned above instead. Wait until the acute condition has subsided and then start taking astragalus again.

Herbs, Seeds, Plants and Books

If you need to buy dried astragalus root or other herbs until your first harvest is ready, this is a high quality organic and bio-dynamic herb farm in Oregon: Oregon’s Wild Harvest

To learn more about the art of making plant medicine, read James Green’s excellent book The Green Medicine Maker’s Handbook or take a class with a local herbalist. You will be surprised how easy, healing, and rewarding it is to make your own medicine with plants that you cared for in your garden.

Good online sources for medicinal herb seeds, root cuttings, and plants:

Horizon Herbs

Well Sweep Farm

Don’t forget to check your local nursery as well. Or visit Raven Crest Farm this spring and choose from over 80 different medicinal herb seedlings.

Excited for spring!

Susanna Raeven is an herbalist and medicinal herb grower. Read all of her blog posts by clicking here.