Best Medicinal Herbs for Difficult Growing Conditions

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


| April/May 2017



chives in red pot

Even gardeners living in demanding climates can grow medicinal herbs.


Photo by iStock/hmproudlove

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!





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