Grow a medicinal healing garden

By Theresa Gregory

Instead of just planting beautiful flowers and shrubs, perhaps it is time to consider planting helpful, healing herbs this season.

Adding a few medicinal herbs to an already existing garden or making a special bed devoted to the healing plants can be very satisfying. Not only are the plants lovely to look at, they are an opportunity for us to relearn the almost lost art of folk medicine, a way to help support our family and friends during the long, cold winter months. With a few basic skills we can practice what our grandmothers knew, and prepare simple home remedies using common medicinal herbs.

Medicinal herbs have been a part of the family garden since the early settlers came to this land. Knowledge of plants and their uses was brought over by arriving immigrants or borrowed from native lore. Due to the lack of hospital care, and few doctors in a very widespread country, families and communities had to keep the knowledge of traditional medicine alive in order to keep their people healthy between doctor visits.

Today, despite the accessibility to healthcare, many individuals are choosing to re-acquaint themselves with the healing plants, to respond to minor ailments in their family and pets.

When trying to decide which plants to add to your garden this year, asking what the plant will be used for is often a good place to start. For instance, there are edible plants that add flavour to winter dishes. Some of the medicinal herbs can be helpful in warding off colds and flu. Still others can be useful when skin issues such as chapped lips, cracked heels, and dry skin are a problem.

We think of plants such as sage, oregano and rosemary for their flavour enhancement, not necessarily for their potential health benefits.

Today, sage is associated with poultry dishes. But, traditionally, Purple Sage (Salvia officinalis) enjoyed a much broader usage: as a mouth wash, a gargle for sore throats, an appetite stimulant, a liver tonic, for menstrual cramps, and to help alleviate night sweats during menopause.

Often it was the woman (although not always) of the house who kept the knowledge of the plants alive. And in so doing, she would know the contraindications as well, when not to use a particular plant. In the case of sage, it must be avoided during pregnancy and avoided by anyone with epilepsy.

She would also know when and how to harvest each plant and how to prepare specific remedies. Sage leaves can be dried during the summer months by placing them on a screen in a well-ventilated area away from heat and light. Once dried, they are stored in an airtight container (again away from heat and light) to maintain freshness. The dried leaves can be used in winter as a tea to drink or as a gargle.

Similarly, oregano, rosemary, and many other culinary herbs were known for their healing qualities, as well as their delicious flavour. As we familiarize ourselves with the healing properties of more and more plants, we can add to the selection of healing plants in our gardens.

Colds and flu are very common ailments during the winter months. Plants such as echinacea, feverfew and lemon balm have often been used to help prevent the onset, to alleviate symptoms, and to shorten the length of the illness. Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) produces a lovely pinkish purple flower resembling a large daisy for several months in the summer. Not only is it delightful to look at, it can attract butterflies, and the dried seed pods left on the stems in winter help feed the birds. Echinacea tincture, which is an herbal extract made with grain alcohol, is available in most health food stores, and widely used as an immune-boosting herb.

However, this type of remedy is relatively simple to make yourself at home. If you have coneflower growing in your garden, simply pulse the flower (the aerial part of the plant) and cleaned root (if using root) into very small uniform pieces. Avoid turning it into a powder. Place herbs into a sterilized, small glass jar. Use one part herb (in grams) to five parts alcohol (vodka is ideal). Use a kitchen scale to weigh the herbs. Pour alcohol on top of herbs once you have placed them into the jars. Cover herbs fully. Cap with a lid. Shake the tincture to ensure herbs are covered. Add more alcohol if necessary. Then place sealed tincture into a dark cupboard for about three weeks, shaking the jar daily. Once ready, strain through cheesecloth into a measuring cup, then pour tincture into a dropper bottle and label. You would use your homemade remedy in the same way as recommended in the store-bought product.

Severe cold, wind, and sun can dry out the skin and lips. Healing plants such as pot marigold and comfrey have traditionally been used as an antidote to common skin problems such as chapped lips, cracked heel, and dry patches.

Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) produces a bright golden-orange flower throughout the summer months. By harvesting the flower heads and placing them in a jar of olive oil in the sun until the oil is saturated with the blossoms (over the span of weeks) a sun oil can be produced. This medicated or infused oil can then be used topically on affected areas, or thickened to make a salve or ointment. (See recipe below).

Obviously, some research will have to be done before beginning to plant a healing garden or attempting to make home remedies. Consult the many herbal books available before embarking on your healing garden project. Look for a well-illustrated guide with clear instructions, and exact recipes for specific ailments. Also, consider attending herbal workshops which include a practical aspect, learning the art of home remedy preparation hands-on. Visit herbal nurseries with knowledgeable staff who can answer your many questions. Local horticultural societies also have volunteers who have worked with healing plants who may be able to provide some advice.

Gardening in general is a labour of love. Growing a healing garden is a calling. If you are called to explore the plant world and all the healing gifts that it has to offer, you will know. You will be drawn to the plants not just for their beauty, but for their value as companions to our health and wellbeing. Your interest in the plants will grow from the need to be healthier as people, and as a planet. And slowly, over time, that which was once common knowledge in every household will become common knowledge once again.

Make your own calendula salve

Calendula salve can be used topically for skin ailments such as chapped lips, bed sores, diaper rash, dry elbows, cracked heel, etc. For easier application and to extend the shelf life, the medicated oil is thickened with beeswax. Many recipe variations are available. This is just a simple recipe to help get you started.

Calendula Salve Recipe:

Make a medicated oil using the blossoms of Pot Marigold (Calendula officinalis) as described above.

Gently heat the oil in a sterilized pot (do not boil)

Liquefy beeswax (pure from a local provider) by gently heating in a separate sterilized pot.

With a sterilized utensil, stir the liquid beeswax into the heated oil in a ratio of 1:4, one part beeswax to four parts oil. Stir well.

Pour the mixture into sterilized jars. Wait for the mixture to cool before sealing with sterilized lids.

References: The Complete Medicinal Herbal by Penelope Ody

Theresa Gregory is an aromatherapist, yoga instructor, and part owner of YogAloft Yoga & Wellness Retreat in McKellar, ON. For more information visit www.yogaloftwellness.com.

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