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Growing and Using Medicinal Herbs

Table of Contents

Medicinal Herbs: The Top 30Growing Medicinal HerbsMaking Plant Medicines

Multiple-Function Herbs

Readers of this site know that a major emphasis of mine is the integration of components in the homestead, with one project serving several needs. Growing medicinal herbs fits right in with that strategy.

Medicinal herbs as foods

As already said, many of the plants we’ve come to rely on for food also offer medicinal actions. In some cases, the medicinal part is different from the food part—for example, it is the root bark of blackberry which is used medicinally. But in many cases, it is the edible part of the plant itself which is a kind of “superfood,” toning and balancing the body while adding “punctuation” to our meals—cayenne (a general, circulatory, and digestive system tonic), fennel, ginger, and peppermint. We should incorporate such herbs more frequently into the daily diet, and explore their use in a more directed way when there is a special need. We might make an infusion of fennel, for example, to treat colic, or to stimulate digestion or appetite.

Some “weeds” such as dandelion and stinging nettle are highly nutritious and convey numerous health-promoting effects. Burdock root is considered an important detoxifying herb, and is easily added in small amounts to soups and stir-fries.

Remember too that herbs can be used to make other foods with medicinal effects. In previous era, a wide range of medicinal herbs—yarrow, ginger, wintergreen, licorice, St. John’s wort, elder flowers and berries—were used to flavor (and preserve) beers and ales. Mead, a fermented beverage made from honey, has medicinal effects in its own right, but can also be made with herbs such as heather that boost its medicinal properties. Vinegars and vegetable oils can be infused with herbs such as rosemary, garlic, and cayenne, and used on salads and other dishes to promote health.

Boosting insect diversity

Wise homesteaders know that the solution to damaging insects is not a program for killing insects, but encouraging even more insect diversity, especially by cultivating plants that flower throughout the growing season. Many common medicinal herbs--such as calendula, chamomile, echinacea, fennel, peppermint and yarrow--are flowering plants, and offer the valuable “fringe benefit” of providing food and shelter for beneficials as well. Plantings of flowering herbs are more effective at encouraging our insect buddies if incorporated throughout the crops to be protected, rather than planted in their own little fiefdoms.

Herbs as fertility plants

Smart homesteaders also know it is possible to grow more of our own soil fertility. Isn’t it fortunate that some of the best fertility plants have medicinal properties as well? Comfrey (used for healing wounds and broken bones) and nettle are high in protein (nitrogen), and can be used as nutritive mulches or to “spark” a compost heap. Dandelion and yellow dock are deep-rooted “dynamic accumulators” which “mine” minerals from the subsoil and make them available to more shallow-rooted crops.

Herbs as fodder crops

Many medicinal plants do double duty to provide fresh green (or dried) fodder for our livestock. I find that dandelion and yellow dock stay green deeper into winter’s chill than any other forage plant—I dig them up and feed them to my winter poultry flock by the bucketful. Oats is an excellent nerve tonic, and can be used to feed livestock as well, either cut and fed green, or self-harvested by the animals themselves. My geese love comfrey.

Other ecological or landscape uses

Hawthorn and willow might be planted for shade, as a windbreak, or as a “living fence.” As such they offer important ecological benefits (bird and wildlife shelter, moderating the effects of wind and heat and loss of soil moisture to evaporation) in addition to their medicinal uses.

And don’t forget mushrooms

There is growing recognition of mushrooms as important medicinals—reishi and turkey tail, for example. Some edible species such as shiitake and maitake are also being studied for their medicinal properties. In addition, mushrooms serve as decomposers—for example, speeding the decomposition of stumps and slash from woodlot thinning operations, and their conversion to soil humus.

Growing Medicinal Herbs

Where should you grow your medicinal herbs? Everywhere you possibly can. There are traditional medicinal plants to fit any micro-ecology in the homestead. For example, the drier, more exposed parts of the homestead can be planted to chaste berry, lovage, milk thistle, rosemary, rue, clary sage, hyssop, lavender, lemon balm, and thyme. Wetter areas might host mullein, peppermint, self-heal, angelica, cardinal flower, goldenrod, and skullcap.

I have planted a woodland garden of medicinal and culinary herbs in a fold of our small woodlot which is more likely to stay moist than any other location on our property. Shade-loving herbs growing there include goldenseal (an important anti-microbial for acute infections, a key medicinal plant of many Native American tribes), bloodroot, downy rattlesnake plantain, Solomon’s seal, wild ginger, spikenard, wild yam, black cohosh, and blue cohosh.

You may have been told that herbs “like to grow in poor soil.” While it is true that most herbs do not have the high nitrogen requirements of heavy feeders like corn and squash, every plant prefers to grow in soil that is loved and nurtured. Just as in the garden, do everything you can to increase the organic matter in your soil (adding composts, using mulches, growing cover crops), and your medicinal plantings will respond accordingly.

Did you notice in the list above the plants marked with an asterisk? Those are plants which United Plant Savers has designated as “at-risk” for extinction from over-harvesting. Responsible herbalists avoid “wild-crafting” of endangered herbal species—and indeed, help preserve these precious parts of our ecological heritage by growing and propagating herbs like goldenseal, pipsissewa, black cohosh, American ginseng, and bloodroot.