The use of herbs for medicinal purposes is as old as recorded history. Herbs and plants are used for teas, tinctures, infusions, and/or topically as salves or ointments. Plant medicine is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, can trigger side effects and can interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, take herbs with care, become familiar with the many ways they may be used, and do further research on any that are new to you.
There are numerous online sources for balanced and medically reviewed information on the medical uses of herbs, as well as some really great accessible books. The Lost Book of Remedies by Dr. Nicole Apelian is a book that stands out as being very approachable to a wide audience. This comprehensive book outlines the basic information of 181 plants, lichens, and mushrooms with photos, identification, use, growing instructions, and how to make basic tinctures, balms, salves and teas! This is a great gift for the aspiring herbalist in your life, they will not be disappointed.
Spring is a great time to get your herb garden started, as many plants can be started from seed and grown to full maturity within a season. There are so many herbs and uses to keep track of, it might seem overwhelming at first. However, we encourage you to take it one step at a time, and this book is a great resource.
There are many common herbs and mushrooms that the untrained herbalist may only think of in culinary terms. Take rosemary, thyme, ginger, cilantro, cardamon, garlic and shiitake mushrooms for instance. These herbs all have strong medicinal properties, but they are normally considered only for food. Some recipes double as both food and medicine, such as golden milk. Take a look at our Tea Herb Garden Kitfor a fun and easy way to get started growing your own medicinal garden. It can help anyone start six fantastic plants from scratch for making your own herbal tea infusions at home, which is a great way to easily started with plant medicine.
Below, we have outlined some useful herbs and key information on how to grow them.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
Planting depth: surface | Germination: 4-8 days | Optimum germination temperature: 55-70°F
Chamomile is one of the most popular herbs in the western world. Among other uses, it is claimed to calm frayed nerves, to treat various stomach problems, to relieve muscle spasms, and to treat skin conditions and mild infections.
Up to 24 inches tall and 15 inches wide, German Chamomile has many thin branches of finely divided green leaves. Small ¾” white and yellow daisy-like flowers appear from early through midsummer. Sow seeds in fall or spring in well-drained, neutral to slightly acidic soil. Harvest flowers when first fully opened, and use fresh, freeze, or dry them and store in a tightly sealed container.
Echinacea (Echinacea Purpurea)
Planting depth: ¼” | Germination: 10-21 days |Optimum germination temperature: 60-70° F
Archaeologists have found evidence that Native Americans may have used echinacea for more than 400 years to treat infections and wounds and as a general “cure-all.” Many herbalists also recommend echinacea to help boost the immune system and help the body fight infections.
Echinacea is easily grown in average, dry to medium, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. An adaptable plant that is tolerant of drought, heat, humidity and poor soil. Divide clumps when they become overcrowded (about every 4 years). Plants usually re-bloom without deadheading, however prompt removal of spent flowers improves general appearance. Freely self-seeds if at least some of the seed heads are left in place. Will completely die back in the winter, but comes back from the roots in the spring. Petals, leaves, and roots can be used for medicinal purposes.
Catnip (Nepeta cataria)
Planting depth: ¼” | Germination: 10-20 days | Optimum germination temperature: 60-70° F
Catnip is not just for cats! It is a very mild herb medicinally, and makes a soothing tea that is used for its calming and sedative effects, both in adults and in small children. It is said to relieve the symptoms of colic in children, and can be used as a digestive aid for adults.
Catnip is a 2-3 foot tall perennial herb that is native to parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Plant catnip seeds inside or outdoors in full sun or partial shade. Catnip is an easy to grow, highly ornamental herb with fragrant gray-green leaves and clusters of lavender or white flowers at branch ends in late spring and early summer. Winter hardy to zone 3.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Planting depth: surface | Germination: 10-40 days | Optimum germination temperature: 60-70°F
Lemon balm is a member of the mint family and considered a calming herb. It was used as far back as the Middle Ages to reduce stress and anxiety, promote sleep, improve appetite, and ease pain and discomfort from indigestion. Today, lemon balm is often combined with other calming, soothing herbs, such as valerian, chamomile, and hops, to help promote relaxation. This is the perfect herb to help with the extra stress of the Coronavirus pandemic, and it is delicious used in fresh herbal tea. Plant in sun or partial shade, and it is recommended to grow in a pot because it easily spreads through rhizomes. Prefers fertile soil with regular water, but will tolerate poor, dry soils. For best fragrance, harvest before plants flower, cutting the entire plant back to 2 inches tall. Optimum flavor when used fresh. For tea, both leaves and stems can be dried. Mulch if winter goes below 0°F. 70 days to harvest when started indoors.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Planting depth: surface | Germination: 7-21 days | Optimum germination temperature: 60-70° F
Legend has it that yarrow (Achillea millefolium) was named after Achilles, the Greek mythical hero who used it to stop the bleeding wounds of his soldiers. Popular in European folk medicine, yarrow contains flavonoids, plant-based chemicals that increase saliva and stomach acid, helping to improve digestion. Yarrow may also relax smooth muscle in the intestine and uterus, which can relieve stomach and menstrual cramps.
Compared to cultivated yarrow, common yarrow is the hardiest and most medicinally active. Flowers are usually white with occasional pink flowers, borne in flat-topped clusters. Yarrow self-sows readily. For the highest essential oil content, it is best grown in un-enriched soil. In early summer the flower stalks rise up to 24 inches tall and attract butterflies and are excellent for fresh or dried arrangements. Blooms June to September. The widely adapted plants tolerate both heat and poor soil. Winter hardy to zone 3.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Planting depth: ¼” | Germination: 15-20 days | Optimum germination temperature: 65-75°F
Ashwagandha has long been used as a traditional Indian (Ayurvedic) medical herb. In the wild, it grows profusely in most areas of South Asia and many closely related species occur as far away as Northern Africa. Due to the hardiness of the plant, Ashwagandha has historically been grown in areas that are not well irrigated and therefore not suitable for food crops. Ashwagandha is considered an adaptogenic herb, which means it supports your body in various functions, helping you both to relax, and improve energy functions. Ashwagandha is easy to grow, and you can be harvested annually.
DIY Tincture – 7 Steps to Making Your Own at Home
You will need:
- A glass jar, such as a mason jar
- Fresh herbs (Or dried)
- Alcohol (Use a type around 80 proof, without much flavor, such as vodka, gin, or grain alcohol. Use higher alcohol content for roots and bark)
Gather some herbs. These could be picked fresh from your garden, or purchased from your local herb store. You can also check your local grocery market to see what you can find in the fresh herb section, or bulk spice bins.
If you are picking herbs from your garden, there are a couple basics to keep in mind:
- Pick fresh, healthy leaves and flowers that are intact and not damaged by bugs
- It is best to pick herbs in the early morning, or at dusk, but not during the heat of the day when the sun has drawn out the essential oils of the plant
Chop the clean herbs, or flowers, to increase the surface area, and allow the essence of the plant to infuse in to the alcohol. Immediately put into the glass jar (where you will let the tincture steep) before the chopped herbs start to oxidize.
Fill ⅔ of the glass jar with herbs.
Fill with alcohol. Make sure the herbs are completely covered. The ideal consistency is to have the jar full, but also allow some movement when you shake the herbs. Seal tightly with a lid.
Keep the herbs in a cool dry place, and shake the jar once a day, for at least a month.
Using cheesecloth, strain out the plant matter. Use a funnel to pour the concoction into a tightly sealed glass jar. Avoid contact with metal, as some herbs react and can alter your tincture’s potency.
Make a fun label! Be sure to write down what is in your tincture and the date it was made. It is helpful to have as many details about how you made your tincture and what is in it, so that later, if you love it, you can look back and follow your own notes. Most tinctures can last for several years.
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