Wake up with a little indigestion? Burn your finger while cooking? Injuries and ailments lurk around every corner. Luckily for us, there re plenty of holistic ways to relieve minor bumps and scrapes without having to rush to the doctor’s office or call the pharmacy.
For thousands of years, people have used herbs of all kinds to heal the body and mind. Herbs can boost the immune system, increase the body’s resistance to infections, relieve aches and pains, calm the nerves, purify the blood and even knit bones.
Here are five easy-to-grow, easy-to-use herbs that you can keep around your home all year long:
“How can a man grow old who has sage in his garden?” is a much-quoted ancient proverb in the East. Most often used as a culinary herb, sage also has many useful healing properties. The oils and tannins in sage have astringent, antiseptic, and anti-irritant properties. This makes it useful as a digestive aid and useful for healing mouth sores, ulcers, and sore throats. Chew some sage after a meal or make a tea to help with digestion. Make an infusion or tea and mix with some apple cider vinegar and salt to help relieve a sore throat. Though a relatively gentle herb, avoid taking sage in large doses over a long period of tim
To grow sage indoors, find a warm, sunny location, away from extreme heat. Pot in well-drained soil. Prune after flowering to keep plants looking nice, and to prevent them from getting too woody and leggy. Feed in early spring. Make sure to provide, strong, direct light and be careful not to over-water. Harvest lightly the first year. Harvest individual leaves as needed thereafter. Sage can also be dried and stored for future use.
2. Aloe Vera
Found in many cosmetic products such as hand creams, suntan lotions, and shampoos, aloe vera was reported to be Cleopatra’s secret beauty ingredient. The sap from this succulent herb (yes, aloe is an herb!) can heal skin and soothe burns. Aloe vera is also currently sold as a liquid health tonic, purported to boost immunity and settle stomach irritation.
For external use, crush the sap from fresh leaves or slice them and apply as a poultice for chapped skin, dermatitis, and eczema. For minor burns, break off a leaf and apply sap to the burn. For larger burns, split leaf and place sap against damaged skin. Lightly bandage in place.
Aloe vera is an excellent indoor plant. Make sure not to let temperatures in your home drop below 41 degrees. Be sure, also, to plant it in sandy, loose soil, because Aloe Vera is typically a dessert plant. Cactus potting mix of 2 parts sand to 1 part potting soil will work well. Keep in a sunny window. Repot each spring, as Aloe grows rapidly in warm weather. Water only when dry. Be careful not to over harvest.
A less common but lovely little plant is the houesleek. Legend has it that houseleek was a gift from the god Jupiter for protection against lightning, thunder, fire, and witchcraft. Perhaps not the best form of fire insurance by modern day standards, houseleek can still provide some useful healing properties, and its flowery cactus-like shape makes a beautiful addition to any home. As one of the oldest first-aid herbs, houseleeks share some similar uses with aloe vera. It can be used to treat minor burns and skin irritations in the same way. It is also used for wasp stings, cuts, insect bites, and corns.
To soften skin around corns, bind the leaves for few hours, soak foot in hot water, then begin removing the corn. Repeat as necessary. Houseleek can be used as a tea for sore throats, bronchitis and mouth ailments.
Much like aloe vera the houseleek prefers well-drained thin soil. Typically placed on porches and roofs, it will do fine inside but would prefer a very sunny spot. Also like aloe vera, it is a difficult one to kill, so long as you don’t over-water
A favorite of our four legged feline friends, catnip was also a favorite medicinal and culinary herb of the Romans. A sweet smelling, bright green herb, catnip is a great source of Vitamin C. It is also widely used as a mild sedative. Infuse a tea to help relieve anxious feelings or an upset stomach, or to relieve colds and fevers. It can also be served as a tea to children to relieve restlessness and colic. Mash the leaves and flower tops and apply as a poultice for bruises.
Like other herbs in the mint family, catnip runs free and spreads far. However, it will do just fine in a pot inside your home, as long as it is by a very sunny window. Plant in loamy soil and water regularly. Cut back frequently to ensure bushy growth.
A potent herb, Valerian has long been valued around the world for both its medicinal and culinary properties. A rather stinky plant to which both cats and rats are attracted, Valerian has been shown to calm rattled nerves and bring sleep to weary insomniacs.
For a calming effect, crush one teaspoon of the dried root and soak in cold water for 12-24 hours. Drink as a sedative for mild insomnia, sudden onset of stress, headaches and nervous exhaustion. As already alluded to, the one downfall of growing and using this plant as a medicinal herb is that it will have to be dug up, as it is the root that provide both its culinary and healing powers. However, Valerian will need to stick around for at least one full season before you can use its root.
Plant valerian in a large pot in moist, rich, loamy soil. Water regularly and keep by a very sunny window. Dig the complete root up in second season in late autumn. Remove fibrous roots, leaving the edible center. Valerian can be dried for future use.
Sherie Blumenthal is a Food Access Coordinator with Lots to Gardens, an urban gardening and community nutrition initiative sponsored by St. Mary’s Health System in Lewiston, Maine.