Medicinal Herbs: Beneficial Bounty

calendula
Calendula drying on a rack, By Robyn Rosenfeldt

Growing your own medicinal garden is easy and the benefits of having fresh herbs on hand – both medicinal and edible – are immeasurable.

It’s difficult to know the age and viability of dried herbs, so growing varieties which are suited to both your climate and soil conditions will ensure you have the highest chance of gaining the best therapeutic and culinary outcomes.

While germinating seeds and striking cuttings in a greenhouse will deliver great results, you can also have a lot of success by direct seeding and planting cuttings straight into the ground. As well as allowing the plant to establish a stronger root system by not disturbing it when transplanting from seed trays, being in the ground means seedlings require less-frequent watering in hot conditions.

Prepare the beds using plenty of organic material before scattering the seeds and covering with a layer of fine river sand or seed-raising mix. Water in well and ensure the soil stays damp while the seeds germinate. Thin out the seedlings to prevent overcrowding as they grow, and either replant or share with friends.

History

Much of today’s medicine can be traced back to herbs, plants or other natural ingredients. As early as the 15th century BCE, ancient communities were discovering the preventative and curative medicinal benefits of herbs. Often taking a holistic whole-plant approach, communities identified therapeutic advantages of their indigenous plants and developed specific recipes and uses which were passed on to future generations.

Of course, whole herbs can still be just as beneficial to humans today as they were in the Middle Ages. And when used correctly, they can play a vital role in supporting your body’s immune system, helping to both prevent and treat many common medical conditions.


Russian comfrey

SYMPHYTUM X UPLANDICUM

MEDICINAL BENEFITS
Sometimes referred to as knitbone, comfrey reduces bruising, swelling and pain thanks to its allantoin content. Apply topically, not to be taken internally.

HOW TO USE IT
The root can be used in tinctures and oils, the leaves in herbal infusions, while either can make an effective poultice. Apply a mixture of crushed leaves and root to a cotton pad and place over bruises or sprains.

HOW TO GROW IT
Grows easily by division but is vigorous, so keep it contained. Susceptible to root rot, plant in well-drained soil and the leaves are an excellent compost accelerator.

HOW TO HARVEST
Dig up the roots in winter and wash. Peel, dice and dry on trays in a hot oven that has been turned off. Alternatively, crush the root in a mortar and pestle and freeze.

echinacea
Pink echinacea will flower from summer through to the end of autumn, By Rob Evans
COMFREY MASSAGE OIL

INGREDIENTS
1.5 cups dried comfrey root
Extra virgin olive oil

METHOD
Pack a sterilised jar with dried comfrey root and fill to the top with extra virgin olive oil. Remove air bubbles by tapping on the bench before sealing and store in a cool, dark place to infuse for six weeks. Strain before using.


Echinacea

ECHINACEA ANGUSTIFOLIA

MEDICINAL BENEFITS
Sometimes referred to as narrow-leafed coneflower, echinacea is used to prevent colds and boost immune systems. It also has antibacterial and antiviral properties.

HOW TO USE IT
The roots and flowers can be used in tinctures, or steeped in hot water and consumed as a tea. The seeds can be crushed into a paste and applied to small wounds. Because of its numbing properties, echinacea is also good to reduce pain associated with dental issues.

HOW TO GROW IT
Tricky to start from seed and relatively slow growing, you’ll have better results if grown from seedlings or division. Plant in well-drained soil and, once established, it can be subdivided in winter. Harvest what you need but ensure to return 60 percent of the plant back into the ground.

HOW TO HARVEST
Dig up the roots in winter. Wash thoroughly, cut them into one-centimetre pieces and dry overnight in a hot oven that has been turned off. In the morning, toss to separate and place the tray outside to dry further. Repeat the process if needed.


Calendula

CALENDULA OFFICINALIS

MEDICINAL BENEFITS
Sometimes referred to as pot marigold, calendula is a versatile medicinal herb known for its detoxifying, antibacterial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties.

HOW TO USE IT
Cover a bowl of freshly picked flowers in boiling water and steep for 20 minutes. Chill and drink the fresh infusion or wipe over inflamed skin. For severe cases, add a large batch to bathwater along with fresh flowers. Soak swollen feet in a strong and warm batch, or make a salve for topical application.

HOW TO GROW IT
Quick to germinate, scatter calendula seed where you want it to grow because it doesn’t like to be transplanted. Allow flowers to go to seed to share or grow again, or simply allow to self-seed, which it will happily do.

HOW TO HARVEST
If you have it in abundance, harvest the whole flower stem and hang them to dry. Alternatively, pick individual flowers and lay them on wire mesh in a warm outdoor area away from direct sunlight and toss a couple of times a day.

ECHINACEA SYRUP

INGREDIENTS
4 cups rainwater
1 cup fresh echinacea root
1 cup dried elderberries
5 cm piece of fresh ginger
1.5 cups raw honey\

METHOD
Add fresh echinacea root, dried elderberries and fresh ginger to a saucepan before covering with water and bringing to the boil. Reduce heat, cover with a lid and simmer gently for one hour.

Remove from heat and allow to cool completely before straining. Pour the liquid into a sterilised bottle, add honey and shake vigourously to dissolve. Taste for sweetness and add more honey if needed. Seal and store the syrup in the fridge and use as a sweetener in tea or coffee.

An umbel of elderberry flowers, By Rob Evans Chamomile’s daisy-like flower, By Rob Evans
CALENDULA SALVE

INGREDIENTS
25 g dried calendula flowers
1 cup jojoba oil
30 g shaved beeswax
2 tbsp shea butter
3 drops essential oil (optional)

METHOD
First make the calendula oil by adding dried flowers to a jar and cover with oil. Replace the lid and sit jar on a rack in a pot of water on the stove, ensuring water level is about halfway up the side of the jar. Bring water to a simmer, before turning off and allowing to cool. Repeat the process until the oil starts to take on the colour of the petals. Place a heatproof bowl over the top of the saucepan, pour in calendula oil before adding beeswax and shea butter. Stir gently over a low to moderate heat until beeswax melts and the ingredients come together. Carefully pour the liquid into sterilised containers and allow to cool and solidify.


German chamomile

MATRICARIA RECUTITA

MEDICINAL BENEFITS
A member of the Asteraceae family, German chamomile is a multipurpose herb which supports your immune system, lowers blood sugars, reduces inflammation and aids relaxation.

HOW TO USE IT
Using one cup of fresh or dried flowers, steep in 500 ml of boiling water for 20 minutes before straining and chilling. The fresh infusion can be used to treat puffy eyes and acne, an oil infusion – left in a dark space and shaken daily for a month – is great in salad dressings, while a good old-fashioned cup of tea before bed is hard to beat.

HOW TO GROW IT
Sometimes difficult to get started, scatter the tiny seeds over the soil and keep damp. Once established, it will readily self-seed and will tolerate a harsh winter. Taller than the common perennial variety, German chamomile will grow to just under one metre.

HOW TO HARVEST
Pinch flowers from the stems and lay them on wire mesh to air dry over three or four days. Toss the flowers daily to aid the process and to stop them from developing mould.

CALMING CHAMOMILE TEA

INGREDIENTS
1 tbsp dried chamomile
1 tbsp dried rose petals
1 tbsp dried basil leaves
1 tbsp dried lemon balm leaves
1/2 tbsp dried mint leaves
1/4 tbsp dried orange peel

METHOD
Combine all ingredients well before adding one tablespoon to a cup or mug and filling with freshly boiled water. Cover with a a lid and allow to steep for 10 minutes before straining. For a stronger flavour, you can steep your tea for longer, but this can sometimes make the tea bitter. Experiment with steeping times based on your preferences. Place leftover dried tea in an airtight container and store in a cool, dry place. A couple of tablespoons of herb mix can also be added to bathwater in the evening to promote sleep.


Elderberry

SAMBUCUS NIGRA

MEDICINAL BENEFITS
The European elder tree’s dark purple berries are high in both vitamins and antioxidants. A well-known immune booster, elderberry is a common ingredient in cold and flu medicine.

HOW TO USE IT
Toxic unless cooked, both the elder tree’s flowers and berries can be used in cordials, jams and vinegars, fermented into wine or infused in gin. Using fresh or dried flowers, a herbal infusion can be made into a face wash to help calm acne and irritated skin.

HOW TO GROW IT
Source elder tree cuttings in spring from your area. Take cuttings which have both new and old growth from the plant’s stronger north-facing side. Cut on an angle and dip in honey to encourage roots. Plant into garden bed or pots, taking note to replicate the conditions of the mother plant where possible.

HOW TO HARVEST
Pick elderflower umbels without leaves and dry in the shade on wire racks. In humid conditions, dry overnight in a hot oven that has been turned off. Remove the stems and repeat the process using only the flowers. Harvest elderberries later in the season; you’ll know they are ripe when they’re almost black.

ELDERBERRY CORDIAL

INGREDIENTS
2 cups elderberries
2 cups rainwater
1.5 cups caster sugar
1/2 lemon, rind only

METHOD
Add elderberries and some of the rind to a saucepan, cover with water and bring to the boil. Reduce heat, cover with a lid and simmer gently for 30 minutes, skimming off any scum that forms on the surface as you go. Allow to cool, strain through a muslin cloth, gently pressing the berries through. Return liquid to saucepan, using enough heat to dissolve sugar and adding leftover lemon rind to taste. Pour into a sterilised jar and keep refrigerated. Add sparkling or tonic water to the cordial to make a refreshing summer drink.

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