Someone recently asked me for basic pointers on an herb garden that includes medicinal herbs. The thing is that many herbs are of course both culinary and medicinal. “Let thy food be thy medicine,”as Hippocrates said.So I will just mentally wander around my garden and try to organize the ones I see. But before I do that, I would just emphasize that most culinary herbs prefer well-drained soil and sun, with some sand and maybe some wood ashes added. Don’t add much nitrogen; it will make herbs grow lush and leafy but not as strong flavored.
Basil– Well, there are so many cool basils, for medicinal use as well- they call them Tulsi in India, and there are a lot of African ones as well. My favorite is Besobila, the pretty Ethiopian Holy Basil. I saved some seed out of some besobila I got for Ethiopian cooking- they use the dried seedheads. Smells a bit like pineapple and has a great compact growth habit. Wonderful for headaches, colds, vitality, and spiritual funks. But of course you have to have Genovese basil for pesto, and Purple for salads. Pinch the flowering spikes off and it will grow back double, like the Hydra in the legend of Hercules.
Rosemary is a must have, and very efficient, since they grow into monster fragrant bushes, feed bees, counteract the carcinogens in roasted meat, perfume the house while cooking, and counteract depression, especially in Mediterranean types. I hear they make a rosemary hair rinse for dark hair as well. Who knew?
Tarragon is hard to grow for me- the French kind, so I don’t know much about it, but a bit in a jar of vinegar infuses wonderfully and it is so good in pickles. It needs protection from gross physical violence and my cats are always digging it up. When we lived in France we had a giant bush. I guess it likes a cooler damper, more catless environment. The Russian kind is less delicious.
Catnip, speaking of cats, is tough as a boot, spreads readily, feeds the bees, amuses the felines, and makes a nice tea for whiny babies of all ages. It is very perennial. My husband hit it with the tiller and it made babies everywhere, like a starfish.
Parsley (Italian is tastier) has more vitamins than oranges, and should be used as a vegetable- giant handfuls chopped fresh into everything. You can’t beat it in Tabouleh. Also freshens the breath, says Nicolas Culpeper. It is biennial, so save seeds every other year and be sure to work some into the soil early, as it is not happy sprouting when it gets too hot and dry.
Sage is also great for tea, I think for the same reasons, and is of course good with meat. It is available in many different leaf colors and can grow to be quite a bush. My friend has a purple one that is three feet by five. It is definitely relaxing, good for digestion, and helps with unwanted sweating.
Thyme is sensitive about drainage, and is very pretty and delicious with lentils, chicken, salad, everything. There are a zillion kinds with different variations and flavors. Wonderful in tea if you are catching a chesty cold. It is quite antimicrobial. Plant in the front- it is short, some kinds even to the point of crawling between flagstones, and it won’t tolerate competition from other plants. English Thyme is softer and broader leafed, and Mediterranean types are more woody and resinous.
Mint is a water lover and quite invasive, so plant in a sunken pot where there is a leaky faucet or something. Frankly, I ripped mine out and stomped it into a ditch, where it flourishes and smells great when mowed. Great with meats, tabouleh, juleps, easy to tincture and make home made creme de menthe. Alcohol and oil infusions are great externally as liniment for injuries. I have spearmint; very sweet and a calming tea and face lotion, and mentha nigra, which is industrial strength. There are many types, from huge hairy Apple Mint to delicate creeping Pennyroyal, which is not for eating, especially if you could be pregnant.
Lemon Balm, also called Melissa, is a lemon scented mint looking perennial, very vigorous and spreading. The tea of the dried or fresh plant is delicate and lemony, and works very well for headaches. The crushed or chewed leaves are apparently a great remedy for cold sores and herpes lesions, perhaps antiviral. I have been given a facial with the tea, mixed with Rose Geranium.
Rose geranium is a tender perennial but you can overwinter it as a houseplant as it grows well in pots and roots easily from cuttings. It has small pink flowers and fuzzy hand shaped leaves that are redolent of roses. A Victorian favorite, it is a strong astringent and makes a nice face wash as well as lovely potpourri. I have heard of people laying a leaf flat in a cakepan before pouring on the dough.
Bergamot, or Monarda, is a spectacular plant, also mint family, prettiest I think in the scarlet variety. It has a feathery crown of flowers bursting out of a pincushion of bracts. It is the flavoring for Earl Grey tea. It is a good 3-4 feet tall, and perennial, but does clump neatly. The tea is calming on many levels, and probably antimicrobial, since there is something of oregano and marjoram in the fragrance.
I have regular Oregano and Greek Oregano. The regular has pinker flowers and very delicate stems, while the Greek has a more resinous flavor and thicker stems. It is of course great in Mediterranean food, but I also love it in tea. I find that it always makes my stomach better; probably the fragrant bitterness stimulates my liver.Oregano is about a foot tall so it can go in front of taller plants.
Fennel is very useful; Bronze is pretty and very tough in zone 7, but does not bulb up for finocchio the way white fennel does. They are perennial, although the most symmetrical bulbs come from the first season. We use fronds for garnish, bulbs braised and in salads, and we tincture seeds for liqueur. Also use seeds in baking and some Italian dishes. They are great for stomach ailments and as a digestive- are used as such in many countries. The pollen is the latest expensive spice I hear.
Coriander/cilantro is a threefer annual; the fresh leaves are delicious, especially in Asian and Latino food, and chelate heavy metals very well. The flowers are pretty, although the flavor becomes sweeter as soon as it bolts. The seeds are used in Indian cooking, like my yummy spicy Indian style venison curry and are great for digestion. It is very prone to bolt and then you are pretty much done with the fresh use stage, so we plant it in the fall for early spring use, outdoors and in the cold greenhouse. Keep it watered and plant it in the damper part of the garden, and not too sunny. Grow it from seed, although it takes a good 10 days to sprout.
Lavender can be used in cooking. I have had delicious lavender cookies and ice cream. I have used lavender infused almond oil to rub my feet- it was so relaxing I felt as if I’d had a nap. Just strip the flowers into the oil and let it sit on the back shelf of your car for a week during sunny weather, then pour it through a thin cloth and squeeze it out well. If there is any water on the bottom pour the oil off of it or it will spoil. Lavender is the ultimate aromatherapy for calming down when you are stressed out. It really does work. Important to grow it in sandy, well-drained soil and a sunny spot, or it will languish and die. You can grow it from seed although starts are not expensive. I have a friend who grows it all around a small stuccoed chapel they have built near their house. It is the loveliest thing.
Dill is another annual that bolts quickly. There are a few varieties that promise to bolt slowly, and a bronze kind that is beautiful. I use a lot of dill in my cucumber pickles, which are good for the intestinal flora, and the dill promotes digestion, so I make an effort to grow it, but it hates our hot summers. For me it does best in shade.
Chilies– You might not think of hot peppers as an herb, but they are pretty, edible, used for flavor and medicine- of course they belong in an herb garden. Chilies are tender perennials, -if you just have a few you can save time keeping them in pots. I am a chili freak and have a few that require a very long season, but your basic cayenne grows well as an annual. Warms the body and thins secretions, kills germs. Some are very tall and can need support. The ornamental ones are just as hot, and I have had a lot of fun with Baltimore variegated Fish Pepper, a deep purple Peruvian chili I call Purple Bullet which is nearly black, and tiny chiltepins.
Garlic is a great thing to grow- plant in September, harvest in June/July. I have a whole big blog post on that one. We have braids all over the house, although they are withering now. It also thins and heats the blood, and kills germs. People used to tape it to the bottom of feet for the flu. When you taste it in your mouth you are good. Some French friends used to grow it in the back of the herb border. They are stately until they turn yellowish when it is time to harvest. However I grow it in the regular garden.
Valerian is a pretty flower; tall and lacy. The root, which I gather in late winter when I am separating the clumps and preparing the beds, is great for sleep issues. We had a buddy who was sort of becoming a nuisance because he didn’t sleep, wandered around all hours, and was grumpy to people. I gave him a couple droppersfull of Valerian root tincture and he slept 16 hours. Everyone was delighted. Its sedative properties are good for the heart.
Motherwort, Leonurus cardiaca, (perennial) is good for the heart and relaxation, like a nice comforting hug from your mother. I planted in a shady acid patch of ground because I dug it up on a mountain in WV. It seems to like it. The lion-paw shaped leaves make a row with little pink flowers, which are followed by spiky seed heads. It’s about two feet tall but tends to sprawl. It is a valuable medicine plant so I don’t mind that it reseeds, but yes, it does.