We love the convenience of running to the drug store to buy pills for just about anything, but it wasn’t that long ago that people mostly relied on herb gardens to prevent and treat health issues. Of course we have to tell you to ask your doctor before taking any of the advice below, and that none of it has been approved by the FDA. But there are several fool-proof herbs that are super easy to grow and, plus, super easy to USE.
This discussion couldn’t start anywhere but with that most ubiquitous of skin treatments: Aloe. Many species of aloe have medicinal qualities but Aloe vera is generally the one used, perhaps because it grows quickly. Aloe vera is super happy in a clay pot on the front steps, or anywhere it will get a half day of sun. Splash it with water once every week or two and maybe give it a little organic fertilizer now and then. Aloe can also grow happily in the ground, but if it’s hit by frost it will develop ugly scars, so put it in a protected spot.
Inside the thick leaves is a translucent gel-like flesh. To use, break off a piece of leaf, split it open, and use a spoon to scrape out the flesh. Mash the pulp or put it in a blender for a second. Spread the resulting goo anywhere your skin needs some soothing–especially on sunburn. Freeze any leftovers in an ice cube tray to use later. Here’s another website with a lot more information about how to use Aloe.
Next up is one of my favorite herbs for a variety of reasons: Comfrey. This powerhouse herb is loved by permaculture gardeners because its deep roots bring micronutrients up and make them accessible to plants near the surface. Comfrey leaves added to compost bins help to activate microbial activity and get things to break down faster. Finally, my favorite use is to speed up heal time for cuts and scratches–it can seem miraculously fast. In fact, it’s important to make sure that a wound isn’t infected if you want to use comfrey, because you could end up trapping that infection under freshly-healed skin. For this reason I like to use an antimicrobial in combination with comfrey (see below)
As a gardener who doesn’t like to wear gloves, you can imagine I’m pretty hard on my hands. Besides the usual encounters with rose thorns and sharp rocks, sometimes I’ll slip with my pruning shears and break the skin. These little wounds are where comfrey shines. I take a little (square centimeter) piece of leaf, mince it finely, and grind it with a spoon that has a dab of raw honey (honey is naturally antimicrobial). The idea is to bruise the leaf and make a slightly-moistened paste that you can press over the wound and put a bandage over to hold it in place.
The plants listed below are ones that are super easy to grow and that I love to pick fresh from the garden and plop into a glass of hot water for some herbal tea. The flavors of tea from fresh herbs is so much more vibrant than tea from old dried-out leaves in a tea bag. Many of them are reputed to have mild stabilizing effects on mood, digestion and other body systems, and general well-being. I buy it!
Make sure the soil where you grow them is free of chemicals, and if you live in an urban area, give them a rinse to clean off air-born pollutants that may have settled. Play around with different combinations and you’ll figure out the proportions, and you’ll end up with a favorite tea that you couldn’t buy at the store for a million bucks. The longer you let the herbs steep, the more intense the flavor and the more medicinal components are extracted. You can always dilute with extra water if it becomes too strong-tasting.
Basil: An unlikely choice, you might think, but it’s actually lovely to add a bit of pungency or spice to a tea that’s otherwise mellow. Try Thai Basil for a spicy lift, or subtler Genovese types. Tulsi, known as Holy Basil and a relative of our culinary types, has been used as a tea for ages and is considered to be quite medicinal. Tulsi hasn’t been as domesticated, so isn’t quite as quick and robust to grow as many horticultural varieties, but it’s not difficult either. At the end of summer, harvest and dry whatever basil is left in your garden because winter will be the end of this tropical annual.
Catnip: Now not just for cats. Catnip has a gentle flavor that, while distinctive, is hard to describe. I think it tastes like a muddied mix of other herbal flavors, but in a good way. Easy to grow, has great flowers that bees love. Some varieties have more effect on cats than others. Catnip is said to have mild psychotropic effects on humans as well, but I think you’d have to consume a lot of it.
Chamomile: I don’t actually use this one. It’s not super easy to grow in our dry West Coast summers, and as an ingredient in tea it has more of a sedating effect than I usually want. But if you have trouble sleeping, go for it.
Lavender: Not everyone is a fan of lavender, and I don’t necessarily want to drink Lavender Tea, but some lavender added to a blend can be just lovely. The flowers are the part traditionally used to impart the plant’s signature fragrance, but leaves work too. A little goes a long way.
Lemon Balm: This mint relative doesn’t spread from the roots invasively like mint, but will pop up from seed here and there. I consider it a short-lived perennial so let a few seedlings take hold. You can cut it back hard during the growing season and it will bounce back with new lime-green lemon-infused leaves. Bold and bright in flavor and not particularly nuanced, so a little goes a long way and it tastes better with some other more bitter or darker-flavored herbs.
Lemon Verbena: If you want to make a lot of tea, this plant will keep you in business. It grows into a shrub, up to 8-10′ tall if happy (it likes moderate but regular irrigation). The leaves have a powerful lemon scent and are easily dried to get you through the winter when this and most other herbs are dormant.
Mint: Of course mint is on this list. And you know about mint. So what I can tell you that might be new is how many different kinds of mint there are, each with a slight (sometimes significant) variation in flavor from the spearmint or peppermint in your tea bag from Trader Joe’s. There are mints with spicy hints like Chocolate and Bergamot, citrus-y mints like Orange and Grapefruit, fruity mints like Apple, and lots of variants of Plain Old mint. Moroccan or Persian mint has small, deep green leaves and makes a slightly milder tea and is often mixed with some green tea, while Spearmint or Peppermint will bowl you over with mint flavor and would drown out mild-flavored ingredients. And remember–grow mint in pots and don’t let them dry out too much. In our bay area climate many mints will have some growth year-round and it really makes such a difference to have it fresh instead of dried.
Pineapple Sage: The shade-tolerant Salvia elegans is usually grown for its gaudy red flowers in fall and winter, but the leaves have a wonderful sweet fruity flavor, nothing at all like culinary sage (Salvia officinalis). Look for fresher leaves on new growth.
Roses: If your rose is fragrant, and grown organically, try pulling off some petals and adding them to your tea. Start with just a few and adjust to taste.
Thyme: In tea!? Yup! It adds an earthiness and complexity that can be missing from plain old mint tea. Just a sprig is all you need. Plus, thyme is evergreen so you can go out and harvest year-round. No need to harvest and dry to save for later.
So many herbs make great contributions to tea; I’ve just listed those that are the easiest to grow and combine well together. It’s probably wise to research a new herb you want to try, if you aren’t sure about it. Some, like yarrow which is a blood thinner, have medicinal properties that you want to be careful with.