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Grow your own medicine

Reading time: 9 minutes

Herbalist Kat Maier shares a trio of her favorite easy-to-grow herbs for year-round health and healing

If you’re looking to begin a home herbal apothecary, these multipurpose plants are a great place to start. An essential part of my own herbal practice, these hardy herbs grow well in a range of conditions and climates and are safe and reliable with a huge range of applications.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis)

Common names: marigold, pot marigold, golds
Part used: flower

Indispensable in any herb garden, calendula is one of the easiest plants to grow from seed.

Supply plenty of sunshine and good drainage, and this plant will regale you with a multitude of radiant yellow flowers for three seasons.

The characteristic medicinal resin is found at the base of the flowers as well as in the stems.

Uses

Best known as a wound healer, calendula is especially good for burns, promoting healing and helping to prevent scar formation.1 It’s also employed to bring out eruptive diseases such as measles and chicken pox.

Thanks to its antifungal properties, it’s effective at treating fungal conditions like thrush, too.2

Indications

Fevers. A hot infusion serves as a mild diaphoretic (inducing sweating) to release internal heat.

Skin. Use as an external wash and infusion to shorten the duration of eruptive diseases or fungal infections. Combine with chickweed in a soothing wash for diaper rash.

Sinuses. Use as an infusion to clear sinuses.

Digestive system. Calendula works beautifully for healing ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease and any inflammation from toxicity or infection. Its antibacterial action helps clear Helicobacter pylori (a bacterium that causes gastric ulcers).

Immune system. The mucopolysaccharides in calendula stimulate immune function.3

Vaginal/cervical health. The herb makes a superb wash or douche for vaginitis (inflammation of the vagina), whether bacterial or fungal.

Trauma. I often use calendula—in tea, tincture or salve form—for psychological wounds as well as physical ones.

Breasts. The herb is excellent topically as well as internally for mastitis.

Lymphatic system. This is where calendula really shines—moving stagnant lymph material. It’s useful for most infections where there are swollen nodes, especially in the groin and under the armpit.

Wounds. Calendula is particularly useful for moist, purulent (pus-containing) wounds.4

Habitat and harvest

You can direct-seed (plant straight into your garden soil) calendula or start seedlings in a greenhouse or on a sunny windowsill indoors. To promote continued flower production, harvest blossoms often and deadhead flowers that have begun to go to seed.

Wait to harvest until all the morning dew has evaporated from plant surfaces, because calendula needs special attention when drying. Harvest with the green bases of the flowers intact because the flower base is where the resinous medicine resides.

Lay each flower facedown on a screen or cloth and make sure there is good ventilation. The resin will hold on to moisture, so make sure flowers are completely dry.

Preparations

Infusion. This is the most nutritious form to prepare—useful for recovering from illness or medical treatment. See my previous article, ‘Herbal Healing From Your Kitchen,’ for how to prepare an infusion.

Tincture. Fresh flower (1:2, 95 percent alcohol) or dried flower (1:6, 70 percent alcohol). See below for how to prepare a tincture.

Oil. See below for how to make an oil. The oil can then be made into a healing salve by mixing it with beeswax (use 1 tablespoon grated wax per fluid ounce of oil and warm in a pan to mix).

Note: Use a wash rather than an oil when there is heat in a wound, because oil can trap the heat and prolong or even aggravate the situation.

Sitz bath / wound wash / douche. Make a strong infusion and apply as needed.

Contraindications

Not safe for internal use during pregnancy. As a member of the Aster family, it might cause allergic reactions.

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Common names: chicken wort, starweed
Parts used: aerial parts

Among the most prolific of weeds, chickweed is tender yet mighty. Early on in my practice, a young couple brought their infant to me for help with impetigo, a serious skin infection caused by Streptococcus bacteria. The rash on the infant’s neck was red and hot, oozing infectious material.

The couple were from a strict Mennonite order, so conventional medicine was not an option. I led them to my garden and showed them what chickweed looked like. We harvested handfuls, and I instructed them in how to apply a compress.

I asked them to bring the child back the following day. The baby’s skin had changed dramatically overnight. It was still slightly red, but the oozing, angry nature of the infection had passed.

Uses

Chickweed can clear fluid from various sites while moistening tissue at the same time. How?

One explanation is that chickweed stimulates metabolism—it promotes the breakdown of fats, fluids and lymph material, which helps the body move them and stay fluid. Chickweed is also soothing because of the demulcent or mucilaginous sugars present in its leaves.

I have worked with chickweed tincture or tea to shrink benign tumors, cysts and boils. It’s excellent for treating benign breast lumps.

Indications

Head. As a tea or a compress, chickweed can clear a headache due to fever or too much sun on a summer day.

Eyes. Compresses or poultices clear pinkeye remarkably quickly. Keep in mind that pinkeye is highly contagious. Dip one corner of a washcloth into a chickweed infusion and place it over the eye for five to 10 minutes.

Next, dip a second corner into the infusion and place it over the eye. This keeps the tea from becoming contaminated. Continue until all four corners are used, and then place the used washcloth in the laundry.

Skin. A wash or salve will cool hot, angry, itchy skin conditions such as eczema, impetigo, poison ivy, heat rashes and burns.

Bladder. Chickweed is soothing for hot bladder infections and inflammation from interstitial cystitis.

Liver/gallbladder. As a wild food or freshly juiced, chickweed can cool livers that are “hot” due to too much alcohol consumption or due to taking pharmaceuticals that tend to overwork the liver.

Menopause. The herb is an excellent remedy for menopausal hot flashes as well as dry skin.

Respiratory system. It’s useful for bronchitis, asthma and bronchial infections, especially in children, as it breaks up congestion.

Thyroid. By stimulating metabolism, chickweed counters the effects of an underactive thyroid.

Breasts/uterus. Chickweed tincture has been most effective in moving stagnation in breast tissue, benign cysts or fibroids when combined with other lymphatic decongestants such as violet (Viola spp.) or pokeroot (Phytolacca americana).

Habitat and harvest

Plant a vegetable garden, and you’ll have more chickweed than you will ever need. Another favorite place to harvest this nourishing medicine is in a greenhouse during the winter. Chickweed sprawls along the ground and prefers damp, shady places.

When you harvest, it’s easiest to gather the stems as a bundle, then snip the bounty at the base as one intact mat.

Preparations

Infusion. Fresh or freshly dried is preferred.

Tincture. Fresh plant (1:2, 60 percent alcohol) or freshly dried (1:5, 40 percent alcohol). To break up stagnation, you may need up to 1 teaspoon three times a day.

Oil. Best extracted from freshly dried plants.

Poultice/compress. Use fresh plant material for a poultice, or a strong infusion for a compress.

Contraindications

Chickweed is safe for general consumption.

Nettle (Urtica dioica, U. urens)

Common names: common nettle, stinging nettle, wood nettle
Parts used: leaf, seed, root

Nettle is one of the most useful plants to grow because it is a perennial food and medicine of great nutritional value.

Analysis of nettle powder shows it’s three times richer in protein than rice, barley and wheat.5 The concentration of available amino acids in nettle makes it an excellent herbal brew for vegans and vegetarians. It’s also high in chlorophyll as well as iron and a host of other minerals.

Uses

I have used nettle topically (fresh sting) for over 20 years for neuropathy (a nerve condition that can lead to pain, numbness and weakness in the body) and joint pain from overuse injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

As a tonic, it’s supreme for mineralizing the body, balancing blood sugar, calming allergies, lifting low blood pressure and restoring lost kidney function.

Indications for leaf

Allergies. It’s thought that nettle relieves allergies by decreasing the histaminic reaction set off by contact with pollens. If using the infusion for prevention, it is best to start drinking 1 quart per day at least a month before allergy season.

General vitality. A nutritional powerhouse, nettle is a wonderful source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper, iron, phosphorus, chromium, amino acids, B complex vitamins and carotenes measured as vitamin A.

Joints. Nettle, especially in tincture form, is useful for inflammatory joint pain.6

Bones. Due to high calcium and magnesium content, regular use of nettle can help treat osteoporosis or bone injuries.

Pregnancy. Nettle is useful during pregnancy to increase iron levels. It makes an excellent blood-building syrup.

Indications for root

Prostate. Nettle root is effective in decreasing inflammation of benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH) when combined with other herbs.7 I have used it with great success with saw palmetto (Serenoa serulata), sage leaf (Salvia officinalis) and mullein (Verbascum thapsus) root.

Indications for seed

Kidneys. Nettle seeds are restorative for the kidneys and also helpful for adrenal exhaustion.

Mental health. Helps with mental clarity and increasing alertness.

Habitat and harvest

All parts of the plant have great merit. Nettle loves to grow near water, but I have successfully grown it in almost all settings and soil conditions. The first spring greens are the tastiest and most medicinal.

The seeds are worth the time and effort it takes to harvest them. It is best to harvest when the seeds have become heavy enough to make the stalk bend over, but be sure to pick while they are green and before they turn gray or black.

Wear gloves when harvesting to avoid getting stung. Contact with the seeds can also cause itching.

Preparations

Infusion. Dried leaves are most nutritive, but fresh leaves, handled with gloves, can also be used. Drink 1 quart a day for maximum nutritional value.

Tincture. Fresh plant (1:2, 75 percent alcohol) or dried (1:5, 50 percent alcohol). Tincture of leaves is the best form for allergies and joint pain. Fresh root tincture is specific for BPH. For seeds, prepare a tincture with freshly dried seeds (1:5, 50 percent alcohol); this tincture can be deeply nourishing to adrenals in small doses of 10–20 drops.

Food. Fresh plants need to be steamed or cooked to remove sting from leaves, unless blending in a blender at high speeds to make nettle pesto.

Nettle seed. Freshly dried—start low to check for sensitivities. Take ½ teaspoon up to 1 tablespoon twice a day mixed or sprinkled on a small amount of food.

Contraindications

Dried plants can still have the power to sting, so be careful when handling freshly dried leaves. Some people report that the seeds are energizing and stimulating, so if you are starting out, take them in the morning so you can see your individual response.

How to make an herbal oil

This is a quick method to make an oil using fresh plant material.

  1. Harvest plants after the dew has evaporated, preferably following a couple of sunny days. Let the plant material wilt for a day or two to expire excess fluid.
  2. Place the plant material in a slow cooker or double boiler.
  3. Cover the plant material with oil.
  4. Heat the oil and plant material gently for 48 hours; this allows water to evaporate from the plant tissues. Oil should not be heated at temperatures higher than 110°F. Another option is to use a yogurt maker, leaving the heat on for a week (yogurt maker temperature is 110°F).
  5. Press fresh plant material through a cheesecloth or strainer.
  6. Allow the oil to sit in a closed container for a couple of days. Any water that is still present will separate to the bottom of the container.
  7. Carefully pour off the oil into a separate container, leaving the water behind. Store the oil in a cool, dry place. Oils will keep for around one year and can be refrigerated for safekeeping.

How to make an herbal tincture

This is a simple way to make a tincture using fresh plant material that doesn’t require precise measuring. I recommend using 95 percent alcohol if possible due to the high water content of fresh plants. For most home apothecaries, vodka and brandy are the alcohols of choice.

  1. Fill a glass container to an inch below the rim with chopped fresh flowers or leaves. For fresh roots, barks and seeds, chop well and fill jar half full of alcohol.
  2. Cover the herb with alcohol.
  3. If a blender is available, transfer the herb/alcohol mixture to a blender and blend until all plant material is saturated with alcohol.
  4. If a blender is not available, use a chopstick or similar implement to release air bubbles trapped in the alcohol. Top off if needed.
  5. Cap tightly and shake.
  6. The next day, top off the container with more alcohol if needed. (Sometimes the plant material will absorb alcohol.) To prevent spoilage, it is important that no air is in the container.
  7. Let the container sit out on the counter, out of direct sunlight, for 4 to 6 weeks and shake it every other day.
  8. Decant or pour off liquid through a strainer lined with cheesecloth. When all the liquid has dripped through, take up the cheesecloth with the plant material in it and wring it to get the last of the liquid. This is some of the best medicine, as it was in very close contact with the plant tissues.
  9. Label the container, cap it tightly and store it in a cool, dark place.

Weight-to-volume tincturing

To make tinctures, herbalists use the weight-to-volume ratio, commonly 1:2 when working with fresh herbs and 1:5 for dried herbs. It’s a comparison of the weight of plant material (first number) to the volume of menstruum (the solvent used for the extraction, e.g. alcohol) used. Whatever the weight of your herb, multiply that by the right side of the ratio to determine how much menstruum to use.

Adapted from Kat Maier’s recent book Energetic Herbalism: A Guide to Sacred Plant Traditions Integrating Elements of Vitalism, Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine with permission from the publisher (Chelsea Green, 2022)

References
 
  1. Finley Ellingwood, American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy (Eclectic Medical Publications, 1994 reprint of 1919 original), 390
  2. Ann McIntyre, Flower Power: Flower Remedies for Healing Body and Soul through Herbalism, Homeopathy, Aromatherapy and Flower Essences (Henry Holt, 1996); Planta Medica, 1991; 57(3): 250–53
  3. J Ethnopharmacol, 2000; 72(1–2): 167–72
  4. Pharm Pharmacol Int J, 2018; 6(2): 149–55
  5. Food Sci Nutr, 2015; 4(1): 119–24
  6. Prog Biophys Mol Biol, 2020; 150: 67–77
  7. Herbalgram, 2006; 72: 20–21; Simon Mills and Kerry Bone, Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine (Churchill Livingston, 2000), 360
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