Cultivate Your Own Herbal Medicine Cabinet
Updated: May 7
Learn to grow, harvest, and utilize medicinal herbs from your patio garden and house plants.
We have all felt it. That little nudge toward self-sustainability. Some of us have revived the lost art of breadmaking, while others took to hoarding things like toilet paper and gas. There is undeniably an impulse to rely less on the current social, economic and agricultural systems, and we feel it on a deep subconscious level.
This is not the time to prepare for the worst, but the earth is calling us to action. What better place to start than your own backyard, connecting with nature and learning how to care for yourself and your family in the "old ways." Now is the time to cultivate your own herbal medicine cabinet!
You can take the easier route, order dried herbs from an online source and be done with it, but where's the fun in that? The first place to start your natural medicine cabinet is in a flower pot, and here are two good reasons why.
You will know the source.
If you choose to order online, do your research first. We live in an age where pesticide use is at an all-time high. Plant species with genetics going back thousands of years now share space with lab-created (GMO) plants that have only been in the food chain for a couple of decades. When your herbs come from home, you can grow organic and harvest ethically.
You will add energy to the remedy.
Home cooking contains the secret ingredient of love, & that's why it tastes so damn delicious. When raising a plant, you give it tender care and attention. Even science has shown that plants respond to our contact. More on how plants are listening. The energy and connection you make with your plants will have an effect not only on the plant itself, but also on the medicine you co-create.
How to Garden Without a Green Thumb.
In 2017 I became a Master Gardener, graduating from the Washington State University extension program. While actively volunteering in the community, I heard the same mantra over and over - “I can't grow anything! I don't have a green thumb.”
Here's the thing, having a “Green Thumb” is a myth!
Everyone can be a plant mama or daddy. The knowledge is built in because our ancestor’s survival depended on it. I will briefly cover some tips for success below.
Soil is key. Plants get their vitamins from the earth, and it's helpful to view dirt as food. Do you eat cow tongue? Depending on your cultural and regional upbringing, you might, but cow’s tongue isn’t for everyone. The same goes for dirt food. Some plants come from aired desert regions with sandy soil, while other plants native to tropical rainforests prefer loamy and rich soil. Make sure your plants are fed the diet that is most compatible with their bio-makeup.
Location, Location, Location! Most plants have a specific light preference. Pay attention to your patio or windowsill and how many hours of sunshine it receives. The great thing about starting a potted garden is that you can move your plants if they look like they are struggling. Long, leggy stems on your plant indicate too little light. Whereas too much sun can produce burnt, crispy leaves.
Bring the right intention. Plants are aware. Speak or sing to your plants. (Yeah, really! If you want them to stay alive, you must recognize that they are sentient beings with feelings.) Visit them often to build a relationship.
Water as needed. If they look withered or droopy, poke your finger into the soil. If the dirt is soupy, you've overwatered your plant-give it a little break. If the soil is dry, flaky, or hard, then your plant is thirsty. (Be sure to add water gradually so you don’t flood the stem.) Water at the base of your plants instead of spraying them from overhead. With container gardens, you will need to water more often than in-ground plantings.
Above all, do not take failure personally. Insects, diseases, and environmental factors also have an impact on your plant’s health, not just you. In time, you will become a natural plant whisperer.
Note: I have also included guidelines for each medicinal plant’s soil, light, and water needs below. This time of year, I recommend buying plant starts as opposed to seeds. (In most regions in the United States, seeds need to be sown in late winter - early spring.)
“A garden is a delight to the eye and a solace for the soul.” ~Saadi
Disclaimer: The following discussion on the medicinal uses of plants is intended for informational purposes only. You will need to consult your healthcare provider for possible drug/herb interactions (or counter-reactions) and take safety precautions for underlying health conditions, potential allergens, and/or pregnancy-breastfeeding mothers.
Information contained in this post is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prescribe. Consult with your healthcare physician regarding your specific health concerns. Dosage and frequency of use will need to be prescribed by a qualified health professional trained in holistic medicine and/or a clinical herbalist.
Stocking Your Herbal Medicine Cabinet
Check with your local Master Gardener's extension office and local plant nurseries on where you can obtain your plants. You can also go online for plant sellers that ship plants to your home. (Just a reminder, do your research first.)
Important: Use Latin Names when searching for plant starts. Common names can sometimes be confusing… For example, Lemon Verbena is not the same as Lemon Balm.
Spring is an excellent time to begin gardening. Here is how to get started today!
Plant: Aloe (Aloe vera; A. barbadensis)
Where it needs to grow: A sunny windowsill will make your Aloe very happy. Use a well-drained potting mix made for cacti and succulents. This soil will usually have perlite, chunks of bark, and lava rock.
Water when the soil is dry, taking extra care to avoid overwatering.
When to harvest: Wait for the plant to mature, and when the leaves attain a rosy tinge, it is ripe. Cut the leaf using a clean, sharp knife as close to the trunk as possible. Harvest only the upper, large foliage and be careful not to over-harvest the plant.
Important: After removing the leaf, hold the plant cut-side down and allow the yellowish sap to run out. Otherwise, your aloe gel will be very bitter. Lay the leaf flat on a cutting board and remove the serrated edges with your knife. “Filet” the top layer of the harden-green casing to expose the translucent flesh beneath. Collect the gel in a cheesecloth or mesh strainer and give it a quick rinse.
General Precautions: Aloe can affect blood sugar when used internally, and individuals with sensitive digestive issues may experience stomach cramps.
What it is used for: Taken internally, Aloe Vera gel can bring heartburn relief, reduce bleeding/swollen gums, and ease constipation. Used externally on the skin, Aloe soothes sunburns, minor scrapes and is a good surface-acne treatment.
How it is applied: The translucent gel can be taken internally by adding it to your favorite smoothie recipe (Use sparingly, one or two tablespoons is fine- do not exceed 5 Tbsp. per day.) Aloe can also be rubbed into the gums or mixed with water to make a mouthwash. The fresh gel is generally safe to apply directly to the skin. (Do not apply to deep wounds.)
Plant: Spilanthes (Acmella oleracea, Asteraceae)
Where it needs to grow: Outdoors in full sun after all danger of frost has passed. The container will need to be 18 inches across and filled with well-drained soil rich in organic matter to help retain moisture. It does not tollerate drought, so keep the soil moist, but do not overwater. Protect it from slugs if you live in a mild-wet climate.
When to harvest: Cut the flowers with a clean knife right before the peak of flowering when the blossoms elongate into a cone shape. Dry the flowerheads on a mesh screen with proper airflow.
General Precautions: If eaten raw, it will produce excess saliva and may have a numbing effect. Not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women.
What it is used for: Spilanthes is also known as the toothache plant. It is used in treating dental problems such as swelling gums and mouth sores. It also has immune-boosting qualities and can be administered for colds, flu, and earaches.
How it is applied: As tea, Spilanthes creates a tingling sensation in the mouth. Pour 8 ounces of boiling water over 2 dried flowerheads (about 1 tablespoon), cover and steep for 10-15 minutes.
Plant: Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
Where it needs to grow: Calendula would like to live on your patio after the last frost, where it can get plenty of sunshine. However, it can tolerate a little afternoon shade. The pot will need to be a minimum width of 1-2 feet. Use well-drained soil, loamy and organic. (A three-way gardener mix would be great.)
Water when the soil feels dry. This plant is somewhat drought tolerant.
When to harvest: Calendula blooms from Spring until the frost. Harvest the blossoms when they are half-open in the morning by snipping off the flower head at the top of the stalk. Spread them onto a mesh screen, where the blossoms will have ventilation above & below. (Don’t put your harvest in the hot sun or expose it to direct heat.) The petals will be fragile when they are completely dry in a few days.
General Precautions: Calendula is Not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding mothers. This plant may cause an allergic reaction in some individuals. Consult your physician.
What it is used for: Taken internally, Calendula aids digestion & heartburn. Applied externally to the skin, Calendula soothes eczema, sunburns, bug bites, diaper rash, and minor cuts or scrapes.
How it is applied: For Calendula tea, add one tablespoon of dried petals to one cup of water, bring to a soft boil. Remove from heat and steep for about 10 minutes. For topical use, you will need to make a salve using the dried petals to create infused oil (Coconut or jojoba is best) and combine with beeswax.
Plant: Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
Where it needs to grow: Plant in a large pot with rich, organic soil. Place in full sun; unless you live in a hot climate, then it may be happier in partial shade. Chamomile is drought tolerant; however, watering regularly will allow your plant to bloom longer.
When to harvest: With a sharp knife, cut off the flower head when the petals are full and lay flat around the center of the flower. They can be dried on a mesh screen with adequate airflow out of direct sunlight. Or the flower head can be used fresh.
General Precautions: Do not consume if you have an allergy to the daisy family, ragweed, or chrysanthemums. Chamomile is not recommended for people with liver or kidney disease.
What it is used for: Insomnia, digestive health, it may lower blood sugar, support pancreas health, and lowers blood pressure.
How it is applied: Chamomile tea can be made with 2 teaspoons of fresh flowers or 1 teaspoon of dried flowers. Bring 8 oz of water to a simmer, then steep flowers for 5 to 7 minutes.
Plant: Lemon Verbena (Aloysia citrodora)
Where it needs to grow: Plant in a large container with rich, loamy soil. Lemon Verbena needs full sun and to be watered daily. A lack of water will cause stress to the plant, and it will lose leaves and become infested with insects. Keep outdoors until the frost, then store inside over winter. (Continue to water the plant while it is dormant.)
When to harvest: You can harvest the leaves at any time from mid-summer to fall. Use a clean, sharp knife to cut back the branches rather than plucking the leaves. Tie branches in a bundle and hang upside down until fully dried if you are not using fresh leaves for your remedy.
General Precautions: It is toxic to cats and dogs. Be sure to keep it away from your pets. Not for pregnancy or breastfeeding mothers.
What it is used for: Digestive disorders, joint pain, asthma, colds, and as a sleep aid.
How it is applied: Lemon Verbena can be used fresh or dried. For a herbal infusion, steep 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon verbena leaves or 1 teaspoon of dried leaves in boiling water for 5 minutes and drink.
Plant: Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus, Poaceae)
Where it needs to grow: Plant Lemongrass in a large pot 2 foot wide & place in full sun with fast-draining soil. Consider adding perlite or bark to your soil mix.
When to harvest: When the grass is about 1 foot tall, cut a stalk with a 1/4-inch thickness. Make the cut as close to the ground as possible to utilize the tender base of the stem. Remove the woody outer layer and leaves.
General Precautions: May cause skin irritation when harvesting. It can be a diuretic, causing you to urinate more often. Not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding mothers or if you have low heart rate, low potassium levels.
What it is used for: Headaches, anxiety, indigestion, insomnia, and colds.
How it is applied: Use the bottom 4 inches of the tender center from the stalk of grass and cover with 8 ounces of boiling water, steeping the tea for about 5 minutes.
Plant: White Sage (Salvia apiana, Lamiaceae)
Where it needs to grow: Sage prefers warm, dry conditions. Use a medium-size pot placed in full sun, and mix perlite in with your soil. Be careful to avoid overwatering as it will cause rot. You may overwinter sage in a greenhouse or south-facing windowsill.
When to harvest: Cut stems shortly before the plant blooms. Bundle together and hang upside down for drying. Fresh leaves can also be used in tea.
General Precautions: Sage contains thujone, which can increase your heart rate cause vomiting and mental confusion in high doses. Sage may also cause excess urination. Not for pregnancy or breastfeeding mothers.
What it is used for: Sage leaves are consumed in tea form for diarrhea, colds, sore throat, and menopausal symptoms.
How it is applied: Sage leaves can be used as steam inhalation therapy to help with congestion and sinus issues. Dried or fresh leaves can be taken internally in the form of tea. Also, sage tea can be used topically once it cools on shallow wounds and rashes. Make the tea with 2 teaspoons of fresh sage leaves or 1 teaspoon of dried leaves steeped in 8 ounces of hot-simmering water (not boiling) for 10-15 minutes.
Plant: Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium L.)
Where it needs to grow: Feverfew will flourish in outdoor containers in a sunny location. They prefer loamy, well-drained soil; an organic potting mix will work fine. Feverfew dislikes dry conditions, water daily in the summer months.
When to harvest: In early to mid-summer, before it starts flowering, harvest no more than 1/3rd of the plant. Using a clean knife, cutting the healthy foliage leaving the bottom 2/3rds of the plant intact. Tie the stalks together with string and hang upside down to air dry in a dark place for about a week.
General Precautions: Feverfew may affect blood-thinning medications. It can cause an allergic reaction in individuals with sensitivities to daisies, marigolds, or chrysanthemums.
What it is used for: Migraine headaches, toothaches, fever, infertility/menstrual cramps.
How it is applied: Feverfew is administered as tea. Boil 8 ounces of water and steep 1 teaspoon dried leaves for 10 minutes.
Reminder: Before using any herbs, check for appropriate dosage, drug interactions, and contraindications. Information contained in this post is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prescribe. Consult with your healthcare physician regarding your specific health concerns.
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