Slideshow: Herbalism, the powers of healing plants

Discover the healing power of plants and their many capabilities.

English Yew hedge

Taxus baccata (English Yew hedge) is toxic and should never be ingested but it makes an effective hedge around a medicinal garden and was traditionally planted as a barrier to grazing animals. Photo/Image: John Glover


Achillea millefolium (Yarrow)Photo/Image: audreyjm529/Flickr

Pulmonaria officinalis

Pulmonaria officinalis Photo/Image: John Glover

UBC Physic Garden

David collects hips from Rosa canina in the UBC Physic GardenPhoto/Image: John Glover


Calendula officinalis (Marigold)Photo/Image: bc anna/Flickr

Lady’s Mantle

Alchemila xanthachflora (Lady’s Mantle)Photo/Image: sassy gardener/Flickr

Exploring herbalism and the therapeutic powers of healing plants

By David Tarrant

We gardeners are well aware of the therapeutic benefits of working with the soil and living plants.

Over the years I have been invited to speak at gardening events across the country and in particular remember taking clumps of perennials from the coast to Calgary and Edmonton in March (where it was still very much winter) to demonstrate their division and propagation. When the plants emerged from the box, members of the audience were not just excited by the new shoots, but also responded to the aroma of the garden soil. It triggered a feeling of well-being, and you should have seen the smiles on the faces of those gardeners!

Those of us who have grown plants for years certainly understand aromatherapy, as all plants exude a scent when pruned or deadheaded. And, growing up in the country as I did, I relive the smell of new-mown hay in farmers’ fields whenever I catch a whiff of a freshly cut lawn.

Some years ago a garden writer told me that when she suffered from writer’s block, she’d place a small vase of fresh herbs on her desk. When she gently touched them, the pleasing fragrance would help her relax and get her creative juices flowing once again.

And here’s just one more story. While taping Canadian Gardener we interviewed a landscape designer in East Vancouver who had a pot of Mentha requienii (Corsican mint) growing happily on her patio table. After a difficult day at work she would come home, brew herself a cup of tea and take it to the patio. While sitting there she would stroke the mint, whose strong peppermint scent would totally relax her.

Way back in the 17th century Jacob Bohme (1575–1624), a German shoemaker, had a mystical vision revealing the profound relationship between God the creator, man and plants – one that indicated to him that God had made plants to mirror the parts of the human body for which they are helpful. At age 25, he wrote Signatura Rerum, a book that triggered alchemists and herbalists throughout Europe to adopt and confirm The Doctrine of Signatures, a philosophy that endorsed the profound relationship of flower colours, leaf shapes and roots to the human anatomy.

Pulmonaria officinalis, or lungwort, is a good example of this relationship. Lungwort’s leaves are actually shaped like a lung and have spots that look like the sacs in our lungs, and a person diagnosed with a lung infection was administered a decoction made from its leaves. That is why the plant was named lungwort, for “wort” is an Old English word for plant or herb. Interestingly enough, this plant is still used in modern-day medicine.

Mandragora officinarum, or mandrake, which grows widely throughout the Mediterranean region of Europe, is perhaps the strongest illustration of this connection. A member of the tomato family, it has a large fleshy root complete with “arms and legs” that give it a human-like appearance. The mystique of this plant was such that it was believed if one dug it up, the plant would squeal and cause the person who had unearthed it to perish! Nevertheless, the root was thought to be a cure for every ailment and was highly prized, so history has it that a dog was leashed to the mandrake to pull the root from the ground.

We have no idea how many people were poisoned by experimenting with plant remedies, but many were cured, and today there is a strong movement toward herbalism. At this point I must say please do not experiment with homemade plant-based medicines. Always consult your physician or herbalist first.

We are fortunate to have a fine example of a Physic Garden at UBC Botanical Garden. It was opened in 1980 by Allen Paterson, who at the time was curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden in London.

UBC’s Physic Garden was designed by Justice and Webb Landscape Architects and based on a Dutch engraving from 1570. The garden is completely surrounded by a tall English yew hedge (Taxus baccata), a slow-growing evergreen with dark-green leaves and attractive fruits comprised of single green seeds with a red juicy aril surrounding each one. It was planted traditionally as a barrier to grazing animals, as the foliage is toxic to them. Native to Europe and North Africa, it is only hardy in zone 7 and up. The hedge at UBC is now high enough that after passing through the gate, one can’t see over it and is essentially in a garden room. The formal circular beds are filled with a wide array of plants. Sadly, in the early 90s the garden experienced a period of budget cuts and many of the original plants that came as seed from the Chelsea Physic Garden in London were lost and never replaced. However, it still has a fairly good array of medicinal herbs enhanced by interpretation labels with wonderful old remedies from the herbals of the 16th century.

One of my favourite labels is for Achillea millefolium, more commonly known as yarrow. Native to Europe and hardy to zone 3 and up, one of its best attributes is drought tolerance. John Gerard wrote in his herbal that “Yarrow grew in churchyards as a reproach to the dead who need never have come there had they taken their yarrow broth faithfully every day while living.” Because yarrow is such a common plant, it is often scorned by gardeners, but there are some very nice cultivars of it, especially the selection ‘Summer Pastels’. The colours range through lavender, purple, white, apricot, cream, rose and pink. They are easy to grow from seed and often bloom in the first year.

Alchemilla has long been associated with healing and alchemists. In fact, the name is from an Arabic word, alchemelych, which translates ­into “little magical one.” It is long believed that dew collected from alchemilla leaves has healing properties. I just love seeing the plant after a heavy dew or rain: the water droplets trapped in the leaves look like diamonds. Most people are familiar with Alchemilla mollis, or lady’s mantle, which is a fine mixed border plant. However in the Physic Garden at UBC we also have A. xanthochlora, which is much smaller, with deeply lobed leaves. This one was used to make a compress for healing wounds and reducing inflammation.

Sanguisorba minor, or salad burnet, is another attractive little clump-forming perennial, with delicate pinnate foliage that looks so attractive in the morning dew or after a light rain. As the common name suggests, a few of the leaflets added to a salad are quite tasty. Gerard also mentions in his herbal that “Burnet is a singular good herb for wounds, it stauncheth bleeding.”

The annual Calendula officinalis, or pot marigold, is a wonderful addition to a mixed border or healing garden. Not only are the bright orange flowers a joy to behold, but the petals and young leaves are edible and can be added to salads. The petals can be steamed with rice to give it a saffron colour, and while they don’t add a saffron flavour, they do have a pleasant, tangy flavour of their own. It is also believed that adding petals to creams and baths is good for cleansing, healing and softening the skin. 

Rosa canina is another useful plant that really brings back childhood memories for me, as it grew in the hedgerows all around our village. A moderately rangy shrub rose, it has the prettiest deep-pink buds that open to delicately scented, pinkish-white single flowers late May to early June. Later in the summer they form gorgeous, bright-red rosehips, which we gathered to make rosehip tea. The capsules were split open and the hairy seed removed. The outer skins were then washed and boiling water was poured over them to make the tea – which was delicious and, of course, full of vitamin C. Because R. canina has such a vigorous growth habit, it is also often used as a rootstock on which to graft hybrid roses.

Plantago major, better known as plantain, is a European native plant now widely distributed around the globe by early settlers who brought it with them. The leaves are astringent and very good at soothing scrapes. When I was young, whenever I grazed my knee or elbow, my grandmother would wash it, then pick some plantain leaves and bandage them over the graze. It was amazing how quickly I healed. While many would not consider this to be a desirable garden plant, a red-foliaged Plantago major ‘Atropurpurea’ often finds its way into garden centres. The one we used to grow in the Physic Garden was Plantago major ‘Rosularis’, which has attractive scapes terminating in small rosettes of leaves. Plant collectors who like unusual and interesting plants love this one.

Atropa belladonna, or deadly nightshade, is another beautiful plant in the Physic Garden, with gorgeous, shiny black berries. It got the name belladonna because young Italian women used to put the juice from the berries into their eyes to dilate their pupils, which they thought made them more attractive! Interestingly, ophthalmologists still use atropine to dilate the pupil for eye examinations. It’s a stunning plant, but should not be grown in a home garden where children and pets might sample it, as it remains one of the most poisonous plants in the western hemisphere.

Althea officinalis, or marsh mallow, is one of my all-time favourites. Extremely hardy, it is delightful and reminiscent of a smaller hollyhock, with pale-pink to off-white flowers that appear mid to late summer. There is a good clump in the Physic Garden and my friend, herbalist Elaine Stephens, has a magnificent one in her Vancouver garden. Throughout history, marsh mallow was administered as an aid to digestive problems and still is used medicinally. True to its common name, it was the original source for marshmallows, which are, of course, not made with mallow root today.

The Physic Garden represents the history of medicinal plants in the Western world. But of course aboriginal races on every continent have used plants for both nutrition and medicine since the dawn of time. Today, botanists worldwide are working with indigenous peoples to identify plants that are used medicinally. These collaborations also record invaluable knowledge and develop ways to produce the plants sustainably, so that they might continue to be used by future generations.

As gardeners, we have a role in preserving plants and their lore as well – by growing these fascinating plants in our gardens and passing on their stories to our children and grandchildren.

The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated:
Achillea millefolium (yarrow) – zone 3 • Alchemilla mollis (lady’s mantle) – zone 4 • Alchemilla xanthochlora – zone 4 • Althea officinalis (marsh mallow) – zone 3 • Calendula officinalis (pot marigold) – annual • Mandragora officinarum (mandrake) – zone 5 • Mentha requienii (Corsican mint) – zone 6 • Plantago major (plantain) – zone 4 • Pulmonaria officinalis (lungwort) – zone 6 • Rosa canina (rose) – zone 4 • Sanguisorba minor (salad burnet) – zone 4 • Taxus baccata (English yew) – zone 7

David Tarrant is a well-known gardening expert, author, and host of Spring, currently on HGTV.

This article is from the Fall 2007 issue of GardenWise magazine. For more photos of healing herbs and more Fall articles, please pick up a copy of the magazine or click here to subscribe.