The garden pharmacy

Expert advice on creating a medicinal herb garden, plus a simple recipe for a soothing herbal salve.

Credit: Terry Guscott

A master herbalist offers expert advice on creating a medicinal herb garden, plus her own simple recipe for a soothing herbal salve

Many people think of the herb garden as simply an extension of the kitchen. Culinary herbs, such as parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, basil, fennel, oregano and garlic, are so well known for their uses in cooking that their health benefits are often completely overlooked. However, these and most other kitchen herbs are potent healing plants, and they make up only a small fraction of the amazing array of medicinal plants that will grow well in West Coast gardens.

As an herbalist and keen gardener, I am interested in seeing just how many of them I can cram into my city garden, while also trying to create a serene and tranquil environment for people, animals and plants alike. This means incorporating herbal trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals into a small space, and expecting them to live together in relative harmony.

At times it’s a wild ride. One friend declared that, in his opinion, I don’t really take care of my plants at all. “What you do,” he said, “is plunk them into the ground and leave them to their own devices. Sink or swim, it’s up to them.”

He’s probably right. Adhering to the gardener’s mantra of “right place, right plant,” I do my best to get it right when I plant. This saves so much hassle down the road. Sun lovers for the sunny spots, shade lovers in the shade, layering of trees, shrubs and ground- covers in woodland areas, edible herbs near the kitchen, scented herbs close to walkways, and appropriate bed preparation: these are some of the basic rules. If plants are in the right place, they thrive. If not, they don’t.

In this respect, herbs are no different from other plants in the garden. In fact, they have a huge advantage over most fancy cultivars. As species plants, they have not been subjected to laboratory crossbreeding and are only one step away from the wild. The workhorses of the horticultural world, most herbs have developed mechanisms that make them pest and disease resistant. They do best if left to fend for themselves, rather than being pampered.

Their uses, benefits and hazards vary enormously. Some herbs can be eaten in large quantities as food, some are safe medicines for everyone, including babies and small children, but others can be lethal in even very small doses. Thus, it is important to be well informed on all the uses and potential misuses of any of the herbs you may want to grow.

How to get started?

First, of course, you will want to grow the key culinary herbs, and explore their health benefits. There’s nutrient-rich parsley (Petroselinum crispum); sage (Salvia officinalis) for sore throats and hot flashes; rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) to stimulate circulation and lift the spirits; thyme (Thymus vulgaris) as a powerful antiseptic; basil (Ocimum basilicum) as a warming tonic; fennel seeds (Foeniculum vulgare) as an anti-flatulent; oregano (Origanum vulgare) for its antimicrobial action; and garlic (Allium sativum) as one of the best antibiotics around.

Once you explore beyond these garden basics, a bewildering array of plants awaits you. At this point it makes sense to look at your interests and needs, and create a garden with a particular focus.

For instance, an herb garden for children might include pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis) for healing burns, cuts and bruises; chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile and Matricaria recutita) for sleep; catnip (Nepeta cataria) to reduce a fever; fennel seeds to settle a baby’s digestion; and marshmallow roots (Althaea officinalis) for making real marshmallows!

How about a garden for women? This could include the gorgeous, fall-blooming chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) to help balance hormones; spring-flowering trillium (Trillium spp.) for excessive menstrual bleeding; fragrant lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) to help with sleep; and chartreuse-flowered lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) to tone uterine tissue.

When cold and flu season hits, what could be better than your own fresh thyme, garlic, oregano and sage, plus echinacea (Echinacea purpurea and E. angustifolia) to stimulate the immune system, and peppermint (Mentha x piperita) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium) to make you sweat. If you are too sick to make it into the garden, one of the best cold and flu remedies – ginger tea – comes straight from the kitchen cupboard. Just simmer freshly grated ginger root in water, strain and add lemon and honey. It’s delicious and effective, and also excellent for morning sickness, travel sickness and medication-induced nausea.

When it comes to skin and hair care, the garden is chock-full of tonics and rejuvenators. Try a tea of maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) to make dark hair shine, chamomile tea for blonde tresses, or wild nettle (Urtica dioica) to bring life back to even the most undernourished head of hair. You can tighten and stimulate facial skin with crushed, sun-ripened strawberries, and calm and soothe it with chamomile tea.

The possibilities are endless. I hope you enjoy creating your own herbal paradise. In the meantime, here is an herbal salve recipe made from “weeds” that might amaze you with its power to heal.

The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated: Achillea millefolium – zone 3 • Adiantum pedatum – zone 3 • Alchemilla mollis – zone 4 • Allium sativum – zone 3 • Althaea officinalis – zone 3 • Calendula officinalis – annual • Chamaemelum nobile – zone 6 • Echinacea angustifolia – zone 4 • Echinacea purpurea – zone 3 • Foeniculum vulgare – zone 4 • Matricaria recutita – annual • Melissa officinalis – zone 3 • Mentha x piperita – zone 3 • Nepeta cataria – zone 3 • Ocimum basilicum – zone 9 • Origanum vulgare – zone 5 • Petroselinum crispum – zone 5 • Plantago major – zone 4 • Prunella vulgaris – zone 4 • Rosmarinus officinalis – zone 8 • Salvia officinalis – zone 5 • Symphytum officinale – zone 3 • Thymus vulgaris – zone 4 • Trillium spp. – zone 5 • Urtica dioica – zone 3 • Vitex agnus-castus – zone 6

Elaine Stevens is a clinical herbalist, writer and gardener, and has developed many herbal and healing gardens, including the herb garden at Vancouver’s Fairmont Waterfront Hotel. She teaches and gives lectures on various aspects of herbs and herbal medicine and runs a part-time clinical practice. She is co-author of The New Twelve Month Gardener (Whitecap Books, 2000) and author of The Creative Container Gardener (Whitecap Books, 1995).