Whether it’s the time spent soaking up the sun’s vitamin D or the grounding sensation you get from digging your fingers into the earth, gardening is one of the most meditative and relaxing practices. And it can provide great healing, too. This is especially true when it comes to medicinal plants and herbs, which can provide a range of benefits, including supporting the immune system, decreasing stress and anxiety, and so much more.
Up ahead, we tap three experts to learn more about herbal medicine and how you can add healing plants to your garden for well-being.
Planting Herbal Medicine in Your Garden
“Herbal medicine is the study and practice of working with edible and/or medicinal plants in various ways that support health and well-being on all levels: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually,” says Jenna Volpe, a holistic dietitian and clinical herbalist. Although it might seem daunting (especially if you’re new to gardening), using plants in a medicinal way is simple and, in many ways, can feel primordial.
Working with herbal medicine is like getting back to our healing roots, as herbs were the first medicines used by humans. “You can trace back the use of herbal medicines to almost any traditional culture,” says Sandra Nanka, the owner and herb expert at Mudbrick Herb Cottage. From monasteries with herb gardens that treated the local community to shamans who healed through native plants, there are so many examples of herbal medicine from the past, which can be used in the present.
According to Sean Rose, a clinical herbal therapist, gardening in many ways is another form of herbal medicine. “It’s another way to live in community and conversation with living beings that care for each other, especially when you begin to garden with medicinal plants,” he explains. “Once you learn about herbs, you begin to see them all around you everywhere you go, and you get this sense that a helpful friend (a medicinal plant) is never far away from you.”
Healing Plants to Add to Your Garden
Getting more in touch with herbal medicine is as simple as growing a few medicinal plants in your garden. “As you take care of these plants, you learn their language—how they communicate that they need more or less water and more or less sun,” says Rose. “Plus, there’s just something about getting your hands in the earth or tasting an aromatic herb right off the stem that connects you immediately to the here and now, and gets you out of your daily worries and ruminations,” he adds, noting that gardening is a grounding practice.
Here are the best healing plants to add to your garden.
- Rosemary: “Rosemary is one of my favorite remedies for encouraging blood flow to the extremities,” says Rose. “This is an herb I use quite often when there are signs of cold hands and feet or dandruff and hair loss,” he adds. Rose says the variety you get for your garden should depend on the hardiness zone you live in. “As long as it’s deliciously aromatic and its leaves are coated in sticky resin, then you can be sure you have a medicinal variety,” he notes.
- Lemon Balm: A member of the mint family, lemon balm is aromatic with, as the name suggests, a hint of citrus scent. “It has been used for centuries to calm the body and mind, and to promote sleep,” says Rose. “Many herbalists use it as a rejuvenating [treatment] for people who are overworked, overwhelmed, and over-stressed,” he adds.
- Holy Basil: Also called Tulsi, Holy Basil is an Ayurvedic adaptogen with amazing health benefits, plus it’s easy to grow in your garden. “It grows easily and quickly in various types of environments worldwide, as long as it gets enough sun and water,” says Volpe. According to Volpe, Holy Basil offers immunity support and can also protect tissues of the body from stress, both physically and mentally. It also lowers blood sugar and blood pressure and can have an uplifting impact on the mood.
- Chamomile: “Chamomile is a mildly sedative and calming herb that is very safe and versatile for most people,” says Volpe. “The flower heads or petals can be harvested and dried for tea infusions or extracted in alcohol as a chamomile tincture,” she adds. This wildflower helps support better sleep and can reduce feelings of anxiety. “It’s also an anti-spasmodic for cramping of any kind,” says Volpe. Drinking fresh chamomile tea can also soothe an upset stomach.
- Aloe: Whether it’s in your garden or among your houseplants, an aloe vera plant is also useful to have on hand. “The inner gel of the leaf is used topically to treat minor burns, sunburn, insect bites, and wounds,” says Nanka, adding that the plant is also an antiseptic.
Herbal Medicine in Everyday Life
In addition to planting them in your garden, there are tons of amazing ways to add herbal medicine to your everyday life—most of which are accessible and easy to try.
- Explore the Spice Cabinet: “Kitchen spices offer a range of health benefits,” says Nanka. “Cardamom, coriander, and fennel will aid digestion, cinnamon helps balance blood sugar levels, and ginger relieves nausea,” she adds.
- Sip Herbal Tea: Another way to experience herbal medicine in everyday life is through something as simple as trying different herbs in the form of tea. “A cup of dandelion tea is great for digestion and liver health, and it tastes similar to coffee without the caffeine hit,” says Nanka. “Delicious lemon balm tea can soothe digestion and calm the nervous system,” she adds.
- Make a Pesto: “Pestos made with chickweed and rocket all grow easily and provide plenty of nutritious greens,” Nanka recommends. Pesto also includes medicinal garlic which is a good ingredient for strengthening the immune system.
- Cook With More Herbs: Nanka says you can incorporate herbal medicine into your everyday life just by adding certain ingredients to your home-cooked meals. For example, you can add basil, oregano, or rocket to your pasta dishes, or kale, dandelion greens, and nettle to your salads. You can also make chimichurri—which is made with parsley, coriander, oregano, chili, garlic, and oil—and serve it as a sauce with your steak and vegetables.
One of the best things about medicinal plants is that they are a lot more accessible than you think. If you don’t have space for a garden, you can plant a few herbs for cooking and place them on the windowsill for nourishment from the sun. And, according to Nanka, if you can’t grow your own herbs, “you can visit farmer’s markets to purchase a wide range of herb greens to add flavor and nutrition to your food.” Dried herbs for making tea can also be purchased online or at local natural food stores. And, of course, you can always wander down the spice aisle at your grocery store for some flavorful ingredients to add to your home-cooked meals.