Written by Meghan Rhodes MCPP MAPA
I often get asked - if you were just starting to grow herbs or only had limited space, which would be your essentials?
My criteria for essentials in the garden are that they are as versatile as possible when it comes to medicinal use and are very low maintenance, as I don't really have time to be carefully sowing, transplanting, watering, pruning or otherwise mollycoddling (but you'll find a lot of herbs don't require that type of attention, anyway)!
So whether you have a massive garden or just a few pots on a balcony, here are my top 7 herbs for starting your medicinal herb garden:
1 - Rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis
Rosemary is such an incredibly versatile herb! It's pungent/aromatic and bitter in taste and warming, drying and tonifying in quality. It's stimulating for the circulatory system, and is particularly good at getting the blood and warmth all the way to the tips of the fingers and the toes, so brilliant for people who feel the cold. In bringing fresh oxygenated blood to the head, it supports memory function, as well. That bitter quality means it's stimulating the flow of bile in the liver, getting the digestion going, and those aromatic volatile oils mean it's antimicrobial - great for protecting the gut from any food that's not quite right, as well as addressing colds and infections. As it's warming and drying, as well as antimicrobial, it's particularly suited to phlegmy chesty colds, melting and drying up that sticky phlegm and shifting it out of the body.
From a growing perspective, it's evergreen, perennial and propagates well from cuttings. As it's a Mediterranean herb, it's very happy in dry conditions, so you don't need to bother watering it beyond natural rainfall. Do prune it, though, as it can go quite woody. Overtime, it can grow to a really lovely, bushy plant that's always worth a rub and a smell and a munch as you pass it.
2 - Chamomile Matricaria recutita
Chamomile's benefits are probably some of the most well known (e.g. good for the gut microbiome, calming, skin healing, relaxing, gentle enough for infants), but what I think it's a must-grow is because of its scent when it's growing in the garden - it's like a really heady honey smell, especially when the sun is shining in its full glory. Homegrown chamomile is unlike anything you can buy in the shops - that honey fragrance will waft up from your tea cup, but you'll get the full impact of its bitter principles, which precipitate so many of the herb's benefits in the body.
Harvesting just the flower heads off the delicate stems is an act of meditation in and of itself, but it is well worth it. When you have that potent calming herb year-round dried from your garden for teas and the most brilliant golden yellow healing herb infused oil, you'll never want to settle for anything less.
3 - Calendula Calendula officinalis
Calendula makes THE BEST infused healing oil - brilliant orange - which can be used as is or incorporated into any other topical remedy (e.g. salve, cream, body butter, etc.). It is a brilliant and safe wound healer - from surface scratches to deeper wounds (once cleaned!), as it heals from the lower recesses of the wound up. You can use it on all ages and stages of life. Definitely a go-to worth having if you’re crafting a set of home herbal remedies or first aid balms.
The tea has a very mild taste and has that same wound healing effect internally as it does externally - leaky gut is a perfect example. You can also pour a cafetiere of a strong infusion of calendula straight into your bathwater for a really healing soak - perfect for healing after giving birth.
As soon as the flowers are out, harvest them and keep harvesting them and you’ll keep getting blooms. If you play your cards right, you can even get them through winter. (I’ve been known to have frost and snow on mine!)
4 - Peppermint Mentha piperita
Another well-known herb, aiding in wind, bloating and poor digestion, as well as part of the classic herbalists' healthy fever supporting tea blend (peppermint, yarrow and elderflower). All its brilliant volatile oils help open the passageways of breath, helping to clear congestion and constriction in the lungs. Keep in mind it will take over in, so put it in a pot or its own bed!
5 - Lavender Lavandula angustifolia
Lavender is a true panacea herb. You could genuinely use it for just about everything, and the smell is incredible. Not only does it clear the mind and aid in relaxation and sleep, but it is also brilliantly antiseptic, wound healing (especially for burns), calming for the digestion - the list is practically never-ending. Anything you make with lavender will smell and taste lovely (although be aware because of its saponin content - what makes it soapy and lends itself well to cleaning - it can taste a bit soapy if you're using lots in a tea!). Do give it a good prune to avoid it going woody, but otherwise, it's fairly similar to rosemary in terms of care in the garden.
6 - St Johns Wort Hypericum perforatum
You may have heard of St Johns Wort from when it became popular as a sort of herbal antidepressant. Yes, it does help with mood, but that's because of its action on the nervous system, which is why herbalists are more inclined to use it for nerve pain. This is best done by infusing the fresh plant (aerial parts, so flowers, leaves and stems) in an organic carrier oil (e.g. olive oil) for three months. It will turn a gorgeous deep red, and can then be used topically for nerve pain and crush injuries. A great one to have to hand. I confess I've not yet managed to get the seeds to take in my apothecary garden, but I do have some that grows wild on my land, which I harvest. One day, I'll try to transplant them into a bed, but I have a feeling they're happy just where they are.
7 - Lemon Balm Melissa officinalis
Like chamomile, lavender, rosemary and peppermint, lemon balm is just one of those herbs you have to grow in your own garden to get the full, glorious scent of it. Lemon balm makes a gorgeous gentle infusion that tastes like sunshine, but my favourite way to have it is just a few leaves right off the plant. I have one right outside my back door for munching whenever I go out. It's a lovely mood lifter and helps dissipate tension in the gut caused by stress - and when stress flows, digestion doesn't! It's also antiviral, specifically for the herpes virus, so combined with St Johns Wort, makes a brilliant herbal support for cold sores and shingles. Like peppermint, it will take over your garden if not potted!
And what about those bonus herbs to forage (responsibly, of course!)?
1 - Elderflower and Elderberry Sambucus nigra fruc/flos
Abundant in the hedgerows, elderflower is a must-harvest in the spring to dry and have to hand to support healthy fevers and open the lungs when coughs and colds come round. When elderberries come through, harvest and make elderberry syrup to support the immune system, particularly in late autumn/early winter when the seasons are turning and we're more susceptible to catching colds.
2 - Dandelion Taraxacum officinale
Dandelions are the most incredible medicine! Thank them for appearing in your lawn! Never ever weed them, and certainly never spray them! If you're sourcing from off your own land, make sure it's somewhere that hasn't been sprayed by the council's weedkilling efforts or sprayed by passing dogs. The leaves are a brilliant bitter cleansing herb in spring and can be make into all sorts of pestos, etc. (or just drunk as a tea). The roots are a gentle laxative, and both support liver function - something most of us can do with year round.
3 - Cleavers Gallium aparine
The first sign of spring for a herbalist and a wonderful cleansing refresh for the body as the seasons change early in the year. Best as a cold infusion in water, but also worth carefully drying to have throughout the year to use if lymphatic congestion arises (lumps and bumps).
4 - Plantain Plantago lanceolata
Plantain is one you'll find in lawns, in verges, even in the cracks of pavements. It's both astringent and mucilaginous, meaning it can help tighten and protect mucous membranes whilst moistening and protecting them (rather than just drying them up). It's most obvious use is externally for wound healing, but it has the same actions internally - particularly on the mucous membranes, so think leaky gut, sore throat, UTIs, etc.
5 - Yarrow Achillea millefolium
The blood herb! Yarrow is very nuanced, having many equal and opposite effects on the body. You can grow it in your garden (make sure you stick to the classic white flowered variety, rather than the ornamental cultivars) or forage it. We use the aerial parts, so flowers, leaves and stems. It supports healthy circulation, yet is the best to staunch blood flow when you've had a cut or injury. It's cooling overall, but can be used to both support a healthy fever to build and then break and bring temperatures back down. Check for the 'thousand leaves' leaf pattern when foraging, as you don't want to mistake it for other white-umbelled flowers in the hedgerows.
6 - Nettle Urtica dioica
There are endless articles on the benefits of nettles. Incredibly rich in iron and many other minerals, as well as protein, they are nourishing, free and everywhere! They're also a great blood cleanser, but because of all the goodness packed in them, they're not depleting. Make them into a tea to prepare for hay fever season, have them as a fortifying soup in late winter, transform them into a herb-infused oil to strengthen the musculoskeletal system. The leaves, seeds and roots are used, so check foraging guides for timing and best practice to get the most out of your harvest. Don't be afraid of them - just grasp the nettle!
7 - Comfrey Symphytum officinale
Also known as 'knit bone', comfrey is best used topically as a poultice or as a herb-infused oil for wound healing. It acts very quickly, so is best on more shallow wounds or those that have been cleaned and begun the deeper healing process with calendula first. Comfrey is definitely a must-have for your herbal first aid kit.
So get yourself growing and foraging and enjoy your gorgeous, fresh herbs! And if you'd like to get hands-on learning how to make herbal remedies with your beautiful herbs with me, join me on a workshop and course - see what's on below!