By Contributing Editor Nancy Hulse
The use of herbs for medicinal purposes is as old as recorded history. They are used as teas, tinctures, infusions, and/or topically as salves or ointments. Their use is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, can trigger side effects and can interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, you should take herbs with care, become familiar with the many ways they may be used, and do further research on any that are new to you. There are numerous online sources for balanced and medically reviewed information on the medical uses of herbs, one of our favorites is from the University of Maryland Medical Center www.umm.edu/altmed.
In this Growing Guide we do not recommend or endorse specific uses for individual herbs, but will provide you with the cultivation instructions you’ll need to grow these special plants.
Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera)
Planting depth: ¼” Germination: 15-20 days Optimum germ. temperature: 65-75 F.
Ashwagandha has long been used as a traditional Indian (Ayurvedic) medical herb. In the wild, it grows profusely in most areas of South Asia and many closely related species occur as far away as Northern Africa. Due to the hardiness of the plant, Ashwagandha has historically been grown in areas that are not well irrigated and therefore not suitable for food crops.
This plant is a tender perennial grown as an annual. Ashwagandha is like ginseng – both are used to improve vitality and to aid recovery after chronic illness. While ginseng is hard to grow, this is easy and you get an immediate annual crop. Grow like tomatoes, but Ashwagandha is more resistant to cool weather.
Catnip (Nepeta cataria)
Planting depth: ¼” Germination: 10-20 days Optimum germ. temperature: 60-70 F.
Catnip is a very mild herb medicinally, and makes a soothing tea that is used for its calming and sedative effects, both in adults and in small children. It is said to relieve the symptoms of colic in children, and can be used as a digestive aid for adults.
Catnip is a two to three foot tall perennial herb that is native to parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Plant catnip seeds inside or outdoors in full sun or partial shade. Catnip is an easy to grow, highly ornamental herb with fragrant gray-green leaves and clusters of lavender or white flowers at branch ends in late spring and early summer. Winter hardy to zone 3.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
Planting depth: surface Germination: 4-8 days Optimum germ. temperature: 55-70 F.
Chamomile is one of the most popular herbs in the western world. Among other uses, it is claimed to calm frayed nerves, to treat various stomach problems, to relieve muscle spasms, and to treat skin conditions and mild infections.
Up to 24 inches tall and 15 inches wide, German Chamomile has many thin branches of finely divided green leaves. Small ¾” white and yellow daisy-like flowers appear from early through midsummer. Sow seeds in fall or spring in well-drained, neutral to sightly acid soil. Harvest flowers when first fully opened, and use fresh or freeze.
Echniacea (Echinarea purpurea)
Planting depth: ¼” Germination: 10-21 days Optimum germ. temperature: 60-70 F.
Archaeologists have found evidence that Native Americans may have used echinacea for more than 400 years to treat infections and wounds and as a general “cure-all.” Many herbalists also recommend echinacea to help boost the immune system and help the body fight infections.
Echniacea is easily grown in average, dry to medium, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. An adaptable plant that is tolerant of drought, heat, humidity and poor soil. Divide clumps when they become overcrowded (about every 4 years). Plants usually rebloom without deadheading, however prompt removal of spent flowers improves general appearance. Freely self-seeds if at least some of the seed heads are left in place
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Planting depth: surface Germination: 10-40 days Optimum germ. temperature: 60-70 F.
Lemon balm, a member of the mint family, is considered a calming herb. It was used as far back as the Middle Ages to reduce stress and anxiety, promote sleep, improve appetite, and ease pain and discomfort from indigestion. Today, lemon balm is often combined with other calming, soothing herbs, such as valerian, chamomile, and hops, to help promote relaxation. It is also used in creams to treat cold sores (oral herpes).
Plant out in sun or partial shade. Prefers fertile soil with regular water, but will tolerate poor, dry soils. For best fragrance, harvest before plants flower, cutting entire plant back to 2 inches tall. Optimum flavor when used fresh. For tea, both leaves and stems can be dried. Mulch if winter goes below 0°F. 70 days to harvest when started indoors.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Planting depth: surface Germination: 7-21 days Optimum germ. temperature: 60-70 F.
Legend has it that yarrow (Achillea millefolium) was named after Achilles, the Greek mythical hero who used it to stop the bleeding wounds of his soldiers. Popular in European folk medicine, yarrow contains flavonoids, plant-based chemicals that increase saliva and stomach acid, helping to improve digestion. Yarrow may also relax smooth muscle in the intestine and uterus, which can relieve stomach and menstrual cramps.
Compared to cultivated yarrows, common yarrow is the hardiest and most medicinally active. Flowers are usually white with occasional pink flowers, borne in flat-topped clusters. Yarrow self-sows readily. For the highest essential oil content, it is best grown in un-enriched soil. In early summer the flower stalks rise up to 24 inches tall and attract butterflies and are excellent for fresh or dried arrangements. Blooms June to September. The widely adapted plants tolerate both heat and poor soil. Winter hardy to zone 3.