I’ve loved plants and gardens all my life, but since I devote as much time as I can to my writing, I don’t generally have time to mollycoddle them. To a large extent, they need to be able to fend for themselves! Also I don’t use pesticides, since I want my garden to be a haven for wildlife.
Here are six of my favourite herbs: not only easy to grow and tend, but also invaluable in the medicine cabinet or the kitchen.
Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)
Meadowsweet is a beautiful perennial, and deserves a place in the garden for its looks alone. It needs little other than a damp, sunny spot to grow. In return it provides us with a delicious, fragrant herbal tea, which also has pain-killing properties. Like willow bark, meadowsweet contains the substance from which aspirin was developed.
To make the tea, harvest a couple of meadowsweet’s beautiful frothy flower heads and steep in a cup of boiled water for a few minutes (just like making ordinary tea). Strain and sweeten to taste.
I drink this at the onset of a headache, but it has a variety of other uses too. Since it soothes the stomach, it helps in the treatment of heartburn, indigestion and gastritis. It can also be used as a painkilling compress for sore joints, by soaking a cotton cloth in hot, strong meadowsweet tea and applying to the joints. Leave for a few minutes and refresh.
Meadowsweet is a perennial which can be dried for future use.
Vervain (Verbena officinalis)
With its lilac flowering spikes, vervain is another pretty perennial with an astonishing range of applications, including insomnia, headaches, coughs, and digestion problems. Vervain works wonders during times of nervous tension or exhaustion, and it’s my personal number one choice for stress or sleep disorders. I simply chop the leaves and/or flowering stems to make tea, as for meadowsweet. It can also be dried for later use.
My vervain plant is coming up nicely
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
Nasturtiums come up easily and need little attention, and in return for all this neglect they produce swathe after swathe of stunning flowers! Both flowers and leaves are edible, adding interest and beauty to salads. Nasturtium has anti-microbial benefits, useful against bronchitis. Mainly, I harvest the young seeds to make both a condiment and an effective yet tasty remedy for catarrh:
Nasturtium ‘capers’ and vinegar
Pick off the distinctive grooved seeds as soon as possible after they’ve started to form, that is once the flower petals have fallen off (after a while they go too hard, though they won’t harm you). Wash and soak overnight in salt solution, then drain and drop the seeds into a small jar of cider vinegar. After three or four weeks, the seeds taste delicious as caper substitutes in salads, and a teaspoon of the vinegar when needed is effective against catarrh.
Aloe (Aloe barbadensis)
A top-class remedy for burns. I always keep an aloe plant to hand, and they need little attention other than to bring indoors or into the greenhouse over the winter (UK climate). Aloe has been shown to help skin recover from sunburn, frostbite and psoriasis, speeding up healing time. Because of this, it is often used in beauty treatments, and may even help to combat wrinkles, due to its astringent properties.
When I burn myself in the kitchen, I immediately run the burn under cold water, then I cut off part of an aloe leaf, slice it open and apply the gel side to the injury. It’s extremely effective and was the only thing which helped when, stupidly, I rubbed my eyes after handling Bhut jolokia chillies!
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Lemon balm’s needs are very modest, and it will grow like the clappers even in areas other plants don’t like. It has a wonderful lemony smell, and I use it to make refreshing tea or flavour my home-made kit beer (I just add a leaf or two to each bottle before capping). It is traditionally used to soothe nervous tension, relieve stress and encourage good sleep. In tests, it has been shown to inhibit the growth of the herpes virus, which makes it a useful tool against cold sores.
My lemon balm mingling with oregano (and a stray dandelion for the birds)
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
A beautiful aromatic shrub, Rosemary is another easy-to-grow favourite, great for hedging or in pots. Rosemary has traditionally been associated with remembrance, and scientific studies have backed up this claim, since it can increase the effects of essential enzymes in the brain. It also relaxes the muscles of the digestive tract.
Sprigs of rosemary (with or without flowers) may be used as flavouring in the kitchen, or enjoyed as a health-giving tea. As well as drinking the tea, I use it to make a wonderful hair rinse:
Healthy hair rinse
Make some strong rosemary tea, adding other herbs if wished, such as nettle tops or a chamomile tea bag. Three-quarters fill an empty shampoo bottle (mine is 400ml) with the infusion. Add a tablespoon of cider vinegar and top up with water. Add to your final rinse or, in the shower, simply pour some on, leave for a bit and wash out.
Since Rosemary is evergreen, you can cut off a sprig or two whenever needed, all year round.
Here’s one of my baby rosemary plants, a cutting from last year
To find out more about these and other plants, and how to use them in simple, effective ways, I recommend James Wong’s “Grow Your Own Drugs”, one of my favourite herb books. Correct identification is, of course, essential, and if in doubt about any plant, be sure to arm yourself with a good field guide. If foraging from the wild, take care not to use plants which have been sprayed. When trying a new plant for the first time, try just a little first, to make sure it agrees with you.