Some of my fondest childhood memories are of days spent at my grandfather’s vegetable plot. I can recall one particular occasion in mid-autumn when he went outside to pick beetroot leaves, coughing and spluttering all the while. His intention was to use them to make tea for a chest infection he couldn’t shake. Like many of his generation, he had a lingering mistrust of doctors. Whether or not it worked, I don’t know.
Though we often forget that plants hold powerful medicinal qualities, it’s something that our hunter-gatherer forbears understood all too well. The connection that man holds with nature, and in particular with plants, is something that’s deeply innate. There’s now even a whole academic subject, ethnobotany, that explores this millennia-old relationship.
Indeed, it’s not difficult to picture a prehistoric human peeling bark from a tree, or cracking open fruit husks in search of seeds, or crushing leaves into a poultice, all in an effort to make medicine.
And the wonderful thing? You can do it too – easily and with little effort.
Bringing a little knowledge of plants and their healing properties into your life can yield tremendous benefits. A whole host of common ailments – from aches and pains, headaches, sickness, insomnia, anxiety (and many others) – can be alleviated with home-grown healing herbs.
In fact, scientists have conducted numerous studies exploring their potent pharmacological effects. One botanist in particular who has tried to counter the misconception that plant medicines are too mild or weak to have any real effect is James Wong. In an article in The Telegraph, he was quoted as saying:
…up to 50 per cent of over-the-counter medicines are based on chemicals that were first isolated from plants. “Aspirin, for example, is made from the same chemicals that were first isolated from willow, which has been used for thousands of years as a painkiller.”
Yes! Plants are momentously forgiving and will thrive as long at they have a few basic needs met. Whilst this article is focused on growing herbs in pots, either outdoors, on a bright windowsill or in a conservatory, if you do want to plant them outside, they’ll be perfectly happy in the ground.
One small piece of advice: give them a south-facing window. The south side of a house is the one that gets the most sunlight and is the ideal place to locate plants. In general you’ll need:
During the bright summer months you’ll want to give your leafy green inhabitants a light liquid feed every two weeks or so. This will encourage flowering and growth and also allow for slightly heavier harvesting. As a general rule, when picking, you don’t want to take more than 30% of growth, after which you should allow the foliage to replenish.
You’ll probably know chamomile it for its strong aroma and relaxing properties. If you haven’t yet tried it as a tea then you’re missing out! It’s very easy to grow and seeds are readily available.
Lovage, though out of fashion at the moment, has been cultivated for centuries. The leaves are perfectly edible and make a lovely addition to soups and salads. They also hold a host of healing properties – chief amongst which are the alleviation of joint pain and support of kidneys.
Marigolds are amongst the easiest, most colourful annuals (living for one year) that you can grow. Simply sow some seeds into a pot filled with a good potting mix and leave them to it. The flowers can be eaten fresh or used to make a tea. Dried flowers can also be used as flavouring.
Lemon balm is an ancient herb that has been used as a curative for hundreds of years. It’s also got to rank as one of the best-smelling plants in existence! Nestled amongst other herbs on your kitchen windowsill, it will fill the whole room with a lovely, lemony aroma.
Thyme needs no introduction! It’s a popular herb that’s loved for its sweet-tasting, aromatic leaves and beautiful summer flowers. Although commonly used in stews and as a garnish for meat, thyme leaves make an excellent tea. They’re easy to grow, will thrive in pots, and don’t mind regular harvesting.
Lavender is another plant that can do exceptionally well in pots, has ornamental value, and is incredibly easy to harvest. The flowers work better as additions to tea rather than as main ingredients but can be harvested liberally when the plant is in bloom.
Echinacea is another plant that has been used for centuries as a folk medicine. It’s a member of the daisy family and if you live in the USA or Canada you’ve probably seen crowds of them populating areas of prairie and open woodland. The work wonderfully in pots and are ideal for window boxes.
The leaves of the sage plant are amongst my favourite – thick, grey-green and hairy. The taste is absolutely fantastic and it makes an excellent (and very underrated) tea. They’ll also grow quite happily in a pot.
Oregano is a low growing plant (it will only reach half a metre in the ground) and is known to be particularly high in antioxidants. It has a tendril-like growing habit which makes it look particularly good on windowsills.
Bay is an evergreen shrub or small tree and is commonly used as a flavouring for stews and fish dishes. It also has a host of healing properties, not to mention a place of honour in ancient mythology – it’s leaves were used to crown the great Olympians. The leaves are best used to make a tea.
Always buy French Tarragon if you’re starting from seed. It’s a fast growing plant that can sometimes be a pest in the garden (a little like mint) so is best kept in pots. Its flavour, which resembles licorice, is brought out particularly well in tea (like most of the other plants on this list).
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