Gardening can improve your health, physically and mentally, add some healing herbs into the mix and you’ve double-downed on the benefits. The positives from growing your own herb garden are truly abundant, from saving money to getting outdoors to encouraging you to cook at home more often. And many of the tasty herbs you’ll incorporate in your meals, also have healing qualities.
“Some of the best herbs to get started with are the ones you’ll find in your spice cabinet,” says Candace Hunter, herbalist and owner of The Practical Herbalist. “Many cooking herbs have amazing anti-microbial properties that make them a perfect choice for preventing colds and flus and an incredible ally when you do get sick.”
Growing your own herbs is also convenient, says Juliet Blankespoor, an instructor at the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine. “If I need an herb for a tea or a steam inhalation, I only need to run outside and gather a few sprigs,” she says. If you plant your garden now, you could be making your own teas and steams by summer. As for tinctures and medicine, those are probably best left to trained herbalists, at least until you’ve done your research. (Organizations like the American Herbalist Guild, American Botanical Council and American Herbal Pharmacopoeia are good resources FYI.)
“Beyond ensuring you and your loved ones or guests don’t have allergies to the herbs you’re using, most of the easy-to-grow herbs you’ll find in your local nursery are quite safe,” says Hunter. “But be sure to consult with an experienced herbalist or medical professional before adding new herbs to your diet if you’re taking other therapies, including prescription drugs, other herbal formulas or are on a specialized diet.”
Ahead, are 10 healing herbs that would be great additions to any garden – the list may sound more like Simon & Garfunkel lyrics or a Thanksgiving recipe, but may actually be the ticket to a healthier and happier you.
We all know the soothing power of a steaming glass of peppermint tea, so why not make it fresh? Throw some home-grown mint leaves in a glass of steaming hot water, with some honey if you like, and you’ll quickly wonder why you were buying bags all this time. Tea is served this way in many Middle Eastern countries (and restaurants)—it’s delicious and so pretty too, but it’s also great for fighting off colds and can help with digestion. Herbalists also use peppermint as a gentle sedative, says Blankespoor. You can add the leaves to your favorite salad, dry them to make tea later or boil down with sugar and water to make a syrup. Mint is the easiest herb to grow, but it can have a mind of its own and take over, so plant it in its own pot without any others.
Lemon balm is also in the mint family—with its lemony flavor, it’s an amazing addition to any tea, hot or iced. This sounds lovely for the upcoming summer months, but lemon balm is great in the depths of winter, as well. Known as a “gladdening herb,” lemon balm makes a calming tea that has helped remedy the seasonal blues since the middle ages (yes, it’s always been a thing). Lemon balm has traditionally been used to soothe anxiety, calm the nerves and as a mild antidepressant, say Blankespoor. Like peppermint, it requires little care and can grow rather large. Lemon herb makes us happy on so many levels.
This aromatic evergreen herb is certainly a friend of chicken and potatoes, but its powers go way beyond seasoning dinner. Gargling with it can help get rid of mouth sores and bad breath. Thyme loves the sun, but also lives through winter—wind, snow and all—which is extremely helpful since its antimicrobial and antifungal properties can help kick a cold or flu. A tea made with the dry thyme leaves (add some peppermint for flavor) is a soothing decongestant. Ricola even uses thyme in its classic cough drop.
Another kitchen staple, rosemary adds a lot more than flavor. Unlike some of its counterparts, it helps with overall well-being, rather than specific problems like a cold or headache (though it is great when used with other herbs in healing teas). “Herbalists use rosemary to enhance concentration and memory,” says Blankespoor. In fact, it is known as the herb of remembrance; in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Ophelia says, "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance." It's also a digestive aid and circulatory stimulant. Side note: Whenever you see officinalis at the end of the Latin name of a plant (rosmarinus officinalis), it means it was once recognized as a medicinal plant.
Sage is a must-have in any herbal healing garden. “Sage has been used medicinally for centuries with far-reaching applications, ranging from soothing sore throats, sharpening wits, to fending off the plague,” says Blankespoor. “In fact, its name heralds from the Latin salvare, to save, referring to sage’s illustrious reputation as a lifesaver.” It is antimicrobial and astringent, making it useful for tightening down inflamed and irritated tissues. Sage is particularly helpful when it comes to issues of the mouth and throat. Blankespoor suggests making a sage tea, along with a pinch of salt, to gargle with if you have a sore throat. It can also help with canker sores, bad breath, and cold sores. Sage leaf is a common ingredient in many tooth powders, as it can soothe irritated gums and helps to clean teeth.
“Calendula is a favorite among herbalists,” says Hunter. “Its antibacterial and moisturizing properties make it great for homemade lip balms, lotions, and salves or ointments to soothe sunburn and bug bites, smooth rough skin, and ease inflamed rashes including diaper rash.” Or you can add the flowers directly to a bath to soothe irritated skin. Calendula is easy to grow in a pot, as its colloquial name, ‘pot marigold’ suggests, or in just about any partial-to full-sun location. To harvest, simply pick the flower heads (you will use the whole thing, not just the petals) on hot late summer mornings when they are just opening (and do it as often as you can), then dry them before using. If you end up not using them medicinally, they're just pretty additions to your garden, too.
A cup of chamomile tea will calm your nerves or help ease into sleep, but no need to go for Celestial Seasons when you can brew your own with flower heads right from your herb garden. Use fresh or dried, the tea is so gentle, it can be given to colicky babies, as well as angsty adults. Blankespoor says it’s also one of the most beloved herbs for digestive issues, like nervous indigestion. Just be sure to get the Roman chamomile (chamaemelum nobile)—there are various types of chamomile, but it’s the best for medicinal purposes.
Another multi-tasking herb, inside the kitchen and out, oregano is antibacterial and antifungal. Tea made from its leaves can be used to fight off colds and headaches and it’s great in homemade cleaning products. Oregano steeped in vinegar can be used to wipe down countertops instead of all-purpose cleaner—the same concoction can soothe athlete’s foot.
It’s not a coincidence that you can find lavender in all those calming beauty world lotions and potions that claim to relax and induce sleep. “Lavender is a wonderful, soothing herb that’s scent alone helps clear tension and release stress,” says Hunter. “Its antimicrobial properties are well-documented and studied, also making it a safe and potent addition to your cleaning routine.” Blankespoor combines lavender with lemon balm and lemon verbena in tea to help lift the spirits. “It’s a gentle sedative and can help with anxiety and insomnia,” she says.
And we’re saving what many herbalists consider the best for last. “Holy basil or tulsi has long been a sacred plant in India prized for its myriad medicinal uses and calming, uplifting nature,” says Blankespoor. “In the past decade, it has gained herbals superstardom status in the West as a beverage tea and panacea—the leaves and flowers are a remedy for colds, flu, sinus infections, anxiety, depression, allergies, asthma, coughs, cardiovascular disease, poor memory, and lack of concentration.” You can cook with holy basil, but this is one herb that is much tastier in a tea or elixir.
Keep track of your seeds with a DIY packet organizer: