Grow Your Own Backyard Apocathacary

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By Vanessa Mardones, CP Staff

Can’t sleep? Headache? What if all you had to do to find your cure was step outside and harvest your own medicine? Many herbs that heal common ailments can be easily grown. With very little care or tending, you can grow remedies for everything from the common cold to indigestion while beautifying your yard and creating a beneficial bird and butterfly habitat in the process.

In addition, because some of the herbs we use medicinally are threatened in their wild habitats, cultivating them helps to preserve populations of native medicinal herbs. (Even if you don’t have a garden patch to call your own, many remedies can be easily grown in pots.)

During the winter months, the ailments we hear about most often at Community Pharmacy are colds and flus. Granted, our gardens are dormant during this time of year, but you can grow many cold-and-flu-busting, immunity-boosting herbs during the summer and keep them for wintertime use.

Echinacea purpurea, or purple cone flower, is probably one of the most popular immune-supporting herbs. But did you know that it’s also a native prairie perennial that, once established, needs little to no additional watering or fertilization and attracts many species of butterflies?

Another easy-to-grow native plant is our favorite antiviral, the black elderberry bush (Sambucus nigra). The berries of this rangy, vigorous bush attract birds and can be made into delicious syrups, cordials, teas, pies, preserves and tinctures. The beautiful, creamy white elder flowers are excellent in homemade lotions and facial toners, and they can also be used as a diaphoretic tea for reducing fevers. Perhaps best of all, both elderberries and flowers can be made into a tasty, immune-supporting wine.

Sleep problems are also extremely common with our customers, and many easily-grown herbs promote a good night’s sleep. One of the most popular is valerian (Valeriana officinalis), a flowering perennial with sedative, antispasmodic and carminative, or gas-relieving, properties. Not only can valerian be used for insomnia, but it is also helpful for menstrual cramps, back aches, tension headaches, high blood pressure and stress. And don’t be surprised if your cat goes crazy over it, since many cats respond in the same way to valerian as they do to catnip.

Speaking of catnip (Nepeta cataria), it’s another easy-to-grow perennial that is a gentle calmative remedy -- suitable even for kids and the elderly -- used to treat insomnia, anxiety, depression and indigestion.

Other herbs great for soothing indigestion are the many varieties of mint, or Mentha spp. Because mints spread actively by rhizomes, they are good candidates for cultivation in pots to keep them contained.

Wild ginger (Asarum caudatum, no relation to the tropical ginger you buy at the supermarket) is also an excellent remedy for indigestion. It’s a shade-loving native perennial with shiny, dark green, heart-shaped leaves and a pungent aroma similar to that of commercial ginger. Wild ginger can also be used to treat late or painful menstruation, and it makes an excellent groundcover in shady areas of the garden.

Another herb that’s useful for treating menstrual cramps is motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca). Part of the mint family, motherwort is a tall herb with small clusters of purple flowers. It may already be growing in your yard, as it is naturalized and quite common in our area. But don’t mistake motherwort for a weed! In addition to helping ease menstrual cramps, this herb is an excellent remedy for menopausal complaints like hot flashes, mood swings and night sweats. It can also be used as a digestive bitter and to strengthen the heart and the liver -- its latin name means “lion’s heart.”

Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) is another very popular herb used for menopausal symptoms. Its preferred habitat is shady, rich soil in a hardwood forest understory. This means black cohosh will flourish in shady areas of your garden where other plants might not do well, gracing these areas with tall, stately plumes of creamy white perennial flowers and delicate, fern-like foliage. Because it is so often used to treat hot flashes, black cohosh is a threatened herb in its wild habitat; growing it in your garden can help sustain its population.

Please note that ornamental cultivars of many of these plants are available. Since these ornamental varieties may not have the same medicinal properties, be sure to do further research before using any of them medicinally.

Community Pharmacy has many resources to help you get started on your backyard apothecary. We carry lots of magazines and books on herb gardening, including The Herb Companion, The Herb Quarterly, The Medicine Wheel Garden by E. Barrie Kavasch, Growing 101 Herbs That Heal by Tammi Hartung, and Lasagna Gardening with Herbs by Patricia Lanza. We also have several experienced gardeners on staff who can help answer your questions.

Vanessa Mardones is an enthusiastic gardener, wildcrafter and herbal medicine-maker. She has taught classes at Olbrich Gardens on using weeds for food and medicine as well as gardening with medicinal herbs, and she is certified in Permaculture Design.

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