Photo credit: Carleen Madigan
When it comes to healing the body, we have more medicine options available to us than ever in our human history. Modern conventional medicine achieves amazing feats daily with an ever-evolving list of pharmaceuticals and procedures. Chiropractic care and naturopathic medicine, massage, nutrition, acupuncture, and other holistic modalities are now mainstream and may even be covered by insurance. We are in the midst of an herbal medicine renaissance, reconnecting to the medicine we lost for just a few decades after the Flexner Report successfully villainized holistic medicine
. Yet, healing herbs have been used for thousands
of years to promote wellness, and they remain the number one form of medicine used worldwide
. By turning to the plants in your backyard for their healing properties, you’re reconnecting with the planet and your human existence. But the real reasons why you should grow your own medicine are that it’s fun, easy, empowering, and it works.
Something profound and life-changing occurs when you connect with the plant world and your body in this way. All that nameless “green” you pass every day takes shape into individual species with special healing powers. They become like friends and engage you on all senses. You begin to notice the different flavors, aromas, colors, textures, and shapes of each plant. So many great medicines grow easily in the backyard, whether cultivated or weedy volunteers.
Being able to walk onto your land or open your herb cabinet, make a remedy, and feel better empowers you to take a more active role in your health and well-being.
But what should you grow? And how do you make effective, safe remedies with those plants? Everyone loves a good “Top 10” list, but the truth is that the best plants for you
will depend on your individual health goals, affinities, and growing habitat. In my book Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies
, I connect with those perfect-for-you plants, focusing on those that are easily grown and harvested across the majority of the United States. Organized into theme gardens based on healing benefits and goals (such as digestion, relaxation, and skin care), you’ll learn how to grow, use, harvest, and make remedies with each plant, including some of my favorite recipes.
Here are some starting tips and safety rules to get you started:
Start With Just One or a Few Plants
It’s better to know one or a handful of plants very well than to know 100 plants superficially. By learning about and experiencing one plant at a time, you’ll better understand it, how you can use it, and how your body responds to it. Over time, you can add new plants and create more complex formulas.
Do Your Research
Read up on your prospective plant(s) in at least three good herbal reference books or websites to get to know their nuances, how they’re used, specific indications, safety, etc. Of course, my books are an excellent place to start! I also offer recommendations for herb books as well as exceptional website links on the “Learn More” page of my website
to help guide you to quality resources and a variety of perspectives.
Listen to Your Body and Intuition
Equally important to your research is connecting with the innate wisdom within your body. Listen to which plants draw you in. As you consume a plant for the first time (assuming you know a bit about it, that it’s safe and correctly identified), tune in. Does it resonate with you? Do you notice any benefits or side effects right away? How about over time with regular use?
Correctly Identify Your Plant
No herbal medicine is as powerful as that which you harvest and make yourself. But the responsibility lies with you to ensure you’ve properly identified it and ensured that it’s not polluted. Mistakes happen all the time, even with plants you buy with a name tag. Turn to field identification guides, botanical descriptions, herb walks, and herbal medicine teachers to help you cultivate this skill. You’ll need to first identify your plant in flower (which is when it’s most distinctive) and should watch it for an entire year to gain the confidence to harvest wild plants. For plants you purchase or grow from seed, look up photos and botanical descriptions online and in herb guides to confirm the identity.
Double-Check for Herb-Drug Interactions
If you’re on a lot of medications, consider hiring an herbalist or naturopathic doctor to help guide you to the safest and most effective herbs for you. But if you’re only on one medication and plan to self-treat, double-check with your pharmacist (and keep your doctor in the loop) to limit the risk for herb-drug interactions. Interactions are rare but possible. The most serious and common interactions occur with blood-thinning medications (which interact with many herbs and foods) and St. John’s wort (which interacts with many medications).
Start With a Low Dose and Work Up
If it’s your first time taking a plant, start with just a low dose and gradually work up to the lower end of the dosage range over the course of a couple of days or weeks. This gives your body a chance to adapt to the plant’s healing actions and also lets you identify plants that don’t agree with you (better to find out with a tiny dose than a huge dose). Fortunately, side effects from herbs are generally rare and mild, but different herbs certainly resonate differently with different individuals. Once you know the plant agrees with you, feel free to continue bumping up the dose to the higher end of the dosage range or until you achieve the desired effects. Feel free to play around with different formats (such as tincture versus tea) and strengths of your remedies, too.
Know Your Limits
Self-care and plant empowerment are wonderful things and are appropriate in day-to-day health concerns and for improving overall vitality. But, if you’re on a lot of medications, have a serious disease, are pregnant or nursing, or are dealing with a life-threatening situation, consider seeking the guidance of a skilled practitioner. Naturopaths and herbalists know plant medicine best, but doctors remain the first line in life-or-death situations and should always be kept in the loop, even if they’re not familiar with herbs. Seek immediate medical attention if you have difficulty breathing, unexplained bleeding, extreme unexplained pain, and serious infections. Even in situations where self-care is appropriate, consider seeking guidance if your natural approaches aren’t getting results. Accurate diagnosis by a doctor may be necessary.
Don’t let these safety tips scare you, though. Once you dip your toe into the world of herbal medicine, you’ll find yourself immersed and enamored with the joy and healing powers of plants. Medicinal herbs are usually quite safe (safer than coffee!) and offer many different healing benefits. Your herbal cabinet will grow with dried herbs, teas, and remedies. Each year you’ll want to add new herbs to your garden and share them as gifts to those around you. Happy herbal adventures!
First and foremost, many delicious herbs can be enjoyed as tea. Whether they are the stand-alone ingredient or used to boost the flavor, color, and joy of your blends, you’ll quickly find these herbs indispensable in the tea pantry. Use these simple, tasty blends to get your imagination going. Unless specified, you can use 1 heaping tablespoon of the dry herb blend per 16-ounce mug and steep 10 minutes or longer. Feel free to add honey or other natural sweetener as desired, but they also taste nice unsweetened. These blends can be enjoyed simply for their flavor, but they also provide healing properties.
Garden Aromatics Blend:
1 part each lemongrass, Korean mint, rose petals
Benefits: Gently calming and uplifting, antioxidant-rich, supports digestion.
Holy Basil Blend:
2 parts holy basil, 2 parts lemon balm, 1 part rose petals
Benefits: Calming yet energizing, brain-boosting, digestion-enhancing. Unsweetened, it may promote healthy/lower blood sugar when sipped after a meal, but it does taste quite nice with honey.
Lemon Cake Tea:
1 part each lemongrass, lemon verbena, lemon balm (optional: 1/4 vanilla bean, snipped into small pieces, or a 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla extract)
Benefits: Gently calming and uplifting, antioxidant rich, supports digestion.
Chocolate Mint Tea:
1 part each peppermint and/or chocolate mint with 1 part cacao nibs (best steeped 20–40 minutes; optional addition of vanilla, as described above)
Benefits: Energizing, invigorating, mood-boosting, brain-boosting.
1 part each nettle leaf, peppermint, and marshmallow leaf, plus a sprinkle of calendula petals for color if desired (optional: 1 part violet leaf)
Benefits: Nutrition-rich, soothes and heals gastrointestinal tract, promotes good digestion, supports respiratory health and allergies, gently energizing.
Recipes adapted from Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies (Storey Publishing, 2019).
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Maria Noël Groves
is the bestselling author of Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies
and Body Into Balance: An Herbal Guide to Holistic Self Care
. She is a clinical herbalist and herbal medicine teacher with more than two decades of experience, as well as a registered professional member of the American Herbalists Guild. She writes for numerous publications including Herbal Academy’s Herbarium, Taste for Life, Remedies, Herb Quarterly
, and Mother Earth News
. She sees clients and teaches classes both distance and on location at her Wintergreen Botanicals in Allenstown, New Hampshire. Learn more at WintergreenBotanicals.com.