The cold months of the year bring a flurry of beastly germs to our doorstep. These wee-but-wicked pathogens must sense that our immune systems are vulnerable—especially during the holidays, when rich food and drink prevail. I like to start bolstering my family’s immune systems early in the cold & flu season; well before everyone around us is sniffling and sneezing. Practices like eating a nourishing diet; getting plenty of sleep, sunshine, and water; and proper hand washing are essential, but I also rely on a handful of tonic herbs to keep us healthy and resilient.
When it comes to fighting infections and warding off looming illnesses, antimicrobial herbs will be among your very best helpers. These remedies contain compounds that directly deter pathogenic bacteria, fungi, viruses, and protozoans.
Last winter, I had the pleasure of visiting the Kauai Farmacy Gardens with my family on a visit to Kauai, affectionately known as the Hawaiian “Garden Island.” I was intrigued by their thriving tropical farm-to-apothecary business model and was eager to meet the plants and people involved. Doug Wolkon, one of the co-founders of the gardens, generously spent an afternoon with us, showing us around the plantings and apothecary.
Before we dive into herbs for the immune system, we’re going to start with lifestyles for the immune system. Because herbs are really and truly the icing on the cake, whereas the day-to-day choices we make for how we want to live are the cake, so to say. The same things in life that make us feel vital, happy, connected, and energetic also make our immune cells feel perky and capable.
Violets are welcome “weeds” in my garden. In fact, the common blue violet—my particular brand of violet garden guest—is native to these parts, which is more than I can say for myself. The common blue violet (Viola sororia, Violaceae) is native to most of central and eastern North America. It is a common sight in lawns, gardens, sidewalk cracks and along trailsides. The common blue violet is typically considered a “weed” because of its relative ease in adapting to human disturbance, but it pushes the definition of weed because it has been on this continent for a very long time. The leaves and flowers of the common blue violet, along with many other species, are edible and medicinal. The “confederate violet” is an escaped cultivar (cultivated variety) of Viola sororia—it has white flowers with blue streaks and is a common inhabitant of lawns in the southeastern United States.
Women today live in a very different world than our foremothers. Our female predecessors began menstruating later in life, had more children, breastfed longer, underwent menopause earlier, ate whole foods, and lived in a cleaner environment. Women today have approximately ten times as many menstrual cycles as their great-great-grandmothers. Our bodies did not evolve with the hormonal inputs of perpetual ovulation and menstruation. As a result, more women than ever are experiencing reproductive disorders, such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids and ovarian cysts.
Spring has arrived in sputters this year: sunshine flirting with frost, the first sprays of color a bright balm to the winter gray. Spring is the one season I can never keep up with. No matter how closely my eyes are pressed to the forest floor with eager anticipation of the first bloodroot, trillium or spring beauty, I can never soak it all up.
Calendula officinalis is one of the easiest-to-grow medicinal herbs and so versatile in its healing properties that it invariably finds its way into the hearts and gardens of all herb lovers. It is typically grown as an annual, but can be cultivated as a short-lived perennial in warmer climes (Zone 8-10).
Here are more-than-a-few photos of our recent school field trip to Florida, a place dear to my heart for its wild beauty and overflowing biodiversity. Despite the formidable human presence, it still has pockets that are alive, fertile and thriving.