The Top Ten Medicinal Herbs for the Garden
Text and Photographs by Juliet Blankespoor
In an ideal world, we would each have our personal list of top ten garden herbs, tailored to our particular climate and health concerns. My hope is that the information below inspires you, as jumping board of sorts, in creating your own unique dream medicinal herb garden. I chose each plant based on its ease of cultivation and medicinal usefulness and versatility.
Calendula (Pot Marigold)
Calendula officinalis, Asteraceae. Calendula is one of the most familiar and beloved herbs, earning our affection with its cheerful golden flowers. The “petals” are edible and the whole flower is an important medicinal herb in treating skin conditions. Calendula is found in topical ointments, salves and creams. This flower holds an interesting claim to fame—it is the herb most likely to be found in diaper rash ointments and creams. I plant calendula close to my front porch so I can enjoy the blooms, and watch the hum of pollinator activity all summer long.
The sunshiny yellow-orange flowers are an edible garnish for salads, cakes, and soups. The flowers are also incorporated into oils and salves for healing wounds, rashes, burns, and dry skin. Calendula flowers are used internally in teas, tinctures, and broths as an anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, lymphagogue (stimulates the lymphatic system), emmenagogue (stimulates the menses), and digestive anti-inflammatory. It is one of my favorite remedies, along with meadowsweet and licorice, for GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux disease) and peptic ulcers.
Calendula prefers full sun and average garden soil. It is easily grown from seed—direct sow or start early in pots; the seedlings are somewhat cold tolerant. Calendula does well as a container plant, hence the common name “pot marigold.” Plant 10-14’’ apart; grows to 18’’ tall. Calendula’s sticky flowers must be picked every two to three days to ensure a longer flowering season. Calendula will usually self-sow unless you mulch heavily. It is typically grown as an annual, but can be cultivated as a short-lived perennial in warmer climes (Zone 8-10). For more details on growing and enjoying calendula, please visit my article here.
Leonurus cardiaca, Lamiaceae. Motherwort is one of the easiest herbs to grow and is a highly versatile medicinal. It is one of my favorite remedies for anxiety and stress. It is taken as a tincture or tea to lessen pain, such as: headaches, menstrual cramps, and muscle sprains and aches. I will add that motherwort is quite bitter, so I often recommend it as a tincture over a tea. It is many women’s ally in menopause for easing hot flashes and hormonal- induced irritability. Motherwort is also used in childbirth to help strengthen contractions; it is the only herb I used giving birth to my daughter! Finally, motherwort fully lives up to its name in helping to increase parental patience. Many mothers find that motherwort softens the edginess brought on by sleep deprivation, endless laundry and dishes, and uppity wee folk.
Motherwort is a short-lived herbaceous perennial, plant in full sun to part shade. Hardy to Zone 4. Plant 18-24 inches apart; grows 3 to 5’ tall. The seeds can be stratified (placed in damp sand in the refrigerator) for two weeks before planting, and will generally germinate in one week if placed in a warm spot, such as a greenhouse or sunny window. In cooler climates, it can take over and become quite weedy, so you may want to plant it where it can do its thing without stepping on anyone’s toes. Motherwort easily transplants; consider asking a neighboring herbalist if you can dig up any extra plants.
Passiflora incarnata, Passifloraceae. Passionflower is a native vine to the southeastern United States, with gorgeous flowers and interesting foliage. It is weedy in much of its native range and fairly easy to grow elsewhere, especially if given a wall or trellis to climb. The leaves and flowers are an important nervine sedative and are used to help promote sleep and alleviate pain, such as menstrual cramps and headaches.
Passionflower is a short-lived, perennial herbaceous vine. Plant 3 feet apart and trellis, it will grow up a 5’ fence or trellis by the end of summer. Passionflower loves full sun, and will bloom more profusely, especially if you live further north. If you live in a hot climate, consider planting passionflower where it will get shade by mid-afternoon. Plant in well drained to average garden soil. Hardy to Zone 6, frost-tender. Scarify the seeds by rubbing them between sandpaper and then place them in damp sand in the refrigerator for one to two months. Be patient, sometimes it may take months for the seeds to sprout, and germination may not happen all at once. Bottom heat, a warm greenhouse, or planting in late spring will all enhance germination.
Passionflower will spread throughout the garden if it’s happy, which may make you happy, or not very, depending on how big your garden is. Its easy enough to pull up any runners emerging in an inopportune location, and either transplant them or give them to your uptight neighbor. And then just when you think you cannot contain the vines’ exuberance, and begin to see it as a nuisance, it will up and die from heartache. Actually, it is just a short-lived perennial, no need to take it personally –you may simply need to replant it after three years or so. Learn more about the ecology and medicine of passionflower, and saving passionflower seed.
Echinacea or Purple Coneflower
Echinacea purpurea, Asteraceae. Purple coneflower is one of the most popular garden ornamentals with its showy purple flowers that attract all manner of butterflies and bees. Not only is it gorgeous, it is easy to grow—Echinacea is a decidedly unfussy plant, withstanding drought, disease and insect infestations. Purple coneflower (another name for Echinacea) roots, seeds, and fresh flowers are all medicinal, and can be made into a tingly tasting, immune-stimulating tea or tincture.
Echinacea is an herbaceous perennial, plant in full sun for the best flower production, 1-2’ apart; grows to 3-4’ tall. This is the easiest species of Echinacea to grow in most garden soils. Sow in greenhouse trays or directly in the ground in early spring. Germinates in 2-3 weeks. To improve the germination rate you may cold condition (stratify) the seeds for two weeks prior to planting. It will begin flowering the second year, and will be two or three years old before the roots are ready to harvest. Echinacea seeds are relished by gold finches and will self-sow if left on the plant over winter.
Holy Basil (Tulsi)
Ocimum sanctum syn. O. tenuiflorum, Lamiaceae. This close relative of common basil is native to India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and has gained recent popularity as a tasty herbal tea. Holy basil is highly aromatic and antimicrobial; the leaves and flowers are used as a medicinal tea for colds, coughs, asthma, bronchitis, sinusitis, headaches, arthritis, diabetes, stress, and anxiety. Its adaptogenic effect offers an uplifting energy and helps with mental clarity and focus. Culinary uses: fresh leaves can be added to salads and are used as a more pungent version of basil. Holy basil pesto is divine!
Perennial in Zone 10 and warmer, grown elsewhere as an annual; 1-2’ tall by 6” -1’ wide. Plant holy basil in full sun in average to moist garden soils. It is easy to grow from seed, but take care not to plant the seed too deep (it’s tiny) and it will germinate better with bottom heat. If your greenhouse gets too cold at night, tulsi will be slow to sprout, and also slow to grow. Plant outside after the danger of frost has passed. Holy basil may appear puny when you first plant it, leaving you to wonder if it has some botanical failure-to-thrive syndrome—perhaps you spoke too harshly with it when you were transplanting it—do not go to that dark place of plant parent guilt. When the days grow longer and the nighttime temperatures warm, it will take off!
Several harvests can be obtained in one year: simply cut back the mature plant to 8 inches and it will re-grow quickly. As with culinary basil, cutting back the early flowers helps the plant to fill out and promotes more vegetative growth.
Meadowsweet (Queen of the Meadow)
Filipendula ulmaria, Rosaceae. This stately herb is native to meadows in Europe. The flowers are quite attractive, growing in large white billowy clusters, and are traditionally used to flavor meads; hence its former name of Meadwort. The leaves and flowers have a pleasant wintergreen aroma and flavor, and are used internally for inflammation, fevers, heartburn, and peptic ulcers. Most people, including finicky children, love the tasty tea. Meadowsweet is a wonderful tonic for arthritis with its anti-inflammatory salicylates. It is naturalizing in northeastern US and can spread from seed, although I have yet to see it wild in North Carolina.
Meadowsweet is a hardy perennial, it grows to 4’ tall, and 2.5’ wide. Plant in full sun or part shade. Zone 2-8. It is much easier to grow from division than seed, which requires a complicated stratification regime. Any little piece of the root will take hold, and grow a new plant. A wet meadow, streamside or the edge of a pond are all perfect spots for meadowsweet. If you haven’t such a spot, try planting it in a low dip in the garden and water it during drought. If you live in a southern climate, meadowsweet will be happier with a little afternoon shade and a wet spot to dip its feet during the heat of the day. In cooler climates, meadowsweet will tolerate more sunshine and drier soils, and even regular garden soil will nurture the growth of beautiful healthy plants.
Southern Ginseng (synonyms - Jiaogulan or Sweet Tea Vine)
Gynostemma pentaphyllum, Cucurbitaceae. Jiaogulan is a popular folk herb in Southeast Asia where it is grown as an affordable substitute for ginseng (Panax spp. Araliaceae). It is gaining popularity in the Western world, where it is used as a tonic for longevity and vitality. It is also given to racehorses to improve their performance. The leaves are brewed into a medicinal tonic tea for anxiety, stress, depression, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. This vine is an easy-to-grow adaptogenic tonic, which contains some of the same compounds (ginsenosides) found in Asian and American ginseng. Sweet tea vine is quite bitter, contrary to its name; it has a flavor reminiscent of ginseng with mild soapy undertones. As you are likely aware of, sweet tea (black tea with copious amounts of white sugar) is the beverage of choice for many southerners. When I had my herb nursery, well-dressed ladies would inquire, with a southern syrupy drawl, about “sweet-tea” vine, thinking they had hit the jackpot—a sweet tea they could grow themselves!
Southern ginseng is an herbaceous perennial vine; it grows 4” tall by indefinitely wide; Part shade, moist rich soil; Hardy to 10 degrees F. Jiaogulan will locally spread vigorously by runners and can become a troublesome weed if consumption does not outpace proliferation. Sweet tea vine makes a beautiful container plant. Grow from division, as seeds are not readily available. Southern ginseng can be hard to come by, see the resource section below for nurseries that carry it.
Here is a video of Joe Hollis, of Mountain Gardens, talking about Jiaogulan. Joe is likely the person most responsible for jiaogulan’s recent popularity as a garden medicinal in the United States.
Spilanthes (Toothache plant)
Acmella oleracea, Asteraceae. This striking plant has golden, globe-shaped flowers with a red center, leading one seed company to market them as “eyeball plant.” Spilanthes is an interesting plant to behold and to taste! It is one of the strongest sialagogues (saliva-promoters) I know; even a tiny nibble from one of the flowers will set your mouth to drool. The tingly numbing sensation affords relief to toothaches, and is used in many tooth and gum formulas, as it is anti-microbial, stimulating, and acts as an oral anodyne. All the aboveground parts are medicinal, and can be chewed fresh in moderation or made into a tincture. I often put it into formulas with Echinacea as an immune stimulant for augmenting the body’s internal defenses against the common colds and flu.
Spilanthes is grown as an annual, plant it in average to rich soil and full sun; water during dry spells. It grows to 1’ tall, space 1’ apart. Direct sow after danger of frost has passed or sow in the greenhouse for a head start. Toothache plant easily transplants and will self-sow if you don’t mulch too heavily. The self-sown sprouts take their time coming up—I don’t usually see them until June here in the southern Appalachians, so you may want to start the seeds fresh every year to get a head start on the season. You can cut harvest the plants a few times during the growing season—cut the plants back to 6 inches, and if there’s still time left before frost, they will regrow nicely. Protect the plants from slugs, as they will devour it—slug candy, indeed! Spilanthes is one of the easiest to grow medicinal herbs, and kids absolutely love it! One to two plants will yield over a quart of tincture.
Urtica dioica, Urticaceae. Nettles is a highly revered, nutritious spring green, eaten steamed or in soups and stir-fries. The sting disappears when the leaves are cooked or dried. The greens and tea of nettles are high in minerals, vitamins, and chlorophyll, namely Vitamin A and C and calcium, potassium, magnesium and iron. The leaves and seeds are used medicinally in teas, and as a food, for allergies, arthritis, and as kidney tonic. Nettles is a highly useful garden plant if placed wisely in the landscape. It is considered a perennial vegetable—it does not need to be planted from seed each year, but comes back from the roots year after year, making it less energy-intensive to cultivate than many annual crops.
Nettles is an herbaceous perennial; growing 3-4’ tall by indefinitely wide; full sun to part shade, rich moist soil. Zone 4-8. It will spread prolifically by runners; plant it out of the way or inside a semi-buried barrier. Try planting nettles in a wet meadow (away from human activity) or an old compost or manure pile. In some locales it will spread by seed, making containment challenging. Nettles are dynamic accumulators—a term used to describe plants with the ability to mine nutrients (such as N, K, P, Ca) from deep in the soil. These nutrients are concentrated in their leaves, and then released into the soil when the plants die or loose their leaves. Nettles can be added to compost or used as fertilizing mulch. Many gardeners make “tea” out of nettles by soaking the leaves in a bucket until fermentation occurs—the “tea” can then be used to water plants, thus fertilizing the plants, along with adding beneficial microorganisms. Nettle shoots emerge in the earliest spring, you can continually harvest the tender new growth with scissors and it will regrow, allowing for multiple harvests from the same patch.
Monarda fistulosa, Lamiaceae. Consider inviting wild bergamot into your garden for its beauty, medicine, and amazing ability to attract butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. Wild bergamot is a close relative to bee balm (Monarda didyma) however, wild bergamot will thrive in hotter and drier conditions as compared to bee balm. Both bee balm and wild bergamot have been important medicines for Native American people. They are used medicinally to treat infections and digestive issues, such as gas and bloating. Wild bergamot is antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and diaphoretic (brings on a sweat to break a fever). I like to use the dried leaves and flowers in a steam inhalation to help break up upper and lower respiratory congestion. Wild bergamot has a pungent aroma and flavor and can be enjoyed in tea or prepared as a tincture. The lavender flowers are edible and can be used as a garnish or tossed in salads for an extra splash of color. The leaves can be mixed with basil to create a pungent twist on the classic pesto.
Wild bergamot is an herbaceous perennial; it grows 3-4’ tall by indefinitely wide. Full sun, average to well-drained soil. Zones 3-8. The seeds are Lilliputian-tiny and must be planted on the surface of the soil and misted or bottom watered (to avoid burying them too deep in the soil). For most gardeners, it’s easier to purchase a plant or divide a bit of the root from a friend’s plant. Wild bergamot spreads vigorously by runners, similar to mint. Plant it where it can go hog wild, or contain it with a rhizome barrier, as you would for mint or bamboo.
Web Resources and Books
Guideline to Growing Medicinal Herbs from Seeds by Juliet Blankespoor
Cultivating Medicinal Herbs, with a Focus on at-risk Medicinal Herbs by Juliet Blankespoor
Growing Medicinal Herbs in Containers by Juliet Blankespoor
Growing At-Risk Medicinal Herbs: Cultivation, Conservation and Ecology – Richo Cech. Detailed instruction on the cultivation requirements for at-risk plants including ginseng, goldenseal, the cohoshes, bloodroot, etc.
The Medicinal Herb Grower – a Guide for Cultivating Plants that Heal, Volume 1 – Richo Cech. A good beginning book to cultivating plants in general, but focusing on medicinal herbs. Vegetative propagation is explored: cuttings, divisions, layering as well as germination specifics: stratification, scarification, light-dependent and heat-dependent germinators. Composting, soil, mulching, seed-saving, and harvesting are also covered.
The Illustrated Herb Encyclopedia; A complete Culinary, Cosmetic, Medicinal, and Ornamental Guide to Herbs – Kathi Keville. One of my long -time favorite herb references. Provides more cultivation information than most general herbals. Beautiful illustrations. Recipes, historical reference, aromatherapy, etc.
Seeds and Plants
Strictly Medicinal Seeds – Largest collection of organically grown medicinal herb seeds and plants. Catalog is also a growers manual and contains many of the germination specifics listed below.
Mountain Gardens – Joe Hollis sells medicinal herb seeds, bare-root and potted plants, and ships throughout the world. Joe also offers apprenticeships in medicinal herb cultivation and use, and medicine making.
Richters – Huge selection of herb seeds and plants. Rare or hard- to - find herbs.
Fedco – Organic gardening resources – tools, books, biological control, etc. Many heirloom organic vegetable, flower, herb, and fruit tree selections.
Prairie Moon Nursery – Seeds and plants of natives to the prairie and eastern states. Loads of germination information in their seed section.
Southern Exposure Seeds – Heirloom varieties adapted to the southeast.
Spring Herb Festival – First weekend in May at the Western North Carolina farmer’s market in Asheville, NC