If today’s high-speed lifestyle is starting to wear on your body and spirit, give yourself the natural boost you need this spring by growing medicinal herbs. Plants like chamomile and lavender are grown and harvested for their soothing qualities, since both herbs gently calm the senses, while putting your troubled mind at ease. Similarly, herbs like Echinacea and peppermint have long been praised for their remarkable abilities to ward off upper respiratory ailments and to alleviate upset stomachs. Growing herbs is one of the easiest feats in the gardening world, and even if not harvested for their medicinal values, they can offer timeless beauty and provide an aesthetic aura to any of your flowerbeds or mixed containers.
Wild chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), having originated as an annual herb in the feral countrysides of Europe, is now naturalized in almost every continent, and can be found bordering fence rows and highways, as well as sprouting amid sunny open fields from southern Canada and northern United States, down through the heart of Minnesota. This light green feathery plant yields a soft pineapple scent during the spring and summer, and when planted in the garden is believed to help sickly plants grow. From May through October, small daisy-like blossoms rest high atop their wispy 18-inch stalks.
Although you may have never witnessed a field of wild chamomile in full bloom, the elegant slender stalks blowing briskly in the cool northern winds, you are probably familiar with the cultivated German or Roman chamomile. German chamomile (Matricaria recutita), more commonly used in the United States than its Roman relative, has been employed for thousands of years by children and adults for a variety of health conditions, specifically those related to nervousness. A popular alternative remedy for sleeping disorders and anxieties, the flowers of German chamomile work as mild sedatives, and are most commonly infused in mild herbal teas. It is believed in fact, that the ancient Egyptians dedicated chamomile to their sun god and hailed it over all other herbs for its remarkable healing qualities. Due to the eminent calming and sedative values of the chamomile flowers, they were also added to love potions during medieval times.
Today, chamomile continues to be praised for its relaxing properties, but it can also be found instilled in hair shampoos, mixed in potpourri and herb pillows, or suffused in topical treatments for sunburns or mouth ulcers resulting from cancer treatment. Organic gardeners might be excited to know that chamomile tea can be utilized as a liquid feed as well as a plant tonic, one effective against a host of plant diseases. You can also use dried flowers as an insect repellent. To harvest flowers, simply cut them from their stems and spread on muslin-covered racks to dry.
German chamomile grows almost two feet in height and is perfect for planting in mixed containers or in flowerbeds. Similar to the wild species, it has light green feather-soft foliage that shoots forth miniature yellow and white flowers from the spring through the fall. These attractive daisy look-alikes emit a delicate pineapple scent that seems to pleasantly grow stronger the more the blossoms are rustled. For best results, plant chamomile in full sun and well drained soil. Create visual appeal by intermingling herbs with bolder texture; ‘Dark Opal’ basil, bay leaf, or purple sage, for instance, are a few options you might consider. Add marigolds, salvias, or zinnias for extra color during the spring and summer.
Lavender, the most popular of aromatic herbs, is also noted for its incredible soothing powers. Indigenous to the mountainous regions of the Mediterranean and northern Africa, lavender has long been cultivated for its intensely fragrant blossoms in various parts of England, France, and Italy. Different from chamomile flowers, for centuries lavender blooms have been predominantly harvested for their infusion in fragrant oils. When gently breathed in, the smooth scent of this enticingly exotic herb is enough to calm anyone’s frazzled nerves. Today you can find tranquility in lavender-scented perfumes, powders, potpourri, and essential oils. Add a few drops of lavender essence to your bath after a tough day to relieve and cleanse a disheartened spirit of angst and fatigue.
Although the fragrance of lavender is found within all parts of the plant, the essential oil is produced solely from the flowers and flower stalks. And though a number of lavender species will thrive in Louisiana, the strongest perfumes are emanated by English lavender (Lavandula vera). Averaging two to three feet tall, English lavender has striking silvery grey foliage that beautifully offsets darting spears of lilac purple during the spring and summer. Lavender performs best in full sun and well drained soil. Plant this much commended herb near walkways or windows to acquire the most from its intoxicating aroma, keeping in mind that the more you plant, the stronger the fragrance.
While chamomile is known for its cool calming qualities, and lavender is noted for softening the senses, Echinacea aids in stimulating the immune system. Echinacea was used for medicinal treatments more than any other herb by the Native Americans. The remarkable health benefits from this healing herb could not be kept secret; by the early 1900s Echinacea had become a central ingredient in American medicine, and by the 1930s Europeans began harvesting it for their own medicinal purposes. Today, millions of Europeans continue to use Echinacea as their leading therapy to fight cold and flu symptoms, as well as to battle other minor infections or to merely jump-start their immune systems.
Purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) make great additions to any herb garden or flowerbed, and when planted in direct sunlight, these perennial beauties can reach up to four feet in height. During the spring and summer, tall brawny stems stand above bold midnight-green leaves, as daisy-like petals of plum purple flit from the sides of their orange core. Coneflowers look excellent when intermixed with other perennials like Rudbeckia, Shasta daisies, and Gaillardia. When planted singly or in groups, they can also bring color and texture to beds of basil, chamomile, lavender, and oregano.
Let the refreshing powers of mint invigorate your mind and body as well. Native to the Mediterranean region, 3,500 named species of mint now encircle the globe. Whether you are in search of the traditional peppermint and spearmint, or you want something a bit more exotic such as chocolate mint, lemon mint, or orange mint, energize your spirit with your flavor of choice—almost any variety will grow here.
Peppermint has long been praised for its outstanding ability in gently relieving upset stomachs and mild headaches. For stimulating culinary treats, incorporate mint leaves when making oils, baking, or preparing a warm cup of tea or hot chocolate. While the best time to harvest mint is in the morning when its oils are strongest, it can be picked any time during the year and can be used fresh, dried, or frozen. Once dried, mint should be stored in an airtight container away from other herbs, due to its extraordinarily overpowering aroma. Plant your favorite variety in full sun and watch as the iridescent green leaves sprawl magnificently through the bed, stretching to almost two feet tall. To get the most out of its rejuvenating fragrance, plant mint near walkways or in window boxes.
While you might not be ready to administer your own herbal treatments, you can certainly embark on your alternative path by growing medicinal herbs. Remember that for the largest selection of herbs, spring is the best time to plant. Design your garden today; nature humbly awaits you, and nothing will assuage your mind like the fulfillment of harvesting your own freshly grown herbs.