Medicinal Plants: Growing Healing Herbs for the Home Garden

Written by Meghan Gemma with Juliet Blankespoor
Photography by Juliet Blankespoor

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Ready to start or expand your herb garden?

Here we’re introducing medicinal, edible, and cultivation profiles for three cherished healing plants: elderberry, lemon balm, and rose. You can also find a wheelbarrow-full of articles on designing, growing, and tending a home herb garden via our Medicinal Herb Gardening Hub (and you’ll find cultivation featurettes for dozens more herbs!).

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Elderberry (Sambucus nigra var. canadensis)

Elderberry (Sambucus nigra var. canadensis)

Elderberry
(Sambucus nigra, S. nigra var. canadensis, Adoxaceae)

Elderberry is an herb gardener’s reverie. Blessed with lush foliage, creamy clusters of frothy blossoms, and heavy bunches of dark fruit that beckon birds to flit and flutter between its branches, elder captures the eye and the heart. Humans are drawn to its canopy just as readily as the birds. This herbal shrub is a rich source of immune-boosting medicine, and is deeply steeped in lore; around the world, stories abound about a healing spirit said to live within the tree. She is often called the Elder Mother, Elder Lady, or Elda Mor—and she can be appealed to on behalf of the ill.1

Elder's Medicinal Uses

Parts used: Flowers and berries
Preparations: Syrup, tincture, infusion, decoction, mead, wine, honey, shrub, and vinegar
Herbal Actions:

  • Berries:
    • Antiviral
    • Immune tonic
    • Antibacterial
    • Antioxidant
    • Antirheumatic
    • Anticatarrhal
    • Anti-inflammatory
    • Diaphoretic
    • Cardiovascular tonic
    • Diuretic
  • Flowers:
    • Antiviral
    • Anticatarrhal
    • Diaphoretic
    • Antispasmodic
    • Astringent
    • Alterative
    • Anti-inflammatory
    • Diuretic
    • Nervine

Elder is a traditional immune system tonic with significant antiviral properties. The berries are more potent than the flowers in this light, and work by strengthening cell membranes against viral penetration. Elderberry also increases the production of cytokines—chemical messengers that enhance communication between white blood cells and the body during an infection.2 You may have read concerns regarding elderberry as a possible cause of cytokine storms. My opinion is that elder is likely safe for most people, but if you’d like to read more on the topic, I recommend this article by herbalist Paul Bergner.

Elderberry is effective against many viruses, including the common cold and a broad spectrum of influenza strains (especially when taken at the first signs of illness).

The most delicious and nourishing way to imbibe elderberry’s medicine is to prepare a rich purple syrup that combines elderberry tincture, elderberry tea, and elderberry-infused honey. For children and folks who avoid alcohol, I swap out the alcohol in the tincture for apple cider vinegar. I also add liberal quantities of cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) and ginger (Zingiber officinale). It is beyond tasty! See our video tutorial on preparing herbal honeys and syrups for more guidance.

Taken tonically, elderberry has a range of other benefits; it is anti-inflammatory for arthritic conditions, iron-rich and building to the blood, a preventative for vascular disease and atherosclerosis, and an antioxidant preventative for cancer.

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Elder flowers perfect for picking

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Elder flowers are gently antiviral and healing for the upper respiratory system. Rich in tannins and volatile oils, they effectively dry up excessive fluids and help mucus flow more freely from the sinuses, alleviating stuffy nose, headache, and earache. In addition, their flavonoid compounds are anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and immune-stimulating.

When taken hot, a tea or tincture of elder flower can help sweat out a cold or fever, especially when combined with other diaphoretic herbs like peppermint (Mentha x piperita) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium).

Safety and Contraindications: All parts of elder (except the flowers) contain cyanogenic glycosides (CGs) that can cause varying degrees of upset stomach—nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The seeds and unripe berries are the most common culprits, but any toxicity is generally neutralized by cooking or tincturing. The leaves, bark, and roots contain progressively higher levels of CGs and are more likely to cause side effects. Once the plant has been purged from the system, there is no lasting illness.

Blackberry Elderberry Shrub

Edibility

Elderberry is an exemplary nutritive tonic food that is rich in vitamin C, minerals, and bioflavonoids. The berries are not naturally very sweet and benefit from a bit of added honey, maple syrup, or other sugar. This makes them classic for pies, cobblers, jams, syrups, homemade sodas, and meads. Try combining them with other wild berries like serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.), black cap raspberries (Rubus occidentalis), and blackberries (Rubus spp.).

Elder blossoms contain fatty acids and have an almost buttery consistency. They can be added to pancakes, banana bread, muffins, and crepes. They’re also traditional in cordials, liquors, sodas, and tea. And if a special occasion is on the horizon, you might consider looking up a recipe for elderflower champagne.

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Removing elderberries from the stem

How to Grow + Gather Elderberry

In Old World Europe, elders were traditionally planted near the home or at the edge of the herb garden as a guardian and protector. In North America, Native Americans have gathered medicine from wild elders (including S. canadensis) for millennia. Given their own choice, elders will prefer a moist habitat with rich, loamy soils. To raise a lush tree or hedge, I recommend a little pampering: enrich the soil with organic matter, mulch heavily after planting to retain moisture, and water young plants frequently. Once established, they need little care. Note: elders are generally tolerant and can establish themselves in dry conditions and poor, salty, or clayey soils.

Elderberries are propagated easily from seed, and even more easily from vegetative cuttings. Follow the guidelines for taking cuttings below. (You can also order cuttings and live plants from many edible plant and permaculture nurseries.)

If you have a local stand of elders, or know someone who has planted a shrub or two, you can harvest cuttings. Be sure to gather cuttings from bushes that have tasty berries, healthy growth, and prolific fruit.

  1. Take cuttings in late winter or very early spring, before the branches have begun to leaf out. From a living branch, take several 10- to 12-inch (25 to 30 cm) cuttings with at least two pairs of leaf nodes apiece. Make an angled cut at the “root” end, about ½ inch or so below a leaf node. At the other end, make a flat cut about ½ inch above a pair of leaf nodes. Use sharp pruners that have been sterilized with hydrogen peroxide or rubbing alcohol.
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  2. Apply a rooting hormone. Dust the angled ends of your cuttings with a rooting hormone. Alternately, you can try using willow (Salix spp.) tea. This will increase your success in propagating viable plants.
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  3. Fill 1-gallon pots with a planting medium. You can use coarse sand or perlite. If you don’t have either of these on hand, regular potting soil (preferably without fertilizer) will be adequate.
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  4. Make holes in the soil in the center of each pot using a pencil or twig and settle cuttings into the holes. Plant the cutting, burying the bottom leaf nodes about 2 inches (5 cm) below the surface of the soil. It’s fine to plant many cuttings into one large pot. Make sure to tamp the soil securely around each cutting.
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  5. Water, and try to keep the cuttings consistently moist but not soaking wet. Place them in diffused sunlight until they begin to grow both roots and leaves. Harden them off by gradually introducing them to direct sunlight.
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When ready, transplant the cuttings that have successfully rooted in fall or early spring. Space transplants about 6 feet (1.8 m) apart. Many transplants flower and fruit in their first year, though it may take several years before you can gather a sizable harvest.

The berries ripen in mid- to late summer and should be a deep dark purple before they are plucked. You’ll likely have competition from the birds, so be sure to check your bushes regularly. The stems of the berry clusters are considered somewhat toxic, so you’ll want to remove all of the larger stems and most of the smaller ones. If a little “stemlette” or two finds its way into your medicine, don’t fret—it won’t do any harm! Berries can be used fresh for medicine making or cooking, frozen for later use, or dried, which sweetens up their flavor.

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Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

Lemon Balm
(Melissa officinalis, Lamiaceae)

The patron herb of bees, lemon balm encourages a bounty of sweetness in the world—not only does it gladden the heart, but it’s traditionally planted near honeybee hives to dissuade the bees from swarming (they adore lemon balm’s aroma). I know few herbalists who are without this plant in the garden. It is a traditional nervine, digestive, and antiviral ally.

Lemon Balm's Medicinal Uses

Parts used: Leaves and flowering tops
Preparations: Infusion, tincture, vinegar, essential oil, salve, succus, pesto, and condiment

Herbal Actions:

  • Nervine
  • Carminative
  • Antiviral
  • Antidepressant
  • Diaphoretic

With bright green leaves that waft an uplifting lemony fragrance into the air, lemon balm is known to levitate the spirit. It is a brightening nervine remedy for melancholy, mild anxiety, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and mild depression.* With relaxing, antispasmodic, and gently sedative qualities, it’s also indicated for tension headaches, stress-related insomnia, panic attacks accompanied by heart palpitations, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and overexcitement or restlessness in children.3

I find a fragrant infusion of lemon balm to be more encouraging for downcast spirits than a tincture, but both are effective. Try blending in other gladdening herbs like rose (Rosa spp.) and tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum). For tonic use, you might consider adding replenishing nervines like milky oats (Avena sativa) and skullcap (Scutellaria spp.). Taken regularly, these herbs can strengthen and rehabilitate a stressed, strained, and saddened nervous system.

Like many members of the mint family, lemon balm extends its aid as a carminative herb and digestive remedy. Its high concentration of essential oils has an antispasmodic and calming effect on dyspepsia, gas, nervous indigestion, nausea, heartburn, and the pains and cramping associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).4

Lemon balm is also widely used as a topical and internal antiviral herb, especially for herpes (types 1 and 2), chickenpox, shingles, mononucleosis (mono), and sixth disease (roseola).5 Internally, the tincture or strong tea will be appropriate, taken regularly. Topically, a concentrated store-bought cream is highly effective. A dab of the essential oil diluted in a carrier oil is also wonderfully relieving (note that the essential oil is very expensive).

Safety and Contraindications: Lemon balm may be contraindicated for hypothyroidism (in large or consistent doses) because it inhibits the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH).6

*A note here on depression: Therapies to treat mental illness are highly individualized; each person and situation is unique. People typically need therapeutic treatment beyond herbalism: this might include acupuncture, talk therapy, nutrition, supplements, or pharmaceuticals. Please do not judge yourself or anyone else for needing and seeking help, natural or otherwise!

If you’re in a dark place or considering hurting yourself, please reach out right now—there are folks who want to talk to you. And we’re in this together. You are not alone! This helpline is one option: (1-800-273-TALK).

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Lemon balm is delicious in herbal iced tea blends

Edibility

Lemon balm is one of my favorite nutritive kitchen herbs; its fresh and tender shoots can be added to salsas, jams, liquors, ice cream, sorbet, smoothies, pestos, finishing salts, and infused vinegars. I often chop up a handful and combine it with mint (Mentha spp.) and flower petals as a topping for tacos. Likewise, the fresh leaves can be minced and tossed into fruit salads, tabouleh, and leafy green salads. Lemon balm leaves stirred into lentils or bean dishes add a nice flavor and improve their digestibility.

The simplest way to prepare lemon balm, however, is as a summertime iced tea. It is delicious on its own or combined with herbs like calendula (Calendula officinalis), hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa), and mint. I also love Dina Falconi’s recipe for Everything Lemony Lime, which blends lemon balm, lemongrass, lemon verbena, lime zest, lime juice, sea salt, and raw honey. I make this at the height of summer when all the herbs can be gathered fresh from the garden. You can find the recipe in Dina’s exquisite book, Foraging & Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook.

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Dew-laden sparkling lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

How to Grow + Gather Lemon Balm

Lemon balm has been cultivated in medicinal gardens for over 2,000 years. Native to the Mediterranean regions of south-central Europe and the Middle East, it is a sun-loving botanical that can thrive in USDA zones 3–10.

Among the easiest culinary and medicinal herbs to grow, lemon balm is most easily propagated by root division. If you know someone who already has a patch in their garden, you might promise to bring them a plate of lemon balm shortbread cookies in exchange for a division or two. For best success, see our guide to herbal root division here.

Lemon balm is also easily started from seed. Because this plant is a light-dependent germinator (LDG), the seeds should be planted right on the surface of the soil or just barely covered. Watering will gently press them into full contact with the soil. Expect germination after 7 to 14 days.

Lemon balm prefers rich soil with a bit of moisture but will also do well in dry or sandy soils. It is a bushing herbaceous perennial and can become extravagantly lush as summer unfolds. Space plants 1–2 feet (0.3–0.6 m) apart.

If you’ve heard rumors that lemon balm wantonly sows its seeds, I have to tell you the reputation is well-deserved. Many gardeners complain about its proclivity to produce offspring that will inhabit the near and far corners of your garden (though I don’t mind this myself). If you wish to thwart lemon balm’s advance, be sure to harvest the flowering tops before they set seed (but after the bees have had an opportunity to sip their nectar!).

I like to harvest lemon balm several times throughout the growing season. You can simply cut back all of the aboveground growth when the plant is looking at its verdant peak, usually right before it flowers. The leaves and stems can be dried, but I prefer to use lemon balm fresh as its aromatic oils quickly disperse. For fresh preparation suggestions, see the Edibility section above.

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Rose (Rosa spp.)

Rose
(Rosa spp., Rosaceae)

As an herbalist, it took me a while to come around to rose. Growing up, my only context for its blooms were the florist-perfect, sanguine-red bouquets that emanated a cloying scent on Valentine’s Day. I had never seen an heirloom rose in the garden or buried my nose in the petals of a wild bramble. So, I held little favor for this luxuriant medicine. Years later, as a budding gardener and herbal student, I discovered—with surprise and wonder—that I love rose with all my heart.

Rose's Medicinal Uses

Parts used: Flower buds, blossoms, and hips
Preparations: Infusion (buds and flowers), decoction (hips), tincture, oil, salve, honey, syrup, elixir, rose otto essential oil, vinegar, flower essence, hydrosol, compress, poultice, and soak
Herbal Actions:

  • Flowers and Buds:
    • Nervine
    • Astringent
    • Anti-inflammatory
    • Cardiotonic
    • Antimicrobial
    • Diuretic
    • Anticatarrhal
    • Antianxiety
    • Aphrodisiac
  • Rosehips:
    • Blood tonic
    • Nutritive tonic
    • Astringent
    • Antimicrobial

Rose is a deliciously nuanced medicine—it is ancient, paradoxical, and mythic. The Greek poetess Sappho aptly named it “Queen of the Flowers.” After all, wild roses have been rambling on the planet for at least 70 million years (compare that to the first fossil evidence of Homo sapiens appearing around 300,000 years ago).

With velvety, kitten-soft petals, rose bears a doctrine of signatures that suggests succor and soothing. Both the blossoms and unopened buds are a remedy for those who are experiencing grief or loss, or feeling tenderhearted or unloved. The benefits are amplified when combined with hawthorn blossoms (Crataegus spp.), lavender blooms, (Lavandula angustifolia), and/or mimosa flowers (Albizia julibrissin). Rose is also an ally for those in conflict—a tea, elixir, cordial, or essence of the blooms can temper anger and encourage resolution.

In children, rose can impart a sense of comfort and security. It calms irritability, fits of anger, and nightmares. A spritz of rosewater on the pillow right before bedtime is a soothing ritual and helpful measure toward sweet sleep.

And of course, rose is deeply aligned with romance—it is a champion for nurturing love and intimacy. A stirring aphrodisiac, rose helps to awaken the libido and thaw sexual frigidity. It can also be an aid to those experiencing impotence, especially when linked to sexual abuse or trauma.

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Rosehip of Rosa rugosa

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Rosehips are one of the most concentrated forms of vitamin C in the world. They are an excellent tonic for the immune system and can be eaten throughout the winter months in compotes, jams, fruit leathers, and vinegars. I find the best way to get a daily dose is to stir a handful or two into my yearly batch of elderberry syrup. I also love brewing rosehips with burdock root (Arctium minus, A. lappa) and cinnamon for a delicious and nourishing cold season tea.

A blood-building tonic, rosehips can support those who experience symptoms of blood deficiency, including fatigue, a pale complexion, numbness or tingling in the limbs, dizziness, scanty menses, and dry or lusterless skin and hair. The hips can be made into a delicious stand-alone syrup, or combined with other blood-building herbs such as schisandra berries (Schisandra chinensis), nettle leaves (Urtica dioica), and yellow dock roots (Rumex crispus).

Edibility

Rose is a food-medicine capable of inducing swoonful states and culinary enchantment. Both the petals and hips are profoundly nutritive. Roses with pink and red petals are especially high in bioflavonoids, carotenoids, and anthocyanins, and contain as many (if not more) antioxidants as green tea.7 To enjoy, add the petals to green salads, smoothies, fruit salads, and salsas.

In the summertime I combine the beautiful fresh flowers and flower buds with hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa) and mint (Mentha spp.) to make a cooling and refreshing herbal iced tea. The petals can likewise be added to meads and steeped in wine, brandy, or other liquors. You may wish to experiment with different roses in the kitchen; each species and cultivar will taste and smell a little bit different.

Rosehips can be prepared into delicious, vitamin-rich jams and syrups.

Safety and Contraindications: Rose is cooling and drying and can aggravate cold and dry constitutions if taken regularly.

Rose harvest

How to Grow + Gather Rose

Vegetative cuttings are the easiest way to propagate roses—I recommend taking cuttings in early to mid-summer from the new, green growing tips of the canes. This growth should be relatively hard, but not yet woody. Follow the numbered instructions for taking cuttings under How to Grow + Gather Elderberry above, except try to choose cuttings that have 3 to 5 leaf nodes apiece and are 4–8 inches (10–20 cm) in length.

You can also dig up suckers from the base of a rose bush to transplant. Make sure to cut back the aboveground parts by about half to minimize transplant shock.

In the garden, most roses do well in moist, well-drained soil. A sunny spot that has ample airflow will be ideal. In climates where fungal diseases are a concern, it’s important to water roses at the base rather than from overhead, which opens the door to fungal pathogens. Any dead or infected leaves should be promptly pruned away and cleared from the base of the plant.

Rose cultivars are heavy feeders and will appreciate regular applications of fertilizer—once in the spring and again in the fall. Compost tea, alfalfa meal, or an organic fertilizer blend for flowers are all good options. Side dressing your roses with a layer of compost is also recommended.

Wild rose varieties rarely need pruning, other than a snip here and there to keep their clambering canes in check. Cultivated roses, on the other hand, benefit greatly from pruning to form shapely hedges, encourage blooming, and increase air circulation. Take special care with heirloom and old-fashioned varieties; these should be pruned only after flowering is complete. Roses that bloom repeatedly, however, should be pruned frequently to remove weak growth and spent blossoms. For a few simple and valuable tips on pruning your rose bushes, see this short video from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply: Growing Organic Roses.

Gathering rose blossoms for medicine is a timely art. The essential oils present in the petals are most highly concentrated on the morning a rose first blooms, and sometimes the day prior. These oils deteriorate rapidly under a hot sun or drenching rain, so have your baskets ready and be prepared to consistently gather blooms until they are spent.

If you’d also like to gather rosehips, leave a generous quantity of flowers on the bush to mature into fruit. Rosehips are best frost-ripened, and are traditionally gathered throughout the fall and early winter months. Look for hips that are shining and red, and be sure to leave plenty for the birds. Most rosehips contain irritating hairs inside that surround the seeds. You’ll want to split the hips to scrape out the hairs and seed capsules. Often, it’s helpful to run fresh, ripe hips through a food mill or sieve to separate out these parts.

Please only gather flowers and hips from organic rose bushes or those that are growing wild in clean places, as roses are one of the most heavily sprayed plants in gardens and commercial farms alike. Along these lines, absolutely avoid using bouquet roses from florists as food or medicine.

Looking for more blog articles about medicinal herb cultivation?

Check out our Medicinal Herb Gardening Hub. It is brimming with articles, including:

References

  1. Forsell, M. The Herbal Grove. New York: Villard Books, 1995.
  2. Barak, V., Halperin, T., and Kalickman, I. “The Effect of Sambucol, a Black Elderberry-based, Natural Product, on the Production of Human Cytokines: I. Inflammatory Cytokines.” European Cytokine Network, April–June 2001.
  3. Hoffmann, D. Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Rochester: Inner Traditions/Bear & Co., 2003.
  4. Romm, A. J. Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health. London: Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier, 2010.
  5. Schnitzler, P., Schumacher, A., Astani, A., and Reichling, J. “Melissa Officinalis Oil Affects Infectivity of Enveloped Herpes Viruses.” Phytomedicine, 2008.
  6. Yarnell, E., and Abascal, K. “Botanical Medicine for Thyroid Regulation.” Alternative and Complementary Therapies, June 2006.
  7. Vinokur, Y., Rodov, V., et al. “Rose Petal Tea as an Antioxidant-Rich Beverage: Cultivar Effects.” Journal of Food Science, 2006.
Meghan Gemma

MEGHAN GEMMA is one of the Chestnut School’s primary instructors through her written lessons, and is the principal pollinator of the school’s social media community—sharing herbal and wild foods wisdom from the flowery heart of the school to an ever-wider field of herbalists, gardeners, healers, and plant lovers.

She has been in a steady relationship with the Chestnut School since 2010—as an intern and manager at the Chestnut Herb Nursery; as a plant-smitten student “back in the day” when the school’s programs were taught in the field; and later as a part the school’s woman-powered professional team. Meghan lives in the Ivy Creek watershed, just north of Asheville, North Carolina.

JULIET BLANKESPOOR founded the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine in 2007 and serves as the school’s primary instructor and Creative Director. She's been a professional plant-human matchmaker for close to three decades. Juliet caught the plant bug when she was nineteen and went on to earn a degree in Botany. She's owned just about every type of herbal business you can imagine: an herbal nursery, a medicinal products business, a clinical practice, and now, an herbal school.

These days, she channels her botanical obsession with her writing and photography in her online programs and here on her personal blog, Castanea. She's writing her first book: Cultivating Medicinal Herbs: Grow, Harvest, and Prepare Handcrafted Remedies from Your Home Garden. Juliet and her houseplants share a home with her family and herb books in Asheville, North Carolina.

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