By Meghan Gemma and Juliet Blankespoor
Photography by Juliet Blankespoor
Lush, aromatic plants gracing the gateways to your home—porch steps, patios, pathways, and windowsills—are the ultimate welcome mat.
In particular, potted culinary and medicinal herbs bring a little something extra. Their fragrance and beauty are a daily reminder that herbal self-care is within reach. And keeping healing herbs close at hand increases the likelihood they’ll star in your next meal or cup of tea.
Most culinary herbs double as medicinal allies, and the ones on this list are no exception. Plants that serve as both food and medicine are among my most reached-for herbs.
Here, we’re rolling out the green carpet for ten of our most essential culinary/medicinal herbs—all of which can be grown in pots and other containers with ease.
Wondering where to acquire herb starts and seedlings? Find a roll call of growers in our catalog of Herbal Seed Suppliers and Nurseries.
And for our tips on choosing containers and stirring up an all-purpose potting mix, visit our blog on Growing Medicinal Herbs in Containers.
*Please note that this article’s discussion of medicinal uses is introductory in scope. We’ve provided safety guidelines for each plant, but we recommend that you research any new herb and consult your health-care providers for possible drug/herb contraindications and precautions before ingesting.
1. Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum, Lamiaceae)
Parts Used: Flowering tops—leaves, stems, and flower spikes
Medicinal Preparations: Tea, tincture, infused honey, syrup, mead, herbal steam, infused vinegar
- Diaphoretic (stimulates perspiration)
- Anti-emetic (anti-nausea, anti-vomiting)
Medicinal and Culinary Uses: With a spicy-sweet aroma reminiscent of licorice, anise hyssop is a gentle remedy for coughs, colds, indigestion, insomnia, mild depression, and anxiety. I like to combine it with catnip (Nepeta cataria) and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) in teas, as their flavors meld nicely and their medicinal uses are complementary.
Children have a special affinity for anise hyssop’s sweet flavor—it can be used to mask the more unpleasant flavors of other medicinals.
In the kitchen, try adding a few finely chopped leaves to salad, herbed goat cheese, and fruit salad for an anise-like flair. Anise hyssop can be artfully woven into all manner of confections, including ice cream, sorbet, icing, cookies, cordials, and smoothies. To infuse the flavor, you can prepare a concentrated tea if the recipe calls for water, or heat milk or butter, gently infusing the herb and then straining.
I highly recommend combining anise hyssop with black birch (Betula lenta) for a delicious root beer–flavored mead or home-fermented soda. Iced tea prepared from anise hyssop, mint (Mentha spp.), and lemon balm is divinely refreshing.
Cultivation: Anise hyssop is one of the easiest herbs to grow and thrives in both hot and cool climates. In the warmer reaches of its range, it can be grown in part shade and moist soil. In more temperate regions, it will do just fine in average to dry-ish soil and full sun.
Pinch back the growing tips every week in the spring to stimulate lush new growth. The plant can grow spindly if you don’t encourage it to branch and become bushier. In addition, pinching back the growing shoots encourages more flowering stalks. Anise hyssop is a short-lived perennial, with a life span of two to three years. Divide plants after the second summer to increase their longevity.
Few plants attract as many bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds to the garden as this showy medicinal—its lavender flower spikes are abuzz with pollinators during its long flowering season.
Safety and Contraindications: No known precautions.
2. Garden Sage (Salvia officinalis, Lamiaceae)
Parts Used: Leaves
Medicinal Preparations: Tea, tincture, infused oil, compress, wash, gargle, tooth powder, infused vinegar, herbal finishing salts
- Cholagogue (stimulates bile)
Medicinal and Culinary Uses: Classic garden sage has a special affinity for the mouth and throat, and is treasured as a gargle or rinse for sore throat, canker sores, periodontal disease, bad breath, and cold sores. It has a rich tradition of use as a mental stimulant and is often added to formulas to aid concentration, memory, and focus.
This Mediterranean herb is unique in that it can slow breast milk production and sweating. For these purposes, it should be drunk at room temperature in small doses throughout the day. Sage is commonly employed with motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) in reducing hot flashes during menopause.
Sage is renowned for its pungent resinous flavor, and its ability to complement fatty foods. Indeed, our taste buds may be speaking for our stomachs in this department, as sage is one of the best culinary herbs for enhancing the digestion of fats (by stimulating bile).
Many of us identify with sage as the quintessential stuffing herb; I like to combine it with generous portions of black pepper and anise seeds. Sausages are frequently spiced with sage, as is meat loaf. Sage is often thought of as the poultry seasoning, but it is equally at home with winter squash and roasted roots.
Cultivation: Sage will grow like a dream in containers, as long as the soil is well-drained. If you live in a colder, four-season climate, be sure to overwinter sage indoors in a south-facing window to avoid cold season casualties.
As with most mint family members, pinching back the growing tips during the first year will encourage bushiness. In the spring of the second year before the plants begin to regrow, cut them back by a third to discourage woodiness. Continue with this pruning regime every year to keep the plants perky and promote fresh succulent shoots. Sage is often a short-lived perennial, petering out or becoming woody after several years.
Safety and Contraindications: Sage should be avoided in medicinal doses during pregnancy. Smaller culinary doses are considered safe. Avoid during lactation, unless you are weaning, as sage will slow milk production.
3. Basil (Ocimum basilicum, Lamiaceae)
Parts Used: Leaves
Medicinal Preparations: Tea, tincture, pesto, infused oil, infused vinegar, herbal butter, herbal finishing salts
- Circulatory stimulant
- Emmenagogue (stimulates menses)
Medicinal and Culinary Uses: Basil is best known for its culinary uses, but it is also a versatile medicinal. This spicy garden herb possesses some of the same qualities as its cousin, holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum). Both herbs are used to lift the spirits, impart vitality, brighten the mind, and alleviate anxiety.
Its pungent flavor and warming quality make basil an excellent aid to digestion, and it is helpful in reducing gas and nausea. Warm tea, prepared from ginger (Zingiber officinale), catnip, and basil, with a touch of added lemon juice, makes an excellent remedy for steadying queasiness due to motion sickness, illness, or the side effects of chemotherapy. The sweet taste of the tea also makes it a good remedy for children’s upset tummies.
Basil is a broad-spectrum antimicrobial for bacterial, parasitic, and fungal infections. Research indicates its efficacy against Staphylococcus aureus, Shigella flexneri, Escherichia coli, adenovirus, and herpes simplex 1 and 2.1 It can be used topically as a compress, poultice, fresh juice, or full-body bath for fungal skin infections, ringworm, and thrush.
Culinary uses are wide-ranging; my favorites include pesto, pasta sauce, and summertime salad dressings.
Cultivation: Basil is the crown jewel of the vegetable and herb garden. Equally at home in a pot as in the soil, basil does well as a container plant on patios or porches with ample sunshine.
Indigenous to the tropics, basil thrives in warm soils. Plants really take off when the days are hot and the nights are balmy (above 60°F/16°C). Soil should be fertile, but not too rich. Basil likes to be well watered, but note that watering from above when the sun is hot will result in spots and damage to the leaves.
Pinch the tips of basil every week or two to encourage bushiness and to deter flowering. Once basil flowers and sets seed, the show is all over—this is why we aim to keep basil out of reproductive mode. Pinching back the flowering tops allows the plants to live longer and remain luscious.
Potted basil can be protected from frost at the bookends of the growing season by moving the plants to shelter. An added bonus is that container-grown plants can be shielded from slugs—the nemesis of the basil gardener. The purple varieties are especially attractive in mixed herbal containers.
Safety and Contraindications: Although most women do not avoid basil as a culinary herb while pregnant, higher doses (medicinal strength) are contraindicated during pregnancy in both Asian and Western systems of traditional medicine.2
4. Parsley (Petroselinum crispum, Apiaceae)
Parts Used: Leaves
Medicinal Preparations: Tea, pesto, vinegar, infused oils, compound butters, marinades, dressings, fresh juice, bouquet garni
Medicinal and Culinary Uses: Have you ever wondered how parsley landed the starring role as garnish de rigeuer on dinner plates across the country? Perhaps it has to do with parsley’s ability to stay perky throughout a five-course meal, or it may be a nod to herbal culinary tradition: parsley has a beneficial effect on lackluster digestion; it eases gas and bloating, and freshens the breath. Parsley is also a nutritional powerhouse—it’s high in vitamins A, C, and K (which are linked to heart and bone health).
I prefer to eat parsley as a condiment or seasoning herb. I blend it into green sauces, pestos, dressings, and marinades. Throughout the summer, I also add generous handfuls to big bowls of tabbouleh.
Parsley is a folk remedy to slow breast milk production. Garden sage is likewise used for this purpose; the two are used as herbal allies in weaning. Parsley is also an emmenagogue and blood tonic; it can help to bring on delayed menses as well as encourage a healthy menstrual cycle.
Cultivation: I grow a large quantity of parsley every year so I can have it on hand throughout the warm season. Parsley is typically grown as an annual herb, as the leaves become bitter upon flowering during its second year. Harvest the outer leaves, taking only ⅓ of the plant, to allow new leaves to regrow from the center crown.
In hot climates, parsley will appreciate a bit of afternoon shade, and can be planted as a fall and winter crop. Parsley flourishes in containers as long as the soil is rich and doesn’t dry out. It can be grown indoors in a sunny windowsill, and outdoors in window boxes, hanging baskets, and mixed herbal pots.
Safety and Contraindications: Do not use medicinally or consume large amounts during pregnancy or breastfeeding.
5. Mint (Mentha spp., Lamiaceae)
Parts Used: Leaves
Medicinal Preparations:Tea, tincture, garnish, potherb, powder, poultice, compress, green smoothie ingredient (for flavor), essential oil
- Anti-emetic (reduces nausea)
Medicinal and Culinary Uses: The herbs of the Mentha genus, including peppermint (Mentha × piperita) and spearmint (Mentha spicata), are some of our most essential and delicious remedies to stock in the home medicine cabinet.
The mints excel at relieving a number of common household complaints including indigestion, nausea, cramps, headaches, colds, and fevers. Peppermint, in particular, shines as a remedy for digestive issues by strengthening and soothing the stomach. It can be taken as tea for gas, hiccups, irritable bowel syndrome, dyspepsia, and for increasing appetite.
Mint is also a staple in the kitchen. During the warm months, I mince fresh leaves into salads and dressings, and churn up a batch or two of peppermint ice cream. It also makes a cooling and refreshing beverage tea (spearmint is my hands-down favorite in this case). Try our Hibiscus Mint Herbal Iced Tea with Key Lime Ice Cubes when the days dawn hot and steamy.
Cultivation: Mint is fragrant and fast-growing, which makes it a very satisfying herb to grow. There are literally hundreds of varieties to play with, including flavorful options like chocolate mint, apple mint, and orange mint.
The mints like plenty of moisture in a well-drained soil, and will thrive in both full sun and partial shade. Harvesting regularly is ideal to prevent legginess. Snip stems about ⅔ down their length.
If, like me, you use a lot of mint in your kitchen, you may wish to grow it in a large container like an old whiskey barrel.
Safety and Contraindications: Mint may aggravate heartburn.3
6. Thyme (Thymus vulgaris, Lamiaceae)
Parts Used: Leaves and flowering tops
Medicinal Preparations: Culinary, tea, tincture, herbal steam, infused honey, vinegar, infused oil
Medicinal and Culinary Uses: Thyme is one of my favorite culinary herbs and is highly revered in French, Italian, and other Mediterranean cuisines. It can be added to homemade herbes de provence blends or used on its own to flavor poultry, root vegetables, stews, sauces, and marinades. Experiment with thyme varieties—lemon thyme and orange thyme both impart a savory citrus flavor to dishes.
Like many mint-family herbs, thyme is stimulating to the digestive system—easing uncomfortable symptoms like gas and bloating. Its antimicrobial activity lends it to topical wound care and for fungal and yeast infections, and internally for digestive and respiratory infections.
Thyme is one of the first herbs I add to steam pots—it helps to relieve inflammation and break up congestion. Combined with its antispasmodic and expectorant properties, thyme is a traditional remedy for painful, hacking coughs, including conditions like whooping cough and bronchitis.
Cultivation: Thyme hails from the same Mediterranean soils as rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and sage, and likewise prefers similar growing conditions. Namely: full sun, warm days, and well-drained soil. Be sure to add a generous helping of sand to your potting mix and let the soil dry out completely between waterings.
Harvest thyme in a “cut-and-come-again” style; simply give the plant a haircut early in the season and it will grow back lickety-split. If you enjoy the look of mixed plantings, consider pairing thyme in a pot with rosemary and strawberries (Fragaria spp.).
Safety and Contraindications: In high doses, thyme is an emmenagogue (stimulates uterine contractions and/or menstrual flow) and should be avoided in pregnancy. Culinary doses, lower in nature, are generally considered to be safe.
7. Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus , Poaceae)
Parts Used: Stems and leaves
Medicinal Preparations: Tea, broth, soup
Medicinal and Culinary Uses: Lemongrass is one of our most delicious herbs for both beverage teas and home remedies. It’s employed around the world for a handful of common health complaints: headaches, insomnia, stress, anxiety, indigestion, coughs, colds, and flu.
I use lemongrass as a tasty medicinal tea, and add the flavorful “bulbs” at the base of the stems to Thai coconut soups, curries, and healing broths. For a refreshing herbal iced tea, I suggest pairing lemongrass with other citrusy herbs, like lemon balm and lemon verbena (Aloysia citriodora), along with hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa).
Cultivation: I am a lemongrass devotee, and this aromatic herb is a mainstay on my patio. Tropical in origin, lemongrass is often grown in containers and brought indoors to be protected during the colder months. A true showpiece, lemongrass really pops when planted with other ornamental herbs, such as artichoke (Cynara scolymus) and purple sage (Salvia dorii). For a tropical aesthetic, pair with nasturtium (Tropaeolum spp.) and other cascading flowers.
To keep this warm weather native happy, situate lemongrass in full sun and provide soils that drain rapidly—consider adding extra perlite or pine bark fines to your soil mix. The stems can be harvested repeatedly throughout the growing season, with lush regrowth following close behind.
If lemongrass starts aren’t readily available in your area, you may be able to acquire pieces of lemongrass stem with attached roots from Asian grocers. These can be directly planted in pots or encouraged to root in a glass of water before planting.
Safety and Contraindications: Individuals who have reacted to lemongrass essential oil may develop an allergic contact dermatitis handling the fresh plant.
8. Turmeric (Curcuma longa, Zingiberaceae)
Parts Used: Rhizomes
Medicinal Preparations: Tea, tincture, powder, fire cider
- Circulatory stimulant
Medicinal and Culinary Uses: Fiery turmeric is pleasantly warming and bitter, making it a natural ally for stoking the digestive processes. Its anti-inflammatory abilities make it a natural aid for a wide range of complaints, including irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, leaky gut, gas, and colitis.
Turmeric also soothes pain and inflammation in the muscles and joints; it’s a classic remedy for arthritis and injuries.
To enhance your body’s ability to assimilate turmeric’s medicine, add 3% black pepper (Piper nigrum) to any preparation featuring turmeric.
Turmeric's golden-orange hue makes it a delight to use in the kitchen. During the winter months, I imbibe turmeric freely in fire cider (a spicy immune-boosting tonic) and golden milk (a warm and creamy turmeric beverage sweetened with honey or maple syrup). It’s also a traditional ingredient in curry, rice, and stir-fry dishes.
Cultivation: Growing turmeric is a sublime pleasure as its tropical greenery evokes an experience of equatorial paradise. You can grow turmeric from rhizomes you purchase at the farmers market, grocery store, or from seed companies. Try to find organic turmeric, if possible. Choose plump pieces that have well-developed nodules or growth buds.
Turmeric is a tropical plant, and prefers warmth, humidity, moist soil, and dappled sunlight to grow. Morning sun and afternoon shade is also ideal. Do not place it in direct sunlight or where it will be exposed to frost or heavy winds.
Choose a wide container and provide fertile soil that drains easily; a mixture of compost and sand works well. Fill your pot with about four inches of soil. Place pieces of rhizome horizontally on top of the soil, with the buds facing upwards. Then cover with a light layer of soil; just ½–1 inch (1.3–2.5 cm) is plenty.
Wait to take your potted turmeric outside until the days are consistently warm. If you live in a cool climate, you may want to give your turmeric a little extra love. You can place your pot on a heating pad until temperatures rise naturally, and you can create humidity by tenting an old plastic bag over your pots (alternately situate turmeric in a bathroom window or greenhouse).
You’ll want to feed potted turmeric regularly (every few weeks). You can add liquid fertilizers like seaweed extract, fish emulsion, or homemade compost tea. Once a month, you may also want to sprinkle a light layer of compost over the rhizomes.
Now, patience! It will likely take several weeks to several months (for real) for your turmeric to sprout. Then, prepare to wait 7–10 months for fully mature rhizomes. You’ll know harvest season is upon you when the leaves begin to die back. You can also harvest younger turmeric, but it may have less flavor. Dig up what you need and allow the rest of the plant to keep on growing.
Note: because turmeric requires many months of warm weather to mature, time your planting appropriately (mid- to late winter is ideal).
Safety and Contraindications: Avoid in medicinal doses while pregnant (smaller, more culinary doses are fine). Monitor use with a physician with individuals who have a blood-clotting disorder or who take blood-thinning medication. Turmeric is notorious for staining hands, clothing, and surfaces a vivid yellow. A dab of alcohol can be used to rub it off.
9. Ginger (Zingiber officinale, syn. , Zingiberaceae)
Parts Used: Rhizomes
Medicinal Preparations: Culinary, tea, tincture, powder, fire cider, vinegar, fresh-pressed juice
- Circulatory stimulant
- Anodyne (pain-relieving)
- Anti-emetic (relieves nausea)
Medicinal and Culinary Uses: This familiar warming spice is also a household medicinal. The rhizome is used in tea or tincture form to increase circulation, alleviate arthritis, and allay nausea (it’s a classic for reducing motion sickness and nausea from pregnancy or chemotherapy).
It is also a premier circulatory stimulant, making it an ally for people who run cold or have poor blood flow to their extremities. It is widely used to relieve inflammation from arthritic conditions.
Ginger is a traditional remedy for colds and flu. Taken as tea or infused in honey, it helps to disperse congestion and has an antimicrobial effect. I begin taking a gingery concoction called fire cider at the first sign of colds or flu. See our spicy-sweet Roselle Hibiscus Pomegranate Fire Cider recipe for inspiration.
Along these lines, ginger straddles the food-medicine divide with panache. It’s a traditional ingredient in tasty immune-stimulating soups and teas. I frequently add finely chopped ginger to ruby red sauerkraut recipes. Ginger takes salad dressings, marinades, lemonade, and fresh juices to the next level.
Cultivation: Ginger is closely related to turmeric, and is grown in a similar fashion. See our cultivation notes above on turmeric for all the details!
Safety and Contraindications: Ginger is heating and can aggravate heartburn. It may be too stimulating in high doses for folks who run hot.
10. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis, Lamiaceae)
Parts Used: Leaves
Medicinal Preparations: Culinary, tea, tincture, infused oil, vinegar, herbal steam
- Circulatory stimulant
Medicinal and Culinary Uses: Resinous and aromatic, rosemary sprigs can be bound together with other herbal companions in fragrant smoke bundles for cleansing and purification.
Rosemary is classically known as an aid for memory and concentration in tea or tincture formulas with gotu kola (Centella asiatica) and ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba). Topically, it is astringent and makes an excellent hair wash for those with oily to medium hair.
Taken tonically, rosemary can improve circulation and quench free radicals through its antioxidant qualities. It can also calm nervous complaints, especially when digestive flair-ups are paired with tension or headache.
Rosemary is a classic kitchen herb used to spice any number of savory dishes—including poultry, fish, root vegetables, stews, and red meat. It has also become a popular ingredient in craft cocktails and mocktails.
Cultivation: Rosemary plants that attain old age are elegant and enticing beyond compare. With soft blue to purple edible blooms and a singular aroma, they are often the herbal pièce de résistance on the patio. Lucky for us, rosemary grows easily and thrives in containers.
Rosemary has a penchant for sunlight and soils that drain easily—imagine the climate and terrain of its native Mediterranean habitat. You can mimic these conditions by stirring plenty of sand into your soil mix and letting the soil dry between each watering.
If you live in zone 7 or colder, you’ll want to bring potted rosemary plants indoors over the winter and place in a south-facing window. Otherwise, you may need to provide artificial light.
Harvesting rosemary frequently will encourage plants to become lush and bushy. Using a sharp pair of kitchen scissors, snip off the top few inches of growth from each sprig.
Safety and Contraindications: Avoid using rosemary in large or medicinal doses during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Culinary doses are fine.
- Buhner, S. H. Herbal Antivirals: Natural Remedies for Emerging & Resistant Viral Infections (Storey Publishing, 2013).
- Tobyn, G., Denham, A., and Whitelegg, M. The Western Herbal Tradition: 2000 Years of Medicinal Plant Knowledge (Elsevier Health Sciences, 2010).
- ESCOP. “Menthae Piperitae Aetheroleum” and “Menthae Piperitae Folium.” In ESCOP Monographs on the Medicinal Use of Plant Drugs. Vol. 3. (ESCOP Secretariat, 1997).
Meet Our Contributors:
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.
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.
Want to take a deeper dive into medicinal herb cultivation?
Our 1,000-hour Herbal Immersion Program is the most comprehensive handcrafted online herbal course available, covering botany, foraging, herb cultivation, medicine making, and therapeutics.
Looking for more blog articles about medicinal herb cultivation?
Remember, we’ve got a wheelbarrow-full of herb gardening and seed starting resources on the blog. Come on over to browse, pick up our personal gardening tips, and learn about our can’t-live-without garden medicinals.