Grow your own herbal cures

It's oh so easy to cultivate your own herbal health remedies, says Suffolk expert Ed Berger

The garden pharmacy

The traditional kitchen garden was an essential source of natural medicines for our ancestors, providing tried and tested first aid remedies at a time when conventional medicine was expensive and often dubious in its methods. Culinary herbs remain effective treatments for simple ailments such as digestive upsets, coughs and colds. They are delicious and are probably already growing on your doorstep, for instance thyme, rosemary, sage, fennel and parsley, which were introduced from the Mediterranean by the Romans 2,000 years ago for their taste and medical properties.What makes these culinary herbs so special is their constituent volatile oils, which can be felt as a sticky residue on your fingertips if you rub the herbs. Volatile oils give these plants their heady aromas and pungent tastes and are also responsible for their therapeutic properties.Volatile oils support the digestive system, improve the appetite and relieve gas, bloating and abdominal pain. They are also powerful antimicrobials with a wealth of scientific evidence supporting their ability to destroy bacteria. This antibacterial effect was important for our forefathers as it helped to kill off food-borne bugs and to preserve foods, but taken as teas they also fight infections in the throat and chest. Many volatile oils are also expectorant, helping to loosen and aid the removal of catarrh from the lungs – essential for our ancestors who suffered greatly in the cold northern European climate and today for ubiquitous winter coughs.Our ancestors would have relished the flavours of our culinary herbs, just as we do today, but in the last century we have forgotten their equally important medicinal properties. We continue to throw sprigs of herbs into our dishes, but without awareness of the medicinal powers we are harnessing.

Sage (Salvia officinalis) is one of the best remedies for sore mouth, throat or tonsils if the leaves are taken as a tea, gargle or mouthwash. As its name attests it was also traditionally used for improving intelligence. Sage also helps to reduce menopausal flushes and night sweats, due an oestrogen promoting effect. Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) contains antiseptic volatile oils that have a particular affinity for the lungs, relaxing spasmodic coughs and increasing expectoration of catarrh. Infusions of thyme leaves are specific for chest infections because the antimicrobial volatile oils are released in lung tissues. Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis) is used as a circulatory stimulant for cold hands and feet, as well as for improving circulation to the brain where its leaves help to treat headaches and poor concentration, hence the traditional sayings ‘Rosemary for memory’, and ‘Rosemary for remembrance.’Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) supports digestion, but it is also a diuretic which increases elimination of fluid and acid wastes in natural treatments for arthritic complaints. Although we mainly use leaves in European cookery, the roots are preferred by herbalists for improving kidney and digestive function.Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is one of our finest herbs for settling the digestion, but it is also prescribed by herbalists for increasing the quantity and quality of breast milk in nursing mothers. Interestingly, minute quantities of volatile oil enter the breast milk so helping colicky infants. Fennel leaves and flowers are effective but the strongest part is the seed. Fennel also has a mildly stimulating effect and the ancient Romans feasted on them to arouse their senses. A word of caution, avoid herbs if pregnant, breast feeding or taking pharmaceutical medicines without first speaking to a qualified herbalist, although normal culinary use is fine for most herbs.

Harvesting and preparation

The best time to gather your herbs is on a summer morning after the dew has dried. Leaves will dry in a week or so in a well ventilated room. Store your herbs in labelled paper bags or jars out of direct sunlight. Teas are prepared by steeping the dried herb in just-boiled water for 10-15 minutes, before straining and drinking. As a general rule use one heaped teaspoon per cup of water and drink three cups daily.

Ed Berger has been practising herbal medicine for 12 years and lives in Suffolk. He also teaches herbal medicine for the College of Naturopathic Medicine. To discuss any aspect of herbal medicine contact Ed on 07931 797148 or

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