The A and P of favorite herbs

By Jean English | Nov 23, 2012

So many herbs can be used medicinally that it can be difficult to narrow down the choices. Here are ten that I find especially useful. Some, such as elderberry and echinacea, can be tinctured now and given as holiday gifts.

Aloe vera: Every kitchen windowsill should have a pot of this plant, to help skin heal quickly after you burn yourself on the oven racks or other kitchen equipment — although Lorie Costigan of Glendarragh Lavender tells me that lavender oil works even better than aloe for treating cuts and burns (and a little bottle of lavender oil takes up less windowsill space).

Calendula: The flowers can be used to make a salve that soothes and helps heal cuts, burns and wounds; and dried or fresh flowers can be added to soups or used in teas. This is one of my favorite plants, as it is an annual that reseeds readily, so I never replant it. Also, it is so cold tolerant that it blooms well into fall.

Comfrey: The leaves are used in healing salves to help heal cuts; and bumblebees love the flowers. The plant is notorious for spreading, but if you plant it where you want it and never disturb the soil around it, it will stay put. Some people plant it under fruit trees to draw up nutrients from deep in the soil and recycle them to the topsoil over time.

Dandelion: The greens are edible and rich in vitamins and minerals; and the leaves and roots can be used in teas.

Echinacea: Teas and tinctures made from echinacea species are used to boost the immune system. Start a tincture now by putting some echinacea root (available at food co-ops) in a Mason jar, filling about half the jar, and then topping off the jar with 90 proof vodka or with brandy, if you prefer. Keep the jar out of direct sunlight, shake it daily, and then strain off the herb and have the tincture ready for Christmas gifts.

Elder (Sambucus canadensis or S. nigra; not S. racemosa, red elderberry, which has red berries that are toxic): Tea or tincture made from the flowers helps reduce fevers due to colds or flu and helps break up bronchial congestion; berries help boost the immune system and are antimicrobial and antiviral; and the berries are rich in antioxidants; flowers and leaves can be used in healing salves. A short video at youtube.com/watch?v=XOYzWyFGkqM&feature=plcp shows how to make elderberry syrup — great for helping ward off colds or flus, or for soothing sore throats and treating colds. You can get all the ingredients for this syrup at food co-ops.

Lemon balm: Another irrepressible herb, spreading throughout the garden once a plant gets established. Fresh lemon balm tea with a little honey is wonderful in itself, and is said to calm the nerves and help with sleep.

Mullein: I’ve always had a fondness for the mullein plant, as my mother-in-law introduced me to the usefulness of dried mullein leaf tea in treating coughs accompanied by heavy mucus. I love the 6- to 7-foot-tall Greek mullein that grows in the gardens at Avena Botanicals, its yellow flowers supporting bees tremendously while plants also providing stock for some of Avena’s healing products.

Oregano: This herb is said to be powerfully anti-viral. I grow and dry as much as possible to use on homemade pizza and in other tomato sauce-based meals. As they say, food is medicine!

Plantain: This common “weed” of compacted soil is another great salve herb for treating cuts, burns or insect bites. I’m intrigued that something that always seems to be underfoot is also so useful.

Jean English lives in Lincolnville.

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