Here’s how to make simple home remedies from eight medicinal — and beautiful — flowers you can grow in your own garden. “Using healing plants is a way of reclaiming control of your health, both by curing acute problems and supporting long-term wellness,” says Rosemary Gladstar, pre-eminent American herbalist, author of books on plant remedies, and director of Sage Mountain Herbal Retreat Center and Botanical Sanctuary, in Barre, Vermont. “At around the time of World War II, we turned away from the herbs that we’d relied on for millennia and embraced chemistry-based medicine. Now many of us are coming back to nature for our remedies.”
Botanical medicine-making courses fill up quickly at the California School of Herbal Studies, a major center for this work, confirms a teacher at the school and director of its gardens, Leslie Gardner, MH (masters in herbology), RH AHG (registered herbalist with the American Herbalists Guild). “In the last two years, we’ve seen a burgeoning of interest, with long waiting lists for these classes. I hear the same thing when I talk to other teachers across the country.”
Baby boomers are driving this trend, says Maureen Rogers, director of The Herb Growing & Marketing Network, a nationwide membership organization for herbal businesses, schools, researchers, practitioners, and more. “For the boomers, using herbs has become the norm.”
Follow seed-packet planting instructions for the flowers in this article; if you don’t have time or space to grow them, obtain the materials for the preparations suggested below from a farmer’s market or herb farm, or via mail order (see “Sources,” below). Be sure to use the correct form of the plant (each one’s botanical name, in Latin, is noted below), as other types may be bred for characteristics such as unusual blossom color and can have less medicinal value. And always grow or purchase organic flowers, since contaminants in a plant that’s been dosed with pesticides and similar chemicals end up in the remedy you make from it, stresses a teacher of botanical medicine at the University of Bridgeport, Eugene Zampieron, ND (doctor of naturopathy), RH AHG.
Here’s how to make health-promoting flowers a part of your garden and your life. If you have a serious problem or if symptoms of an illness don’t subside within a week or two, consult a qualified practitioner.
FIGHT COLDS AND FLU WITH ECHINACEA
Stately echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia, E. purpurea, or E. pallida), with its tall stems and graceful, drooping purple or lavender blooms, is a superlative immune-system booster. Used first by Native Americans, and then an important part of American and European physicians’ disease-fighting arsenal during the 19th and early 20th centuries, this plant increases the number of infection-fighting macrophages and T-cells in your bloodstream, according to Gladstar. A 2007 meta-analysis in Lancet found that using echinacea decreased the likelihood of getting a cold by 58% and shortened its duration by 1.4 days. In 2009, Virology Journal reported that it was a good antidote to flu, including H1N1.
“Most herbalists find echinacea works best if you take it only when you need it: when you have a cold or flu, if you feel one coming on, or if you’re facing a stressful period when your energy may be depleted, making you susceptible to illness,” says Gladstar. “For reasons we don’t yet understand, it seems not to work as well if you take it continuously, every day, whether you need it or not.”
HOW TO USE IT
Most people think you have to use this plant’s roots, but the leaves and flowers are also medicinally potent and easier to harvest, according to Gladstar. See “Collecting and Drying Herbs” for instructions. Echinacea’s active constituents are highly water soluble, so tea is a great way to prepare it, she says (see “Brewing Herbal Tea”).
You can also put the tea in a small spray bottle and spritz your throat a few times a day, where its antimicrobial action will kill germs, says Gladstar. And here’s a super-simple way to get an appropriate daily dose of echinacea: nibble a few flowers and leaves fresh from the garden each day. When you do, you’ll notice a pleasant fizziness on the tongue, Gladstar says.
RELIEVE COUGHS AND CONGESTION WITH MULLEIN
When you’re hacking and snuffling, mullein is your go-to flower. It has a three-fold action against the coughs and congestion associated with respiratory infections, according to Gladstar. “Mullein is expectorant, so stimulates fluid production and thus helps you expel mucus,” she says, “but it’s also demulcent, so soothing to the infected tissues, and astringent, which means it dries up the infection.” In 2009, a study in Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that mullein, or Verbascum thapsus, is active against the influenza virus, while a 2002 article in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology reported its effectiveness against several bacteria, including Klebsiella pneumonia and Staphylococcus aureus, both of which can cause respiratory infections.
Because mullein has analgesic properties, you can use it to make an herbal oil for ear infection, Gardner adds. A 2003 study in Pediatrics found that several types of herbal ear drops, including ones made with mullein, were effective in eliminating ear pain for children with otitis media; dosing the children with amoxicillin did not hasten the results.
HOW TO USE IT
To get the benefits of this biennial (any given mullein plant has a two-year life cycle, then re-seeds itself to produce new plants), collect its leaves from the low rosette that forms in its first year or from the 3–6-foot spire that shoots up the following year. During the second year, you can also gather the bright yellow flowers that appear. For more, see “Collecting and Drying Herbs.”
To make mullein tea from leaves and flowers, see “Brewing Herbal Tea.”
For ear infections, see “Making Herbal Oil.” Use a dropper to instill a drop of mullein oil in the afflicted ear. Use TK times per day. If the symptoms do not resolve quickly (TK timing), see a qualified practitioner. Note: Mullein oil is not for “swimmer’s ear,” which develops when water is caught in the ear, but rather for earaches due to congestion.
DE-STRESS AND SLEEP WELL WITH CHAMOMILE
Low-growing Chamaemelum nobile (also called Anthemis nobilis) has small yellow and white flowers that contain an essential oil with sedative effects, says Zampieron. “That means it’s great for stress and insomnia.” Chamomile also contains apigenin, which relaxes smooth muscle, such as that in the digestive system, making it a long-time therapy for stress-related digestive issues, he says. “It was an ingredient in so-called gripe water, a 19th-century remedy for upset stomach,” says Zampieron. Recent animal studies suggest new possibilities for this herb, including moderating blood sugar in diabetics and lowering blood cholesterol levels.
HOW TO USE IT
Tea is the traditional preparation for chamomile flowers (see “Collecting and Drying Herbs” and “Brewing Herbal Tea”). Enjoy a cup in the evening if you have sleep problems; prepare it anytime to deal with stress. “Just stopping to make a cup of tea can be a de-stressor,” says Gardner. “And chamomile is so tasty — an important part of the relaxing experience this flower provides.”
RELAX — AND FIGHT FUNGUS — WITH LAVENDER
Lavandula angustifolia is “the quintessential herbal/aromatherapeutic treatment for anxiety,” proclaims a 2009 review study in Natural Products Communications authored by chemist William N. Setzer, PhD, professor at the University of Alabama, Huntsville. The many studies he evaluated show lavender’s effect whether the plant is inhaled or consumed internally.
Linalool, which Setzer identifies as one of the essential oils responsible for this action, is also an antifungal, adds Zampieron, making lavender something you can use for athlete’s foot.
HOW TO USE IT
For relaxation, drink a tea made of the leaves and flowers (see “Collecting and Drying Herbs” and “Brewing Herbal Tea”). Or inhale lavender’s constituents by making a “tub tea”; place a handful of the plant material in a cloth napkin or other fabric square, close it up with a rubber band, and toss in the bath as you’re filling it. For all-night aromatherapy, put a small bag of dried leaves and flowers under your pillow.
To kill the fungus responsible for athlete’s foot while enjoying the plant’s soothing scent, says Zampieron, pulverize dried lavender by placing it in a small plastic bag, closing the top, and squishing the bag between your hands until the herbs break up (or use a mortar and pestle). Sprinkle this powdery substance on just-dried toes after a bath or shower, or dust it in your shoes.
CLEANSE WITH DANDELION
Instead of weeding out the cheerful yellow dandelion tufts in your yard, collect the long, jagged-edged leaves, and use them to support digestion and water elimination. The plant’s ability to increase urine volume was confirmed in a 2009 article in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. This means it it’s likely to be beneficial in cases of water retention due to PMS and other situations in which mild bloating occurs, says Gladstar. The increased urine flow can help prevent kidney stones and can flush out bacteria to help resolve a UTI, says the 2009 article. Though dandelion has a mild diuretic effect, it is high in potassium; as a result, says the article, it will not drain the body of this vital mineral, as a pharmaceutical diuretic would.
The leaves also contain elements called ‘bitters’ — chemicals with a bitter taste that stimulate the digestive juices and support the function of the liver. “They stimulate the liver to clean the blood and then to clean itself so any toxins are sent to the bowels and eliminated,” explains Zampieron.
HOW TO USE IT
See “Collecting and Drying Herbs” for instructions on gathering dandelion leaves. When they’re fresh, chop them into salads, stews, and soups; or sauté them briefly in olive oil, suggests Zampieron. To make a tea of the leaves, see “Brewing Herbal Tea.”
SOOTHE SKIN WITH CALENDULA
“This yellow, daisy-like plant is antiseptic and a promoter of cell repair,” says Gladstar. “That makes it a favorite for skin abrasions, infections, eczema, burns, stings, and other dermatological conditions. It’s used in cosmetics for its skin-calming effects.” In 2009, the Journal of Basic and Clinical Physiology and Pharmacology called calendula a “potent” wound healer.
Used internally, it’s beneficial for gastrointestinal issues, including cramps, indigestion, and diarrhea, she says. A 2009 article in Phytotherapy Research found calendula active against C. jejuni, which causes diarrhea. The plant’s common name is “pot marigold,” but don’t confuse it with regular marigold. The seed packet should be labeled Calendula officinalis (“officinalis” means it’s a traditional healing material), not Tagetes patula.
HOW TO USE IT
For internal issues, you can drink a tea made from calendula petals (see “Collecting and Drying Herbs” and “Brewing Herbal Tea”).
For skin conditions, make the tea into a compress: dip gauze in the warm tea, and place it over the affected area for about 20 minutes, two to three times per day, until the symptoms subside, says Gladstar. Or, suggests Gardner, create an oil with the petals, as described in “Making Herbal Oil.” Spread on the skin twice a day, until symptoms resolve.
STAY HEALTHY WITH GARLIC CHIVES
Don’t underestimate one of the prettiest flowers of the fall garden. Garlic chives may flaunt a lacey white parasol of bloom over each mound of long, slender leaves, but, according to a 2009 report in Toxicology Letters and one in the 2008 International Journal of Oncology, Allium tuberosum is also a cancer fighters. This is thanks to sulfur compounds called thiosulfinates, which are antioxidants also found in garlic chives’ better-known Allium relatives, garlic and onions.
“Sulfur compounds are so important for the body,” says Zampieron. “In addition to helping prevent cancer, they protect the heart and help the liver cleanse itself of the toxins it’s removed from the blood. And garlic chives are a delicious way to get your sulfur.”
HOW TO USE IT
The tender leaves of Allium tuberosum taste like a mix of garlic and chives. Chop them raw into salads, cook them in soups and stews, or lightly sauté them in stir-fries, suggests Zampieron. To store for later use, rinse them, pat dry, and freeze in a sealed plastic bag.
COOL DOWN WITH PEPPERMINT
“I use this plant whenever I want to calm external or internal inflammation,” says Zampieron. Research, including 2009 papers in both Journal of the American Dietetic Association and Canadian Family Physician, suggests that consuming Mentha piperita helps relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. It’s also antibacterial, acting against H. pylori, a microbe that’s responsible for peptic ulcers and linked gastric cancer, according to a 2009 paper in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology.
Garner adds that the plant also quells tension-related headaches, a property confirmed in a 2007 study in American Family Physician.
HOW TO USE IT
For nausea and other digestive issues, Gardner suggests drinking a tea of peppermint leaves and flowers (see “Collecting and Drying Herbs” and “Brewing Herbal Tea”).
For skin problems involving inflammation, such as sunburn and boils, Zampieron advises using warm tea to make a compress (for instructions, see the section on calendula, above).
For sinus problems, he says, pour hot peppermint tea into a bowl, drape a small towel over your head to form a tent, and lean over the bowl to inhale the steam.
To stop a tension headache in its tracks, says Gardner, simply rub the fresh leaves on your temples when you feel one coming on.
BREWING HERBAL TEA
For a medicinal-strength brew (as opposed to a lighter beverage tea), pour a cup of boiling water over 1 tablespoon of dried plant material or 2 tablespoons of fresh, says herbalist Rosemary Gladstar. See the section on each flower to learn whether you should use leaves, flowers, or both. Let steep for 30 minutes. Drink up to three cups a day until symptoms subside. If you make a quart of the tea, you can keep it, refrigerated, for up to three days, she says.
If you wish to enhance the flavor of an herbal tea, mix it half-and-half with peppermint tea or add a scant drop of peppermint essential oil, available at health-food stores, advises herbalist Rosemary Gladstar. The peppermint is not just tasty, it’s also cooling and antibacterial, so contributes to the brew in medicinal ways as well.
MAKING HERBAL OIL
To make herbal oil, add plant material to cover the bottom of the top half of a small double boiler, says Rosemary Gladstar. Check in the section on each flower that mentions an herbal oil to determine whether you should use leaves, flowers, or both. The botanical ingredients should be dried, or at least wilted, to remove some moisture.
Pour in olive oil until it’s 2–3 inches above the herbs, and gently warm over barely-simmering water for 60 minutes, stirring occasionally with a spoon. Cool; strain into a clean jar through cheesecloth placed in a funnel. Use as directed in each section that calls for herbal oil.
COLLECTING AND DRYING HERBS
When picking leaves from a plant, use the same guidelines you would when buying produce in the supermarket, says herbalist Leslie Garner: if they look fresh and juicy, they’re full of active medicinal constituents. Collect most flowers just after they open, she adds, because they’re most potent at that point.
“The exception is the mint family,” she says. “These plants have the highest amount of menthol (responsible for cooling and soothing actions, as well as for fighting bacteria) after the small purple flowers appear in mid- to late summer. Then, when you spot them, you still need to wait for a few days before harvesting anything. Both flowers and leaves are most powerful when the blossoms are fully open — rather than when they’re just opened, as is the case for most other plants.”
To dry plant material, place it loosely in a basket or hang it in bunches tied with a string and suspended from a freestanding clothes or towel rack. Your herb-drying spot should be warm and well-ventilated, but out of direct sun, as sunlight will dessicate plants too quickly and damage their medicinal constituents. When dried properly, your herbs will be about the same color as the fresh plants, says Gardner. Store them in a clean glass jar, labeled with the herb’s name and collection date.
c. Stephanie Woodard; photo by Stephanie Woodard.
c. Stephanie Woodard; photo by Stephanie Woodard.