While admiring pictures in herb books of neat, organized, bountiful gardens, I get heartache and desire as I view past the book at our weedy yard and over grown garden. I ponder how the “Herbal Immersion Course” I’m taking has exasperated my frustrations about clay soil, forest shade, an endless “army” of slugs, and most of all, my own physical limitations that have thwarted garden dreams for decades, dreams of bouquets from abundant cut flowers, baskets brimming with vegetables, herbs, etc. Every spring I foolishly get hopeful as Mike finds time to help with the heavy digging and weeding, then moves on to higher priorities like firewood and house repairs. Oh, I’ve had harvest baskets, some years veggies miraculously did very well, especially when there was less shade, and as I mention below, some herbs grow like weeds. Bouquets are plentiful during the short bloom season of our profuse old fashion bush and climbing roses, and hardy nasturtiums keep color alive all summer. But gardening for me, on this land, has for the most part become a process of default, not choice, not dream gardens. If it survives….hurray! If it thrives and multiplies, hallelujah! I’ve resigned my garden philosophy to the sentiment expressed in the Rolling Stone song…“You can’t always get what you want….but if you try sometimes you might find, you get what you need.”
Gazing past the pages of gorgeous lush gardens, I see plants I didn’t plant (many called “weeds”) buzzing with pollinators, watch a chipmunk munching on a seed pod or berry (they also have a taste for pea vines and beet sprouts), and see many plants growing in abundance that are indeed just what we need! It is a lush sight, but not neat and tidy. Messy gardening is what I call it!
Here are a few of our “resident” plants who, in their abundance, practically scream at us….“here we are, use us!” Perhaps you have them too!
Lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, which I planted probably 35 years ago, literally grows everywhere – around our house foundation, in the garden, in the backyard, across the driveway, down the driveway – you get the picture. It is antiviral, making it a good choice to add to teas for colds and flues and an excellent tea for calming nerves. Though I’ve never found it effective for chronic insomnia by itself, it can be used for occasional sleeplessness and does make a nice evening tea. One reason for my taking the herb class was to motivate myself to try new uses with these abundant plants we already have, so my first new use of Lemon Balm was a lemon balm and apple mint hydrosol*, very refreshing to use as a skin spritzer or in water to drink on hot day to calm and lift spirits. And it was fun to make! I plan to try a lemon balm glycerite, a tincture to extract the medicinal constituents using vegetable glycerine instead of alcohol, (which, for me, might be more effective for sleep as it is more concentrated than tea). I’ve put lemon balm in various recipes such as my cauliflower hummus to add both flavor and the beneficial properties of the plant. There are many internet sources for information on Lemon Balm, lemon balm recipes, etc. A good general information one is Herbrally.
Apple mint, Mentha suaveolens, another plant that has “gone wild” here, was the mint of my childhood. My original plant here was given to me by a volunteer at the visitor center where I worked. She and I developed a friendship around our mutual love of plants. Sadly, she died of cancer a few years after we met. This lovely mint-gone-wild reminds me of her and her warning that it would grow everywhere! Over the years I’ve often ignored apple mint in favor of “true” peppermint, though pollinators of all kinds love it. It is a more calming mint than peppermint so I use it in evening teas, and though many sources say it’s large, soft, fuzzy leaves aren’t as “acceptable” as the daintier peppermint leaves in culinary use, I find the milder flavor blends in more and doesn’t give that strong peppermint zing when you don’t want it! I like adding it to grain salads, and due to its calming properties, will add it to my lemon balm glycerite for flavor and medicinal benefits.
Plantain leaves washed and ready to dry, to remove moisture before making an oil infusion.
Plantain, an under appreciated “weed” plant, is huge in our yard this year! I harvested a small batch for my first exploration into making a healing salve and told Mike, who gets cuts and scrapes a lot, about using a fresh leaf poultice to quickly stop bleeding and speed healing. In the past I used the leaves for this purpose all the time and would hunt around for a plant, this year it is growing everywhere! It has multiple medicinal properties, including anti-inflammatory. The plant tannins help draw tissues together and allantoin stops bleeding and promotes healing of injured skin cells. It is used to sooth bug bites and a recent raid on my body by mosquitoes gave me an opportunity to test this. A strong tea, cooled and dabbed on the bites stopped the itching for a better night’s sleep. If applied immediately, it can draw out the toxins of a bug bite and even be used to draw out a splinter! According to Rosemary Gladstar, you soak the splintered finger in plantain tea, then apply a poultice of crushed leaf under a band-aid, keep reapplying a fresh poultice until the splinter comes to the surface and can be removed. I plan on trying this next time one of us gets deep-seated splinter! Anti-bacterial and anti-fungal, plantain has many first-aide uses. There are two varieties of Plantain, lance-leaved plantain (Plantago lanceolata) and broad-leaved plantain (Plantago major) and they both contain these medicinal benefits. Here is a story of Plantain’s healing benefits along with a recipe on how to make a Plantain oil: First Aid in Your Backyard.
Borage, Borago officinalis, has grown in our garden for decades, any attempt to invite it to grow outside the garden has failed. In early summer I reluctantly pull up many new plants, but always leave too many, forgetting how BIG it becomes! When in bloom, it makes for such happy bees, I do not have the heart to pull more. I use the beautiful blue blooms in salads and to garnish desserts, but honestly, that isn’t often enough given the abundance of Borage in our garden. I let it grow for the bees, and because I love looking at the little star flowers, the same reasons it has been given the names “bee bush” and “star flower”. This year it is on my list of plants to discover “why is it here, why do we need it?” I’ve begun my research and learned of its nutritional value and plan on using the leaves in recipes. Though it has little thorns on the leaves and stems, when chopped and added to stir fries and other dishes, the thorns disappear. The leaves maintain a beautiful dark green color when cooked. Used as a food in Europe more than in the US, it’s medicinal benefits have also been well researched in Europe. It has beneficial constituents for the digestive system, lungs, urinary system and heart. Sounds like we need to be eating it more!
A finishing salt made during a workshop at a conference on plants in the Northwest includes Douglas Fir needles, dock seeds, and Nootka rose petals along with garden plants like Calendula.
There are other plants that grow themselves with little assistance on our part in this wild, “messy” spot of earth we call home. Plants that seem to be calling for a closer relationship include Burdock, Calendula, feverfew, violets (past their prime for this year), honeysuckle, a hawthorn tree (past the medicinal flower stage, but looking forward to the berry harvest to make syrups and tinctures which are excellent for the heart), and many more. At a recent herbal conference about medicinal plants in our Northwest bio-region we learned of the medicinal and culinary uses of Douglas Fir needles, the most dominated conifer surrounding us. I’ve long been aware of the medicinal properties of many of native Northwest plants, such as nettles and Oregon grape, but it never occurred to me to look up to the trees!
All this wild abundance, both native and introduced, makes the view past the pages with the pretty gardens more exciting and hopeful! Stay tuned as I learn to love the ‘wild things’ even more and find out they are just what we need to stay healthy!
There are many fine books and resources in the world of herbal medicine, I mentioned a few in a previous post. Here are a few more.
Any book by Rosemary Gladstar is worth having if you are interested in herbs. Her most recent book is packed with information and recipes: Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide, 33 Healing Herbs to Know, Grow and Use
Juliet Blankespoor is the founder of The Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine and the course I am taking. She is soon to have a book out and her blog is full of fun and useful articles: Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine Blog.
In the Northwest region, Ryan Drum is a gem of information and has many detail articles about specific conditions and plants on his web site: Ryan Drum
* Hydrosols, also called floral waters, or distillates, are usually the by-product of distilling plant material to make an essential oil. A simple stove-top distillation process will produce a scented water less intense than an essential oil, thus making it usable in ways an essential oil could not be used. My first hydrosol was with wild Nootka rose petals and rose petals from our vintage rose bushes. The results was heavenly, as was the lemon balm/apple mint water! See below for basic directions on how to make a floral water, you can also find many articles on-line, just search for “stove top herb distillation.”