What’s in your medicine garden?

Garden Craft

Vibrant new shades of green are popping up everywhere as spring kisses North America with her promise of a new season. Gardening is my art and every spring I am blessed with a brand new canvas in which to create my edible masterpiece. My excitement of the spring season lately, however, is tempered with the constant reality that our modern world is becoming increasingly unstable. To help mitigate some of my fears I have painted my garden with many helpful herbs for medicine and draw insects and butterflies as pollinators. As a casual observer strolls through my living pallet, these medicinal herbs and plants are simply colorful weeds or elaborate decorations in Mother Natures terrestrial abode. But to the knowledgeable there comes a time of  understanding between you and the herb.

Quietly sitting with a choice of which herb to add to your canvas, the plant will choose you. When he does, please ask the living green brother or sister to teach you their secrets and they will happily let you in their covenant. I have chosen to keep my circle of medicinal plants small, around 10. When many species of medicinal herbs families are happy with their environment, they like to go walk about and soon take over the garden if not limited. Also, limiting your herb circle helps to keep the secrets they entrust upon you. Too many voices make chaos in the head.

One winter morning I was sitting quietly, sipping my herbal tea in front of a blazing fire in the wood stove. As often is the case, my seed catalogs start arriving in December.  I dreamily envisioned my coming seasons garden, two herbs made themselves known to me within the pages of my favorite catalog. The first one, Elderberry, spoke to me with determination, he wanted to be heard! The second herb was a little more subtle, she was Lemon balm. The memory of shy Lemon balms happy perfume, when brushed against it in the garden tickled my senses to get my attention. Over the years I have added a few others, but these two are the grandparents of my herb family and given their due place in the hierarchy of my garden palate.

Elderberry  Sambucus nigra L.

Top man on the totem pole he is part of the Honeysuckle family. He gets about 15 to 30 feet tall  depending on variety and likes wet areas next to rocks, such as along creek beds or streams. I have a low area, not quite a swamp that Mr. Elderberry has called home for the last dozen years. He’s a wild guy, sprawling, bushy and likes to go walk about sending up new shoots everywhere. The original bush begins to die back and the young ones take over. Give him plenty of space.

There is evidence that pre-historic man used this plant as there has been its cultivation found in stone age village sites in Switzerland and Italy. He also has been imbued with myth and magic. Witches used Elderberry sticks as a wand and myth has it that spirits lived in the shrub and some people refused to burn it or cut it down.

Among Mr. Elderberries many attributes is the fact that his berries make wonderful jams and jellies. Elderberries should always be cooked before use because they will cause stomach upset if you eat them raw.(diarrhea and vomiting)  He just likes to remind you who is in charge here.

Gather elderberry flowers as soon as they have opened fully. You will notice a yellow pollen that covers the bottom of the bucket you put them in. Dry the flowers in a single layer until perfectly dry. Store in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid until ready to use. The flowers are sweat inducing when served as a tea for colds and fevers. Harvest the berries, in my area anyway, late August. I generally freeze the berries until after the rest of the garden has been harvested and stored. Then I came back to these wonderful guys and let them do their magic. The berries are immune-enhancing and have a powerful antiviral properties. My secret weapon in the winter is a brew I have developed that works wonders for warding off colds, flu and upper respiratory complaints. Mr. Elderberry will also help with herpes and painful shingles in the elderly. You will have to come by for the recipe in the fall as I will give you step by step instructions on making your own helpful brew.

Demure Lemon Balm  Melissa officinalis

Lemon balm can be easily started by seed and self sows. She has long been an “official” herb of ancient apothecaries. Dear Lemon balm is one of the most important plants  of the mint family, also attracting pollinating bees to your garden. Actually, she is a plain Jane in the garden but her fragrance is intoxicating. Dried leaves retain a happy aroma, which makes a cup of tea mood lifting. Balm equals brain, helping to strengthen memory and serves up mood elevating magic. Paracelsus said of Lemon Balm, “She is the elixir of life.” The volatile oils in the leaf of this hardy plant calms the nerves and helps the digestion system, she also has antispasmodic properties. One flaw in our wonderful friend is that she has a tendency to inhibit thyroid function in those suffering from hypothyroidism. For those folks I’d caution them to use her sparingly. However, a thirteenth-century prince of Glamorgan, Llewelyn , drank a cup of lemon balm tea everyday and was said to have lived to be 108.

Being as balm is dedicated to the brain her leaves are used as a tea to treat headaches and depression, and not least of which helps with seasonal affective disorder (SAD). And what makes this dear plant so special is that she loves children. A warm tea of her dried leaves will calm restless children and infants and actually is given as an aid for ADD and ADHD. How wonderful is that? And because of her affinity with children, lemon balm chases away those nasty nightmares that kids seem to be plagued with. Oh, and did I tell you that she is a strong antiviral, which is why I add her to my Elderberry brew.

From Back to Eden by Jethro Kloss;

“It is helpful in painful or suppressed menstruation. Aids digestion and is valuable in nausea and vomiting. Useful in low-grade fever, liver, spleen, kidney and bladder troubles, gripping in the bowels, and dysentery. A warm poultice of balm will bring a boil to a head and then it will break. For insect stings and rabid dog bites, take a tea internally and make a poultice to apply to the bite or sting. It is good also as a toothache and headache remedy.”

And there is so much more to my plain Jane of the garden. Is it any wonder why I love my garden palette?


Healthful Herbs—Jethro Kloss

Herbal Antibiotics, Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug-Resistant Bacteria–Stephen Harrod Buhner

Elementary Treatise in Herbology–Dr. Edward E. Shook

Medicinal Herbs–Rosemary Gladstar


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