What if you could soothe a sore throat or a headache with the snip of a scissors? Plant some herbs indoors now, before fall sets in, and you could have a winter's worth of folksy remedies.
Many medicinal plants, especially herbs, grow well indoors, says Amy Jeanroy, who runs a greenhouse business near her Ravenna, Neb., home, and writes and teaches about medicinal herbs. She recommends starting with these five: thyme, chamomile, mint, lemon balm and sage.
Each works well as a tea: Grow, cut and dry them for use throughout the year, or use fresh herbs. To brew a tea, add 1 teaspoon of dried — or 3 teaspoons of fresh — herbs to 1 cup of boiled water; steep several minutes, then remove the herbs.
All five herbs aid digestion, says herbalist Christina Blume, who has taught medicinal and other herb-related classes at the Denver Botanic Gardens.
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"A lot of herbs that people already cook with are herbs that have medicinal qualities," adds Jeanroy. "It doesn't necessarily mean it's kicking the flu for you. It helps you."
Physician Andrew Weil maintains a list of healthful herbs and their uses at his website, DrWeil.com.
Consult a doctor before trying to treat a health problem with herbs, Jeanroy says.
She treats her five children with herbs such as chamomile. "It helps with the crankiness the kids get when they're feverish," she says.
Thyme, Jeanroy says, can soothe a throat sore from coughing, and Blume touts its anti-viral properties.
"I always drink thyme tea when I fly," says Blume, "because you're re-breathing all that air that everyone's breathing And (the tea) tastes good."
Mint — especially peppermint — is a home remedy for an upset stomach. And it can mask the strong or bitter taste of some other herbs, such as sage, which can soothe mouth sores and bleeding gums after dental work, says Jeanroy.
Lemon balm can be drunk as a tea to counter headaches, added to other medicinal teas to mask an unpleasant taste, or steeped stronger to make a topical, antiseptic cleanser for a skinned knee or itchy bug bite, she says.
"If there's one herb that does tons of great stuff, lemon balm is it," says Jeanroy.
Medicinal gardens are centuries old; modern ones date back to the apothecary gardens of the Italian Renaissance during the 16th century, says Teresa Mazikowski, a staff gardener who spearheaded the Buffalo and Erie County (N.Y.) Botanical Gardens' indoor medicinal garden last October.
Botanical gardens grew out of these early medicinal gardens.
The indoor medicinal garden that Mazikowski tends goes beyond common herbs. It was planted with public education in mind, she says, and includes rare and tropical plants, as well. "The idea is to teach people how to keep themselves healthy so they don't have to take drugs" when they're sick, Mazikowski says.
The D'Youville College School of Pharmacy, and Mercy Hospital, both in Buffalo, collaborated with the city's Botanical Gardens to launch the medicinal garden with plants that show promise in pharmaceutical research, Mazikowski says, including turmeric, Pacific yew, cayenne pepper and ginseng.
Her own indoor garden includes oregano, mint, parsley, sage, lemon balm, lemon verbena, catmint and chives.
Start with a small indoor garden, Mazikowski suggests, and know that the plants aren't likely to last longer than 18 months.
Use a large, clean pot filled with sterile potting soil. Sow seeds or use small starter plants, which often are inexpensive this time of year.
Unless you have a spot that gets six hours or more of sunlight, you'll need to invest in grow lights, says Jeanroy. Buy inexpensive, full-spectrum light bulbs, sold at home improvement stores, which you can pop into a table or floor lamp. Your plants will need 14 to 16 hours of this artificial light daily.
Plants grow best if the daytime indoor temperature is between 70 and 75 degrees, Jeanroy says, and the nighttime temperature about 10 degrees cooler.
Make sure there's a drainage hole in the pot, and don't over-water. Soggy soil can lead to mildew, mould and pest problems.
Take care of your indoor herb garden, and it'll return the favour. "I don't know if it stems from surrounding myself with plants or spending so much time with them, but the whole process — you're pinching back herbs that smell good and heating the water (for tea) — I think that's part of the healing," says Jeanroy.