The botanical definition of an herb is “Any seed-bearing plant which does not have a woody stem and dies down to the ground after flowering” (From the Oxford dictionary). With this definition, the banana tree is technically an herb. But outside of the botanical world, herbs are plants that are known for their medicinal benefits, scent, flavor, or other assets.
They differ from vegetables in that they are used to season dishes, not eaten as a main ingredient. Herbs are great for home-growing because they are generally small, easy to care for, and smell wonderful (if you are growing them inside you can get rid of those artificial air fresheners!). While really all herbs are medicinal, simply meaning they have a positive, healing effect on your body, there are some standouts that everyone should be utilizing much more than is typical.
Here are some of the best herbs for home growing – the ones that are easy to grow in a moderate climate, and that have wonderful medicinal properties. At the end of each explanation is a simple recipe where the herb takes center stage.
Oregano, whose name means “mountain joy” is native to the Mediterranean region and has been valued for thousands of years for both its culinary and medicinal purposes.
- Antioxidants: Two main compounds within oregano are rosmarinic acid and thymol, which are strong antioxidants. It is important to understand what antioxidants are, because it seems like the word is thrown around a lot without the meaning being understood. Antioxidants are molecular compounds which attack (and get rid of) free-radicals in our bodies. Free radicals, in turn, are byproducts of cellular processes that can build up and cause chronic diseases. I like to picture antioxidants as the Pac-Man who eats the little dots that are free radicals. So these compounds in oregano help clean your body which lowers the chances of chronic illness and sickness in general.
- Anti-bacterial: It has been shown that oils in oregano inhibit the growth of bacteria and for some are comparable to prescriptions. Researchers in Mexico found oregano to be more effective against Giardia than the most commonly used prescription drug.
Nutrient dense: Oregano has exceptionally high levels of vitamin K, which is essential for blood clotting as well as bone health. It is also a good source of iron and calcium.
Oregano is unique in that its taste and smell become stronger once it is dried. Do this by tying bunches of the stalks together and hanging them in direct sunlight. Then strip the leaves from the stalks and store in an airtight jar. As it is antibacterial, making oxymel is a great way to help fight off a cold. Oxymel is combination of honey and vinegar that was traditionally used to administer unpleasant tasting herbs. But with lovely herbs like oregano it is a treat! Combine 1/3 cup dried oregano, 1/3 cup honey, and 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar in a glass jar, cover with a lid, and store in a dark place for a month. Then strain the liquid and take a spoonful as needed (plain or added to drinks) to soothe a sore throat and boost the immune system.
Rosemary is a beauty of an herb, and surprisingly is in the mint family. If you grow it outside, give it a permanent spot because it can live for up to twenty years!
- Brain booster: Compounds in rosemary increase the amount of oxygen that cells in your brain are able to uptake, which leads to improved concentration and memory. It also improves blood circulation to the brain, which helps relieve headaches and even migraines.
- Reducing inflammation: While inflammation is a natural response of the body to fight off infections, factors such as pollution and stress can cause it to become chronic, which can lead to conditions like asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. Rosemary contains rosmaricine, which when combined with its antioxidants, reduces inflammation, helping inflammation-related ailments.
- Digestion: The strong oils in rosemary aid in the digestion of fats and starches, and stimulate the digestive system, making it more effective as a whole.
Adding rosemary to olive oil is an easy way to reap its benefits. To do so, gently press sprigs in your palms to start to release the oils. Avoiding aluminum and non-enameled cast iron, cover ¼ cup fresh rosemary leaves with 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil. Cook over low heat for about 10 minutes, not letting the oil simmer. Remove from heat and let sit for one hour before straining into a glass jar and storing at room temperature. Voila! You have all the health benefits and deliciousness from rosemary ready to be used on anything where you would use olive oil.
Sage is in the salvia family, of which there are more than 750 species! Many are medicinal, but the one most well known in cooking is common garden sage with the “official” name Salvia officianales.
- Hormonal stimulant: Don’t worry that it is going to throw your hormones all out of whack, it is only a mild stimulant. But it has been shown to support regular menstruation and relief from menopausal symptoms like hot flashes. It also helps reduce sweating and is often used as an ingredient in deodorants!
- Cold fighter: Sage has antiseptic (preventing growth of disease-causing microorganisms) properties as well as a relaxing effect on mucous membranes. Therefore, it is effective in helping a sore throat, laryngitis, and tonsillitis. It can also help canker sores or infected gums due to these same properties.
- Lowers cholesterol: A study was done with a group of female volunteers who drank sage tea twice a day for four weeks. At the end, the participants had a 4-5% reduction in total cholesterol levels. There have been other studies where participants took larger doses of sage, in capsules, which led to further reduced cholesterol levels.
Making a tincture sounds a little scary, as it involves using strong alcohol, but it is a great way to get the medicinal properties out of an herb. It is especially great for sage, because of the possibilities for uses. It can be put in a spray bottle and used as a deodorant, used as a mouthwash to help heal a sore throat, or applied as a toner for you skin (sage also has an astringent effect). Or just add a little to water and drink it. To make, chop up a couple of handfuls of fresh leaves, place in a 1-pint / 0.5 ml glass jar, and cover with 190-proof (95%) alcohol. Put on lid, and place somewhere dark and cool for two weeks. Shake it well every day. At the end of the two weeks, strain into another jar (colored glass will keep out sunlight which is harmful to the tincture) and it is ready to use.
Chamomile belongs to the daisy family, and has been highly valued by the Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks for its medicinal assets since ancient times. The Egyptians even dedicated it to the sun god Ra. The essential oil which contains the medicinal properties is present throughout the plant, but the content is higher in the flowers. Therefore, the flower is most commonly used for medicinal purposes.
- Anxiety relief: Chamomile promotes general relaxation of the nervous system, which calms the entire body and mind. This translates to it being helpful in treating serious anxiety-related disorders such as anorexia nervosa and withdrawals from alcohol, as well as helping with sleep and general relaxation.
- Skin health: It has been used for centuries to heal an array of skin ailments including ulcers, burns, eczema, and canker sores. We now know that the essential oils are also helpful in reducing dandruff, treating chickenpox, and fading scars. And if you simply need help with dry skin in the winter, this is your herb.
- Cardiovascular health: While more studies are needed here, it is thought that chamomile could reduce the risk of death from coronary heart disease, especially in older men. There has been one large study (with 805 men), which showed a strong inverse association between consumption of flavonoids from chamomile and mortality from coronary heart disease.
It is great to add the oil to lotions for skin purposes, but the extraction method is a little complicated, so unless you’re ready to do a chemistry experiment, buying the essential oil is the way to go. With flowers you grow yourself, making your own tea is a simple and beautiful way to get the benefits of chamomile. Using fresh flowers will give you the most flavor and benefits: simply pop 3-4 tablespoons of flowers straight off the stems, put them in a mug and pour in boiling water. Adding a little mint will add extra flavor to the sweet apple-y taste of chamomile. Also, don’t be afraid to throw the flowers in a recipe just like any other herb!
Turmeric and Ginger
While these are two of the very best medicinal herbs you can add to your diet, I include them last because they are tropical, and therefore need temperatures between 77-86º F / 25-30ºC, at least in the beginning stages of growing. You can buy a heating mat to put under your pot, or if you have a very warm house you should definitely give it a go! They will also need full sun and a fairly large pot as they form large roots (which is the part you eat).
- Both of these plants provide a huge range of wonderful benefits. They are both adaptogens, meaning they balance your body, bringing it back to a healthy equilibrium. Adaptogens also enhance your body’s ability to absorb the nutrition in other foods. So by using them in your cooking, you will be getting the most from all of your ingredients. They help your gut, your heart, your brain, and many other organs, and are especially high in antioxidants, so they get rid of those pesky free-radicals.
Add them to everything! Delicious especially in Asian cooking, they will add a distinctive spice to dishes and turmeric will add a beautiful color. Simply peel the root and chop or grate into your dish. Making tea is easy: simmer some of the grated root for about ten minutes (the more root the better) and then strain. Adding lemon and honey will make it extra yummy (and their beneficial properties will be enhanced by the turmeric or ginger).
Growing tips for all herbs listed
- Herbs cannot tolerate frost, so if you are growing them in pots, moving them outside in the summer for maximum sun and then inside before it frosts is the way to go. But if you like them being inside, there is no harm in that! A high quality potting soil is best because it provides good drainage for herbs’ small root systems. This also means using pots with good drainage!
- No need to fertilize: while some will tolerate it, they won’t be sad without it, and an herb like oregano would most likely die if fertilizer was applied.
- In general, these herbs like a good amount of sun and moderate water. If you can provide full sun, that is ideal, but usually they can tolerate a little shade.
- They can be finicky with water: it is best to make sure the soil is always slightly wet but not too wet or the roots can rot. Oregano and rosemary will be okay if there is a dry period in between waterings.
Besides that, they are easy to grow, and look beautiful in a small pot in a window or filling an entire herb garden. Here’s to a healthy winter!