The gardener, the cook, the thrifty householder, the home medicine maker – all will be inspired by our guide to growing and using herbs and superfoods.
Editor Jane Wrigglesworth makes a case for growing more herbs.
Aherb, botanically speaking, is any plant that lacks the woody tissue that is characteristic of shrubs or trees. However, a herb has also come to be known as a plant that can be used to flavour foods, ward off pests, freshen the air and treat ailments. Chamomile, for example, can be used for its calming properties, and the active constituents in calendula promote wound healing and soothe skin disorders. Tansy, rosemary, fennel and pennyroyal are known for their flea-fleeing effectiveness; the dried leaves can be scattered around pets’ bedding to send fleas packing.
Over the past few years the interest in using herbs medicinally has come back into fashion. Many old recipes like the ones our great-grandmothers and grandmothers used are just as effective today as they were in their day. Before the advent of antibiotics, for example, thyme leaves were mashed and used as a poultice for cuts and wounds to prevent infection. Thymol, the naturally occurring compound in thyme, is known to be antiseptic, antibiotic and antiviral. We can use thyme today for the same purpose, though most of us would take thyme as a herbal tea at the onset of coughs and colds to nip them in the bud, or as an antibacterial mouthwash.
In the past, calendula flowers were used for the same antimicrobial purposes. During World War I, the flowers were applied to open wounds to stop bleeding, prevent infection and promote healing.
Blueberries, long used as a food – and today classed as a superfood – were also used as a natural preservative. Their high fibre and natural sugar content contribute to their water-absorbing and binding capabilities, which aids shelf-life. Blueberries also contain benzoic acid, which is a natural antimicrobial compound. As a superfood, of course, we benefit from their abundance of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Native Americans used blueberries for both their nutrients and preserving power. The dried berries were mixed with dried powdered meat for a long-lasting, nourishing food.
However, herbs, just like prescribed medications, can be dangerous or even deadly – or at the very least produce unwanted side effects. If a herb is strong enough to produce a positive effect, such as lower cholesterol or anxiety, it is also strong enough to carry risk. Some herbs interact with prescription medications or can be dangerous if used in combination with alcohol or sedatives. Others may be dangerous when combined with prescription anti-depressants. It’s important to investigate all known side-effects before use. Do not assume because it’s natural that it is safe.
Always consult with a qualified health practitioner before deciding on any course of treatment, especially if you have chronic health problems, you take prescribed medications, or you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Applying herbs and essential oils to the skin (in natural creams and perfumes) may also cause adverse reactions if you have sensitive skin. I have been making my own natural perfumes and deodorants for years and have no problems, but a friend has a mild reaction when she uses botanicals. Always test a small patch of skin before using on your entire body. Like all things, if you are sensible in your use of herbs you can enjoy what they have to offer.
I hope you are inspired by this guide to herbs and superfoods, and give herbal medicine-, perfume- and cosmetic-making a go.
"Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food." Hippocrates (460-377 BC)