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Growing and Using Medicinal Herbs

The following is the original version of my article “Homegrown Medicine”, published in the June/July 2008 issue of Mother Earth News.

Table of Contents

Medicinal Herbs: Top 30Growing Medicinal HerbsMaking Plant Medicines

The Top 30

A couple of common misconceptions might prove obstacles to the homesteader’s decision to grow her own medicines in her backyard. Is herbal medicine just superstition, “mere folklore,” of no proven efficacy? If that’s true, it is a surprise to big pharmaceutical companies, scrambling to isolate and test the active components of many traditional medicinal plants. A number of powerful pharmaceuticals, for example, have been derived from wild yam. Willow and meadowsweet contain salicylic acid, with analgesic effects like aspirin (but with fewer side effects). Controlled experiments with valerian have supported its traditional use as a sedative to relieve spasms and induce sleep.

The other obstacle to home use of medicinal herbs is just the reverse—the assumption that herbal lore is so arcane that we inexpert homesteaders cannot hope to master its complex, obscure lore without years of detailed study. Let’s take a look, therefore, at the list of medicinal herbs that the California School of Herbal Studies chose as “…a central core of tonic and theraueutic plants…thirty favored plants that we felt could be relied upon to supply an herbalist with pretty much any and all the herbal actions and uplifting virtues required to provide good health care in a home and community.”

James Green, in The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook, adds an additional “five plants and a fungus” to the Top-30 list:

Simply reading these lists does much to dispel the notion that growing and using home medicines need be mysterious or arcane.

“Hey, this looks easy!” Many of these plants are well known to us, and may already be growing in our landscape or garden. Blackberry, calendula, chamomile, comfrey, mullein, willow—who knew that these ubiquitous and unobtrusive members of our local plant communities would be in a “top thirty” list of medicinal herbs? With medicinal plants so familiar already surrounding us, the idea of home plant medicines starts to feel a lot more comfortable.

“Some of these are weeds, for heaven’s sake!” We’ve been conditioned to think of dandelion, plantain, stinging nettle, and yellow dock as “the enemy” to our gardening, or to landscape beautification. Perhaps it’s time for us to revise our conception of “weeds.” The insistence of a plant on being a part of our local ecology suggests that we explore its role and contribution, rather than devise strategies to eradicate it. Any plant that offers to boost our health should be welcomed and honored, not denigrated as a “weed.”

“Hey, I grow that for food.” It is too bad that in our time “medicine” has come to be understood as a powerful, out of the ordinary (and probably vile tasting) substance taken in a heroic intervention to cure illness and restore health. An alternative view has been available, however, at least as far back as 400 B.C., when Hippocrates said, “Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food.”