Just as medicine has long harvested the power of nature, you too can get back to basics by growing health-giving plants and herbs at home.
Next time you’re sick with the flu, instead of heading straight to the doctor, why not stroll to your garden or balcony for a natural remedy? A growing number of people are getting back to basics and creating vegetable and herb gardens to maintain good health.
Naturopath, herbalist and author Mim Beim’s new book, Grow Your Own Medicine: A Guide to Growing Health-Giving Plants in Your Own Backyard (ABC Books, $28), suggests that creating your own medicine cabinet at home is the way to go. “Plant medicines are mankind’s oldest medicines, and people really are getting back to nature and realising the benefits of a do-it-yourself (DIY) medical garden,” Beim says.
“I think it’s tied in with the slow-food movement; people want to see exactly where their food is coming from and save money at the same time. Health is your responsibility, so being able to prevent and treat your own conditions is empowering. There is so much you can do for yourself before pharmaceutical drugs are needed.”
If you don’t know what herb or plant might benefit you and your family, Beim’s book provides a digestible road map of answers. Included with each ingredient is a simple explanation of the best places for growing, what companion plants sit best together, and what to do once you have harvested. From teas to cold presses and tinctures, Beim breaks down the concepts in bite-sized chunks, explaining the therapeutic benefits of each plant, suggesting whether you should use the root, leaf, fruit or flower.
So where do you start if you have never grown your own? “Culinary herbs are the best and most rewarding starting-off points,” Beim says. “They just require a bit of sunshine and they’re easily grown in a pot. Herbs like parsley, mint, peppermint and rosemary are really effective and will earn you quick results. Also, try to keep the garden close to your kitchen so you can step out easily and add to your meals.”
A LONG HISTORY
The medicinal powers of herbs, fruit and vegetables have been revered for thousands of years. Many of the pharmaceuticals on the market have a long history of use as herbal remedies. The active ingredient in willow bark, for example, once prescribed by Hippocrates, is salicin, which is converted into salicylic acid; the discovery of salicylic acid led to the development of what we know today as aspirin. More than 30 per cent of pharmaceutical drugs used today started life inside a plant. New antimalarial drugs were developed from the discovery of artemisinin – a plant used in China for almost 2000 years.
The World Health Organization estimates that in some Asian and African countries, 80 per cent of the population depend on traditional medicine for primary health care, and in many developed countries, 70-80 per cent of the population has used some form of alternative or complementary medicine.
Seventy-four per cent of 119 modern plant-derived pharmaceutical medicines are used in ways similar to their traditional uses. At least 7000 medical compounds in the modern pharmacopoeia are derived from plants.
President of the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association and former head of the Australian Medical Association Kerryn Phelps is a strong advocate of herbal medicine and encourages people to take an integrative approach to health. “Herbal medicine is occupying an increasingly mainstream place in the family health-care landscape because people now realise the potential adverse effects of pharmaceutical medications,” she says. “For example, osteoarthritis.
Pharmaceutical medication would be way down on the list of actions for this condition. People are longing for natural supplements and herbal medicine because non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can be damaging, particularly for the elderly. Menopause is another example of when people are looking for more natural approaches like herbs. There’s also increasing evidence for the effectiveness of herbal medicine.” But Phelps warns that because of the growing trend toward self-diagnosis and self-prescribing, “people should be aware that herbs can be potent and so you need to get the right combination, for the right ailment at the right dosage.
“People really should refer to a professional when taking herbs for serious conditions because even some foods can react with concentrated herbal medicines. For things you might grow on your balcony though, people should just be aware of allergies, but you are unlikely to have problems with anything you grow yourself, so I’m all for it.”
Major pharmaceutical companies in the US are getting serious about the herbs many of us are sprouting in our yards and conducting extensive research on plant materials for possible new drugs. In 2005, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health spent approximately US$33 million on herbal medicine research.
In Beim’s plant bible, it’s not just herbs she suggests we grow – it’s fruit and vegetables, too. In a landmark study on nutrition, Carl W Cotman, the Founding Director of the UC Irvine Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders, and his team found that beagles fed a diet of fruits, vegetables and vitamins could, even in old age, learn tricks faster than those without good diets. The best-performing dogs were fed antioxidant-rich foods such as tomatoes, carrots, citrus pulp and spinach flakes – all plants we can procure ourselves.
Similarly, Paula Bickford, professor of neuroscience at the Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair at the University of South Florida, advocates eating good-quality natural foods. In a recent study, she found that rats fed a diet of spinach, blueberries and spirulina learned tasks faster than those fed regular food. She told MiNDFOOD, “Our research has shown that many foods such as leafy greens or berry fruits can help to promote a healthy brain. This becomes even more important as we get older, as these foods are high in chemicals that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions that protect the brain. We’re now realising that what you eat can affect cognition.”
Since the discovery that the blood brain barrier can be breached, scientists are now more willing to look at how certain nutrients in food affect cognition, and they’re coming up with some pleasing results. It’s all the more reason to get planting, says Beim, “whether it’s spinach you grow, a tomato vine or a herb – every garden starts with one small step”.
HEALTH GIVING PLANTS AND HERBS
A simple herb to grow, with
great benefits to digestion. Cooling in
summer, it’s said to aid in the hot sweats associated with menopause.
It’s great for circulation, makes
a good compress and is brilliant for
cramps and arthritic pain. Add it to meals or slice it into a lemon
A naturally occurring antibiotic that’s easy to grow in any climate,
garlic helps prevent heart disease and props up the immune system. It’s
also an excellent detoxifier
Use the flower, stem or leaf to aid with anxiety, pain control and
long-term insomnia. The state flower of California, it requires full
sun and is drought tolerant.
St Mary’s thistle
A herb that works to keep the liver healthy. It improves waste removal
and the digestion of fats, and can lower cholesterol. It also aids in
the production of breast milk.
A herb that sits well in any medicine cabinet to boost the immune
system. Use it for coughs, colds, mouth ulcers, vaginal infections,
mastitis and externally on acne.
Rosemary is sweet smelling and works well on the balcony or in the yard.
The herb benefits the brain and the liver, aids joint pain and assists
Studies show that chillies can aid weight loss because they increase the
body’s metabolic rate. They are also good for clearing congestion in
the nose and sinuses.
This ‘thinking person’s herb’ can
be added to food or made into a tea.
It’s said to improve memory and learning. It also gives way to a flower
that attracts butterflies.
A common addition to just about any meal, it’s easy to grow and is great
for colds and sore throats. If you have a small yard, choose a dwarf
variety and grow it in a pot.
Sage can be used as a gargle to alleviate symptoms of gum disease,
tonsillitis and laryngitis. There are some studies that show it may help
St John’s wort
Since the middle ages, herbalists have prescribed St John’s wort for
mild depression and anxiety. The herb also reduces virus activity
including cold sores and shingles.
TAILOR MADE GARDENS
One approach to growing your own medicine is to create a garden with a theme. Mim Beim suggests some combinations of plants that might appeal.
• Detox garden: beetroot, broccoli, burdock, cabbage, dandelion, garlic, globe artichoke, St Mary’s thistle, turmeric.
• Immune garden: astragalus, calendula, echinacea, garlic, holy basil, Jerusalem artichoke, lemon myrtle, shiitake mushroom, tea tree, thyme.
• Skincare garden: aloe vera, avocado, burdock, calendula, comfrey, gotu kola.
• Mood-enhancing garden: damiana, gotu kola, lemon balm, St John’s wort.
• Mother and baby garden: cabbage, calendula, chamomile, fennel, lemon balm, nettles.
• Brain garden: brahmi, ginkgo, gotu kola, rosemary, sage.