By: Jessie Keith
It’s that time of the season! No, I don’t mean the holiday season; I mean the season for colds, flu and other bugs that bring us down in winter. Despite flu shots, good care, vitamins and other attempts to ward them off, these bugs always arrive, unwelcome and uninvited. So, how do you treat them other than using standard medications? Herbs and natural remedies, of course!
During the summer months, I grow plenty of herbs for teas, salves, soaps and tinctures that I use in the winter months. Some years I also grow medicinal herbs indoors on my sunny kitchen windowsill. They are cheap and effective, while also smelling pleasant and tasting good. Even nicer, some of the best grow like weeds, to include peppermint, chamomile, garlic, cayenne pepper, lavender and elderberry. Others, like ginger, are tender plants that can be grown indoors in winter or outdoors in summer.
Anyone who has grown the classic herbs peppermint and chamomile know that they’re wild and must be kept in bounds. Nonetheless, their usefulness far outweighs their weediness.
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) is a sun-loving herb that generally germinates in spring and summer, remains a low-growing foliage rosette through winter, and blooms in spring, producing a cloud of little white daisies. These choice flowers should be harvested at their prime and quickly dried to make herbal tea or inhalations. (Be cautious about letting them set seed; they become weedy!) A combination of dried orange peel and dried chamomile flowers makes a lovely tea and inhalant that will ease the stomach and gently clear the sinuses. Just add one teaspoon of dried orange peel and three tablespoons of dried chamomile flowers to two cups of boiling boiled water. Steep it for a few minutes, for tea, or breathe it in.
Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) has rhizomatous roots that spread like wildfire, so I grow mine in large pots in sunny spots. The summer foliage and flowers are easily harvested and dried for year-round use. Peppermint can be used to make inhalations and compresses as well as head-clearing tea. A good, simple mint tea recipe for colds contains two teaspoons dried elderberries, two tablespoons dried peppermint leaves and a few peppercorns to fire up the spice. Add this mix to three cups of boiling water, steep for a few minutes and serve with honey.
Garlic has proven cold-fighting benefits and is truly a plant-and-leave-it crop requiring next to no care; just plant it in rich, well-drained soil in fall, and let it grow and bulb up in spring and summer. As any garlic grower can tell you, garden-fresh garlic is worlds better than the store stuff. Still, grocery garlic works just as well as a cold fighter.
Fresh lemon garlic tea is a standby infusion for cold sufferers. Simply add three large (or four small) sliced garlic cloves and the zest and juice of two lemons to three cups of boiling water in a saucepan. Allow the mix to boil for 5 minutes before removing from the heat and straining. Add a teaspoon of honey to each cup, and you have a truly useful cold treatment.
Nothing clears the head and chest like something spicy. That’s why cayenne (Capsicum annuum) is sought after as an herbal remedy for cold sufferers. The sun- and heat-loving veggies are easy as pie to grow during the summer months and are easily dried when red and ripe. Crushed cayenne can be added to any simple herbal tea as a stimulant to get the blood flowing. It is believed to help with headache pain and clear stuffy heads.
Lavender (Lavandula spp.) is one of the most beautiful, sun-loving plants, and its dried fragrant flowers are a versatile herbal. Not only can they be added to soaps and creams, but they make a wonderful cold inhalant when infused with one tablespoon eucalyptus leaves and two tablespoons of lavender flowers. The two fragrant botanicals are harmonious partners. In fact, their oils may help to relieve depression, inflammation and congestion, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Gardeners with a good bit of space can and should grow elderberries (Sambucus spp.). Not only do they make delicious jam, juice and wine, they are also healthful and medicinal. The shrubs can grow in full sun or partial shade, though plants grown in higher light yield more fruits. Umbels of edible yellowish spring flowers give way to edible black berries in late summer. Both the flowers and berries can be dried to make teas. The berries also make delicious syrup that can be used to sweeten and flavor any herbal tea. All are believed to alleviate cough and allergy symptoms.
Ginger root (Zingiber officinal) is delicious and desirable in more ways than one. Like cayenne, it’s spicy, so it acts as a stimulant that gets the blood flowing and clears the head and sinuses when added to tea or an infusion. It also helps sooth stomach when added to tea. Ginger is most easily grown in a pot outdoors in summer or in a sunny window or sun room in winter. It’s plump, spicy roots can be harvested as needed. For delicious fresh ginger tea, boil five large slices of ginger root in three cups of water with a cinnamon stick for a few minutes, strain and serve with honey.
All of the plants mentioned grow best in soils with average to good fertility and porous drainage. Before planting them in spring, amendment with Fafard Premium Topsoil will ensure good growth for the growing months. Likewise, ginger plants grown indoors thrive when planted in Fafard Organic Potting Mix.
Two great reference books for medicinal herbal plants are the recent book Grow It Heal It by Christopher Hobbs and Leslie Gardener (Rodale Books, 2013) and the classic Complete Medical Herbal by Penelope Ody (DK, 1993).
Though all of these herbal remedies are deemed safe by health experts, it’s always smart to talk to your doctor before partaking in any garden herbs. Also, be sure you have no allergies to these plants before using them. Some planning ahead is required if you want to grow your own herbal remedies, but when the winter sniffles arrive, you will be glad you broke ground and took the time.
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