When it comes to herbs, many of us are comfortable with using them in the kitchen to flavor our food. But how about in the medicine cabinet? In addition to their culinary uses, herbs have amazing healing qualities that most of us are unaware of. If you use essential oils, you already may have experienced that lavender calms, peppermint relieves headaches, and lemon energizes. Maybe you’ve even used the salve from an aloe plant to heal a burn or cut. This is a great introduction to the healing power of plants, but it’s only the beginning.
This summer, venture into the world of herbs and learn how they can support your health and well-being. Grow your own apothecary - a few herbs that will support your personal health needs. First, identify what you struggle with, and learn which herbs can help. Then plant that remedy in the garden, and learn how to use it.
Here are some examples:
For brain fog: Herbs in the mint family can strengthen cognition and help you focus: lemon balm, rosemary, spearmint, and peppermint. Use these brain boosters in herbal tea or sip peppermint-infused water as you go through your day.
For digestive issues: There’s a long list of beneficial herbs for digestion and detox. Among them are calendula, yarrow, chamomile, lemon balm, bee balm, oregano, thyme, and sage. Chamomile tea is mostly known as the sleepy-time herb, but it also is anti-inflammatory, eases gas and bloating, and relaxes muscle tension. Use the flowers of this miniature daisy-like herb to make your own tea.
Improve your immunity: Elderberry, Echinacea (coneflowers), Monarda (Bee Balm), and garlic top the list of boosters for a healthy immune system. Recently, there’s been a huge interest in growing elderberry (Sambucus nigra). Use the flowers (dried) and the berries (cooked) to make tea or syrup.
Insect repellent: rosemary, lavender, yarrow, and catnip
Improve blood circulation: garlic, rosemary
Skin rashes: Calendula, lavender, comfrey
This is a mere glimpse at the list of herbs and their healing qualities. But now let’s talk about how to incorporate these herbal remedy plants into your landscape.
You can learn more about the power of herbs in numerous books and other resources. Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies by Maria Noel Groves is one that I recommend for those just beginning on this venture. The journey into the world of herbs as healer is exciting and full of wonder and could be as close as your backyard.
You can learn more about growing herbs and their healing qualities in an upcoming monthly series which begins Thursday, July 15. Learn more on our Makery page found on our website.
Pebble Beach. One of my favorite vacations that we took when the kids were young was to Door County, and more specifically, to Pebble Beach. Watching the kids splash along the water’s edge, hearing their laughter, and gathering the smooth stones on the beach was such good soul food.
It’s a sweet memory, one of many that I’ve collected over the years. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of collecting - not so much stuff, but intangibles that fill my thoughts, my time and demand my attention. I collect ideas, inspiration, recipes, photos (usually of plants), poetry, quotes - all which add up to a lot more time than I care to share as I scroll through my Instagram and Facebook feeds. I have over 2,000 pics on my iphone and adding more everyday! There’s a constant stream of information at our fingertips, on our phones, in the car, on the tv, - so many voices, so many inputs, and not enough time to process it all.
Can you relate?
That’s one reason we take vacations. They offer an opportunity to physically get away from it all, to step away from the daily schedules, and to unplug. We rest, relax and hope to come back rejuvenated. But the phones are usually still present and so is the temptation to scroll through the daily feed. What’s really needed is space on a more regular basis - a few moments every day to quiet the outside noise, to breathe deeply, to be still and quiet, for intentional reflection, and to hear our own thoughts. It’s those quiet moments that are good for the soul.
What we do in the quiet will look different for each of us. For me, I like to read a little scripture and journal. I’ve been journaling for many years. It’s a way for me to process life, to express how I feel, and to work through problems. As I read through old entries, I’m always amazed to see how God has been present through it all. More often than not, I can see His hand and timing. I always can see His grace and goodness.
Creating quiet space for your soul is a life-giving practice. Dallas Willard says ‘If you don’t come away for a while, you’ll come apart after a while.’’ We need to spend time in quiet, thoughtful reflection. Our souls need it. Even Jesus, during his ministry, would often seek time for solitude.
If you’re unsure how to begin, here are some suggestions:
“Perhaps silence makes you uncomfortable. Gradually you may learn to welcome silence, understand that it is a time of great fertility and growth, not of emptiness. Silence cultivates vulnerability toward God, because silence is an outward form of an inward surrender.”
I recently listened to a podcast by Emily P. Freeman, which, by the way, I highly recommend. The purpose of her podcasts and books is to help create space for your soul to breathe. You can find her at The Next Right Thing podcast (be sure to listen to #87 & #88) which is also the name of one of her books. She closed her recent episode with this reading of Psalm 23 in a version that relates it in a fresh way. I’d like to share it with you here.
"The Lord is my shepherd. I have everything I need. He lets me rest in green pastures. He leads me to calm water. He gives me new strength. He leads me on paths that are right for the good of his name. Even if I walk through a very dark valley, I will not be afraid because you are with me. Your rod and your shepherd’s staff comfort me. You prepare a meal for me in front of my enemies. You pour oil of blessing on my head. You fill my cup to overflowing. Surely your goodness and love will be with me all my life, and I will live in the house of the Lord forever."
Ps 23 (NCV).
In closing, I’ll leave you with a practice - an encouragement to take this idea of collecting the quiet with you into the day and month that lie ahead. First, name something that you’ve been collecting that you need to either pull back from or carve out time to process. Second, decide when and where you will find a few minutes today to be still. Then do it. Part of self-care is soul-care and it is necessary for a healthy you.
What do you find calming? For me it's always been lavender. I remember taking Lamaze classes when pregnant for the first time. They told me to picture in my mind a scene that calms me, so when the contractions get to be too much, visualizing that place would help. My scene of choice? A field of blooming lavender.
That was 30 years ago, and to this day, that is still my mind's calm place to go - walking through those rows and rows of lavender. A couple years ago, I finally visited one and that was such a treat. We tasted and smelled all the lavender things from hand soaps to ice cream.
I'm not the only one who has this affection for lavender. In 2017, July 9th was declared National Lavender Day as a way to draw attention to all the lavender growers and the lavender industry here in the US. Mid-summer thousands flock to Washington Island to see the fields of lavender. Closer to home, New Life Lavender Farm, in Baraboo, WI is a wonderful place to visit.
How to Grow Lavender
It's not an easy plant to grow here in SE Wisconsin. Of the two hardy varieties, 'Munstead' and 'Hidcote', 'Hidcote' has given me the best luck. Both have that wonderful fragrance, but 'Hidcote's' blooms are a deep purple. 'Hidcote' is also one of the top five varieties with the best flavor. Lavender needs full sun and well-drained soil, so if you have clay soil, it may not be happy there.
If you haven't had luck with hardy lavenders, then treat yourself to Spanish lavender. Enjoy it in it's pot for the summer and fall, then try to winter it over indoors.
Other varieties of note:
'Grosso' has the most concentrated oils so is the most fragrance. It's long stems lend well to lavender wands. Not hardy here, but worth growing in a container all summer.
'Goodwin Creek' is the best variety as a houseplant.
If you are growing lavender for culinary use, look for organically-grown lavender.
When to Harvest Lavender
How you intend to use lavender determines when to harvest it. If used in the kitchen for baking, pick before the flower buds have opened - when the buds are tight. If using it medicinally or aromatically, then pick the flowers as they begin to open. Dry the stems upside down bundled with rubber bands.
How to Use Lavender
Even if you don't grow lavender, you can experience it's calming effects in the form of essential oil. Diffuse it, spritz it on your pillow case before drifting off to sleep, use the oil on bug bites to stop the itching. If you have the flowers, fill sachets with them and tuck them into your drawers.
Below is a fun, easy way to venture into it's culinary uses. Try something new and explore how to make this aromatic herb part of your lifestyle.
4 cups of filtered water
1 cup sugar or honey
2 Tbsp dried lavender buds or 4 Tbsp of fresh buds
1 cup lemon juice, fresh squeezed
lavender sprigs for garnish
1. Combine water, sugar or honey, and lavender in a saucepan and heat for approximately 10 minutes or until the mixture begins to boil. Remove from the heat and allow to steep until cool, about 20 minutes.
2. Pour the mixture through a fine-screened colander or cheesecloth into a pitcher. Add the lemon juice and stir. Serve in glasses filled with ice and garnished with a lavender sprig or lemon wheel.
Recipe from The Lavender Lover's Handbook by Sarah Berringer Bader
Purple Sage, Purple Basil, and Parsley - two uncommon herbs and one very common herb. But all three are full of flavor and well worthy of a spot in the kitchen garden.
PURPLE SAGE: The pretty purple leaves of purple sage can be used ornamentally in container gardens, but they also are edible and can be used in dishes in place of common sage. The pungent flavor is known mostly for Thanksgiving stuffing, but has other uses as well. Add it when roasting potatoes or to fish dishes. The flowers of sage are edible, too, and can be added to salads. In the garden, purple sage should be treated as an annual as it is not hardy in our area.
PURPLE BASIL: Basil is probably the herb most in demand and is used for Bruschetta, soups, sauces, and pesto. Purple basil's flavor is clove-like and has a slightly spicy flavor. It makes a pretty purple basil vinegar and adds color to dishes when used fresh. To keep basil from getting too leggy, pinch it back just above a set of leaves.
PARSLEY: The 2021 Herb of the Year
- Parsley has become so common in the kitchen, that we usually consider it an afterthought - a pretty garnish on the dinner plate. But parsley is so much more! Rich in vitamins A, B, C, calcium and magnesium, it has a fresh taste. Add it raw to salads, chop finely and sprinkle on sandwiches and egg dishes. Italian flat-leaf parsley is often preferred by chefs over curly parsley for it's rich, robust flavor.
- In the garden, parsley is a biennial herb. It will often return in the second year and quickly flower and go to seed which is not necessarily a bad thing. Bees and pollinators will visit the flowers, and the finches will eat the seeds.
For me, it started several years ago when I read these words:
“Have vessel, must find beauty."
Life-changing words written by Ann Voskamp in her book, ‘One Thousand Gifts’ that a friend had given me. In her book, she writes that every time she picked a bouquet of flowers, she would have to hunt for a vase or vessel to put it in. One day she decided to leave the empty vase out on the table and go hunt for the flowers. It no longer was ‘have beauty, must find a vessel"; it had become 'have vessel, must find beauty." That small shift in perspective has had a huge impact on my life. So much so, that as a professed beauty-seeker, I am daily hunting to find beauty in the unexpected. Flowers are easy - daffodils, lilacs, roses, daisies - when they bloom, they demand attention, and I oblige. But now I have trained my eyes to seek beauty in a simple leaf with intricate veins, peeling bark on a tree, the smallest of insects gathering nectar. Even dead flowers have an essence of beauty.
It's paying attention to these small delights in a habitual way, that over time creates a life filled with beauty. Every day might not be beautiful, but it can have beauty in it. We must look for it! Each small delightful discovery in nature is a gift from the Creator himself - a reflection of His artistry, His love, and a reminder of His faithfulness. Season after season, He is constant. His grace is limitless and so are the gifts. No matter how small, I try to pay attention and look for them.
When my kids were growing up, I didn't take the time to practice the seeking and hunting beauty. Life was busy seeking lost shoes and hunting for misplaced homework assignments. I wish I had spent more time just being still long enough to pay attention to the beauty outdoors. I wish I had taught them to be beauty seekers. But perhaps my kids were the small delights that God had given me - beauty right under my nose. Perhaps they were the vessels that needed filling with my time, attention, love, and lessons of the Creator. Perhaps I was that vessel, and they filled me with love and beautiful moments that have woven a tapestry of a beauty-filled life. Hmmm, yes, and I am grateful for it.
Friend, may we never stop seeking beauty and filling our vessels, because seeking beauty will often lead to other things like gratitude, wonder, and joy.
It never fails. The film that wins an Oscar for best picture is usually not well-known. I think that’s what happened with this year’s Perennial Plant of the Year. The plant that has checked all the boxes and has won this year’s highest perennial honor is Calamintha nepeta subsp. nepeta.
Calamintha, also known as calamint, will grow well in a wide range of climates, is low maintenance, is virtually pest and disease free, and offers interest in multiple seasons. It’s also deer resistant and pollinators love it. Seriously, it comes alive with movement from all the bees flocking to it! Sit quietly nearby a planting of calamint and you can hear it hum.
If you are familiar with catmint (Nepeta spp.), then think of calamint as a cousin. It is a member of the mint family with aromatic foliage and square stems, but it does not spread by invasive runners like the mint that comes to mind. It’s white delicate flowers are often touched with blue as they age. Calamint is one of the few perennials that has a long period of bloom - early summer into fall. It grows best in full sun up to 18 inches tall and wide.
Calamint also happens to be one of the most versatile plants when creating perennial combinations in the landscape. It’s bushy habit reminds me of a soft, white, billowy cloud which is the perfect filler plant in the landscape. One combination strategy is to plant it with vertical- growing perennials like purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), a mix of Betonys (Stachys ‘Summer Romance’ and ‘Summer Crush’), or any of the Salvias. A good partner that offers contrasting texture and will carry the interest into the fall is Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’. My favorite combination is calamint interplanted with the broad leaves of Allium ‘Summer Beauty’ or ‘Windy City’ and the blue grassy foliage of Festuca ‘Cool as Ice’.
When shopping for calamint, a word of caution: Be aware that some cultivars can reseed and become a problem in the garden. Look for Calamintha nepeta subsp. nepeta, which has smooth, glossy leaves - not pubescent (soft, fuzzy) ones.
Tracy Hankwitz is a Horticulture Adjunct at Gateway Technical College and owner of Bella Botanica, LLC located at 1787 Walworth Street, Springfield, WI. All photos in this post are compliments of Midwest Groundcovers, LLC.
Hi, I'm Tracy - horticulturist, beauty-seeker, Word-lover, and blessed to be the owner of Bella Botanica. I also love to write about plants, gardening, and about my faith journey. Thanks for reading!