Herb Gardening Part 1: Non-Native Medicinal Plants

Welcome to the first of our blog series on herb gardening! Garden medicinal plants and culinary herbs can be challenging, exciting, and rewarding! It is a wonderful way to be able to provide your own medicine and secure alternative sources for certain plants that may be endangered, have small populations, or are otherwise difficult to find in the wild. Some medicinal plants absolutely thrive in gardens with just a little attention! Many of our medicinal plants are perennials, which means they return to our gardens year after year.

Because it is Spring and the Medicinal Plant Sale is around the corner, we wanted to provide you with some information about some common medicinal plants that you can grow in your garden. In fact there are hundreds of medicinal plants that you can plant in your garden! In future blog posts, we’ll talk about Montana native plants, pollinator plants, and culinary herb gardening. 

For this first post, we’re focusing on non-native-to-Montana plants that can be grown fairly easily here. Most of these plants starts and seeds are available by western Montana growers; many will be available at the upcoming plant sale behind Meadowsweet. Supplies are limited; to pre-order or find out more information about the producers or event sponsors, check out the Facebook event page! You can also check out local stores like Caras Nursery for medicinal/native plant starts or find high quality seeds online at Strictly Medicinal Seeds

Without further ado, here are some plants to try out in your garden!

CALENDULA (Calendula officinalis)

Description / Growing Habits / Harvest: can be grown as an annual or perennial, produces sticky, bright orange-yellow flowers. Gather flowers in the afternoon when they have opened up and dew has evaporated.

Common / Historical Uses: Fresh or dried flowers are used topically in oil or salve to help heal wounds, stings, burns, rashes, and inflammation. Fresh flowers can also be made into a tea or tincture to help heal ulcers and to ease swollen lymph nodes. The flowers are edible and be added to any meal for a dash of color!*

Both our Gold Salve and Desert Rain Salve use our soothing calendula infused oil for their base.

Actions: anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, lymphagogue, demulcent, vulnerary

CATNIP (Nepeta cataria)

Description / Growing Habits / Harvest: Widely known for its ability to inebriate our feline friends, catnip has many other uses! This plant is in the mint family (Lamiaceae) and has triangular, felt-like leaves. It is easy to start from seed and is a short-lived perennial. Well-established plants may be transplanted into the garden; if it is small, you may need fencing or other protection around it so cats don’t dig it up! You can gather leaves, pliable stems, and flowers for medicinal use.

Common / Historical Uses: Catnip can be dried for tea or tinctured fresh. Like many plants in the mint family, the tea or tincture it is a mild sedative and can be used to ease nervous tension and to relax. It is particularly effective for indigestion and gas (especially when combined with fennel seed tincture).*

Actions: anti-spasmodic, carminative, nervine, mild sedative*

CHAMOMILE (Matricaria recutita)

Description / Growing Habits / Harvest: Also known as German chamomile. You can obtain starts from local growers, and it is easy to grow from seed. Pick the flowers when in bloom.

Common / Historical Uses: This plant is familiar to many of us as it is widely used in tea. The flowers are the most potent medicinally, and they can be used fresh for tincture and used fresh or dried for tea. Chamomile can relieve nervousness and anxiety as well as stomach cramps, gas, and bloating.*

Actions: anti-spasmodic, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, carminative, anti-allergenic*

•Sometimes a similar plant, Pineapple Weed, is mistaken for chamomile; you will find it growing in sidewalk cracks and next to roads. It has similar qualities to chamomile; crush some between your fingers and give it a smell!

COMFREY (Symphytum officinale)

Description / Growing Habits / Harvest: Comfrey is a perennial that likes deep, rich, moist soils and full sun. Plant in a place you can live with it, as it is grows large and is hard to dig up (and therefore is difficult to kill!) There are two varieties: one spreads by seed, the other creeps. The leaves can be used as a garden fertilizer. Leaf and root may both be harvested to use for medicine.

Common / Historical Uses: Comfrey is an excellent skin and bone healer and is most well known for topical use as a salve, poultice, or infused oil. Any of these preparations can be applied to the skin to heal rashes, eczema, or other skin eruptions. (DO NOT USE on open wounds, as it can heals skin so quickly that it traps in bacteria). It is also a deep healer; it can be applied topically to ease pain, inflammation, and rheumatic complaints like arthritis. Also called “knitbone,” Comfrey contains the compound allantoin, which helps cells proliferate , thus encouraging bone healing. There is controversy about whether comfrey should be used internally, due to potential liver damage, but when used externally it is very safe.*

Actions: vulnerary, demulcent, anti-inflammatory*

ELECAMPANE (Inula helenium)

Description / Growing Habits / Harvest: Much like comfrey, these plants can grow to be quite large, 3-5 feet tall, and are easily started in pots from seed. They enjoy full sun and deep soil. Elecampane is a considered a bi-annual: harvest the young roots the first year or before flowering the second year. These roots can be tinctured fresh for tea or tincture, or cut lengthwise to dry for tea.

Common / Historical Uses: Prepared as a strong tea or tincture, Elecampane is excellent expectorant that will soften mucous and get the crud out. It is indicated for coughs with white/clear phlegm. It can be used for any persistent cough or bronchitis, pertussis (Whooping Cough), or pneumonia.*

Actions: expectorant, anti-septic, diaphoretic, bitter ironic, carminative, anti-inflammatory, diuretic, emmenagogue, immunomodulating*

LAVENDER (Lavandula angustifolia)

Description / Growing Habits / Harvest: Most people are familiar with this beautiful, fragrant plant! It is a perennial, very easy to establish, and enjoys drier soil and full sun. Flowers are typically harvested when in full bloom.

Common / Historical Uses: The flowers have historically been used for their anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving, and calming effects. They can be put into salve for topical wound healing or added into a tea, kombucha, or beer. The taste is too strong for some, so it can be added alongside other herbs or flavors. Some people top cookies or other baked goods with the small flowers. The flowers can be stuffed into a satchel or if you have enough, distilled for an essential oil. Lavender has relaxing qualities and is best known for promoting restful sleep.*

Actions: anti-inflammatory, carminative, spasmolytic, mild sedative, anti-depressant, antimicrobial*

LEMON BALM (Melissa officinalis)

Description / Growing Habits / Harvest: Like all plants in the mint family, Lemon Balm is characterized by its square stem and opposite leaves, but is set apart by its bright, lemony, fruity smell. It is easily planted by seed or procured from a local grower. It is a perennial that spreads easily and thrives in moist soil with some shade. The leaves may be harvested anytime.

Common / Historical Uses: The leaves are best used fresh, freshly dried, or freeze dried. The tincture may be made from fresh plants and tea can be made from fresh or dried plants. Lemon balm is known as a mood lifter and a nervine, meaning it soothes the nervous system. It is often used to soothe stomache-aches. It has been studied for use in herpes infections. Caution: Lemon Balm may have a calming action on the thyroid.*

Actions: nervine, sedative, mild anti-depressant, mild anti-spasmodic, vasodilation hypotensive, carminative, diaphoretic, antiviral, antioxidant*

MOTHERWORT (Leonarus cardiaca)

Description / Growing Habits / Harvest: Another mint family favorite, motherwort grows to be 2-4 feet tall, with spikey seeds that spread profusely, and can take over the garden if not managed. The leaves and small purplish flowers are harvested fresh. Bees loves this plant!

Common / Historical Uses: You can make a tincture with the fresh flowers, leaves. A tea is best avoided as this plant tastes very bitter. Motherwort, as may be inferred from the name, may be used post-partum, or after an abortion or miscarriage to help tone the uterus. The tincture can also be taken to bring on a latent period, ease menstrual cramps, and alleviate hot flashes during menopause. This plant is a mild vaso-dilator, so while it can help folks with mildly high blood pressure, folks with low blood pressure or low thyroid function should avoid using it.*

Actions: female reproductive tonic, diuretic, anti-spasmodic, nervine, emmenagogue, anti-oxidant*

TULSI / HOLY BASIL (Ocimum tenuiflorum)

Description / Growing Habits / Harvest: Tulsi is also in the mint family and has been used for thousands of years in Ayurveda, the traditional East Indian medicine system. It has several varieties including Krishna, Rama, and Vana, which can be used interchangeably. You can purchase starts or start from seed, just like culinary basil. The leaves can be used both fresh or dried for tincture or tea.

Common / Historical Uses: Holy basil is known as an “adaptogen:” that is, it helps our bodies adapt to stress by easing the adrenaline stress response. Especially when taken consistently, either as tea or tincture, Tulsi can help reduce long-term stress.*

Actions: adaptogen, anti-depressant, carminative, anti-fungal, anxiolytic *

VALERIAN (Valeriana spp.)

Description / Growing Habits / Harvest: Valerian has several species. Some are native to Montana and some are non-native. It is easy to start from seed, procure starts from local producers, and establish in the garden. The root can be harvested for medicine; it can be tinctured fresh or dry. Some people think the root smells like stinky feet, so it does not make the best tea!

Common / Historical Uses: Valerian tincture is best known for its sedative actions; that is, it helps calm your nervous system and fall asleep. Because it is one of the strongest herbal sedatives, it can leave some people feeling groggy. It can also be used as an “anti-spasmodic” to ease bronchial spasms or stomach cramps.*

Actions: sedative, relaxing nervine, anti-spasmodic, anti-convulsant, hypotensive, anti-arrhythmic*

*These statements have not been evaluated or approved by the FDA. This blog is intended for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical issues. If you are experiencing health problems, please consult your doctor or qualified health professional. Always make sure you have identified the correct plant species before using/harvesting plants.

Susan Teitelman is an herbalist and Certified Holistic Nutritionist who lives in Missoula, MT.