Effective medicinal plants to grow in your garden

February 5th, 2017
Posted In: Wildlife & eco

Until 100 years ago, we used medicinal plants to treat most illnesses.

And, according to a new book, The Gardener’s Companion to Medicinal Plants, they still do in Africa, Asia and South America.

You could grow many useful medicinal plants in your garden

Even the chemical industry makes many drugs developed from plants. People made ‘aspirin’ from the leaves of the willow tree 2,400 years ago. The National Cancer Institute discovered that Pacific yew bark could create the anti-cancer drug, Taxol.

There are many more examples.

So could you use your own garden plants as medicines?

Are hydrangeas 'medicinal plants'?

Perhaps you could brew a concoction of Hydrangea arborescens root for your aching joints? Also in this corner of my garden are hellebores (may stimulate the immune system, but can be dangerous). Foxgloves are already well known in pharmaceutical research, so aren’t included in the Gardener’s Companion to Medicinal Plants.

(Note: There are some affiliate links in this post, which means you can click on them to buy. If you do, I may get a small fee. It doesn’t affect the price you pay.)

The Gardener’s Companion to Medicinal Plants

The book is published by Frances Lincoln under the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew label. They sent me a copy for review. I found it fascinating.

Firstly, the authors. It’s written by a trio of highly qualified and experienced authors. Jason Irving is a qualified herbalist and forager (so cool!).

Dr Melanie-Jayne Howes is a registered pharmacist, Chartered Chemist and phytochemist at Kew. She’s a member of many other scientific organisations.

Professor Monique Simmonds is Deputy Director of Science at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

So this book isn’t just another ‘make your own remedies at home on the kitchen table’. It’s a serious scientific A-Z of healing plants, with some DIY recipes.

Do medicinal plants work?

We all have some experience of medicinal plants, even if it’s only to soothe a nettle sting by applying a dock leaf.

My mother always kept a pot-grown aloe vera in the kitchen. If she burnt herself she broke off a leaf and applied the gel-like sap to the burn. It worked better than anything she’d ever bought at the pharmacy.

And when my son was eight, he developed a large wart on his wrist. A botanist friend recommended that we rub the wart with the white, milky sap of petty spurge, or milkweed.

The wart disappeared after one application. Now milkweed is being researched as a cure for skin cancer.

According to the Gardener's Companion to Medicinal Plants, angelica may have anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties.

Angelica archangelica – according to tradition, it can be used to reduce fevers, flatulence and many other uses. According to The Gardener’s Companion to Medicinal Plants, there haven’t yet been many medical studies, but it seems to have anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties.

Which plants heal?

There are over 35,000 plants used for healing worldwide. The Gardener’s Companion to Medicinal Plants lists 277 of them.

One criteria for inclusion was that there had to be some medical research as well as traditional usage.

Some plants in the book will be familiar to anyone who uses Bach’s Flower Remedies or other flower essences. Or if you visit a herbalist or homeopath. That includes horse chestnut and black cohosh.

Some plants in the book are already well-known for their health-giving properties. For example, turmeric and echinacea.

Echinacea purpurea is a well-known medicinal plant

Echinacea purpurea has anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal properties. Seen here with Verbena bonariensis. Verbena officianalis is traditionally used for headaches, stress, fevers and anxiety.

But there are also some surprising garden plants listed, such as Acanthus mollis (Bear’s breeches) and Alchemilla. Both are also considered to have anti-inflammatory properties.

And everyone has heard of Bach’s Rescue Remedy. But how many people realise it has clematis in it? The Gardener’s Companion says that Clematis armandii has also been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties.

The recipes

There 24 home recipes in the book.

These include calendula (marigold) lip balm and passionflower sleep tea. You can combine passionflower with hops and valerian to make a knockout sleeping potion.

Valerian root is used to aid sleep and reduce anxiety.

Valerian root is used for calming and in ‘sleep teas.’ It was considered to be the best treatment for epilepsy before modern drugs were developed, says The Gardeners Companion.

The Gardener’s Companion also says that passionflower is now used by herbalists to treat Parkinson’s disease and shingles.

The verdict

I think this book is well worth reading and buying. It’s clear that we need much more research into medicinal plants.  It would be too easy to lose the knowledge that has been acquired over the centuries.

The Gardener’s Companion to Medicinal Plants is also tapping into the zeitgeist of today.

For example, The College of Medicine  in London has run a Plant Medicine Conference. There were an international line-up of clinicians, researchers, pharmacists and physicians. They’ll discuss remedies based on medicinal plants. These include culinary spices, herbal medicines and plant food ingredients.

You might also enjoy…

Grow Your Own Drugs by ethnobotanist James Wong introduced a new generation of gardeners to the medicinal plants in their own gardens. It has lots of recipes for turning your plants into healing lotions, potions, lozenges and tinctures.

It also lists a Top 100 plants to grow or buy. He also shows how some plants have the same pharmaceutical properties as over-the-counter drugs.

Visit the Chelsea Physic Garden, London’s oldest botanic garden. It was started in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries.

They used it to train apprentices in the identification and use of medicinal plants. One of its main aims is still to demonstrate the medicinal properties of plants.

Or read about using your garden plants to create stunning natural dyes.

In the 1970s, my parents used to keep stocks of tinned tuna fish and baked beans in case an atom bomb destroyed the world. I’m not entirely clear why my parents, along with the tinned food, expected to survive such an attack. But perhaps people just felt better if they had a strategy for survival.

So, in today’s uncertain world, you might feel reassured to imagine picking the medicines you need from your garden. Add the Gardeners Companion to Medicinal Plants to your survival supplies.

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