Easy Medicinal Herbs for the Home Gardener (That you may already be growing!)
Pacific Horticulture College Blog Post by: Kylie Van Horne
Like growing your own veggies, growing your own medicinal herbs can be a satisfying and rewarding experience for the home gardener. There are hundreds of herbs to choose from, and many ways to process; from making essential oils to tinctures to salves. Today we’ll focus on a few tried and tested plants that are easy to grow and harvest in the Pacific Northwest, and use our bounty to make teas. You may already be growing some of them in your own garden!
One of the oldest and most simple ways to preserve medicinal plants is by drying. Dried herbs are easy to harvest, process and store, and it’s an extremely satisfying experience to be able to reach into your pantry mid winter and make a warm cup of something you’ve grown yourself. Especially when it’s flavourful, aromatic and good for your health!
Harvesting and drying herbs is easy and doesn’t require a lot of fancy tools or materials. While you can use a dehydrator, be sure it’s one that has a temperature control setting. Drying at high temperatures can degrade the beneficial oils and compounds contained in the leaves, flowers and roots of the plant. For this reason (and because that gentle hum of the dehydrator can sometimes wear on a person), I prefer to air dry my herbs. It’s low tech, doesn’t require any fancy materials, and time investment is minimal.
Use your imagination and what’s on hand to dry your teas. In the past I’ve used old window screens or wire mesh, or just simply bundled my herbs and hung to dry. You can also loosely pack your herbs into paper bags and let them dry this way. Careful not to overpack, and give the bag a gentle stir or shake from time to time to encourage airflow.
Whichever method you choose, the key to success is to provide good air circulation to prevent molds and mildews, and so the herbs dry uniformly. Be sure to avoid direct sunlight to minimize photodegradation of the plant material. In the PNW, this means the best time to collect and dry is Late Spring through Late Summer/Early Autumn to avoid the rainy season.
When your herbs have dried completely, simply pack into clean glass jars and store in a cool dark place. I recommend labeling with a name and date when you begin, but once you’re used to the distinct look and smell of each plant when it’s dried, you can opt to skip this step. Be sure your herbs are totally dry before you store them. It’s a disappointing thing to open a jar to find your precious bounty has been ruined by mould!
The best time to harvest your plants is early to mid morning, after any dew has dried and before plants start to wilt in the heat of the afternoon. That being said, in reality the best time to harvest is when life gives you a moment, so keep the above rule in mind, but don’t let it prevent you from harvesting at all!
Below is a short list of annual and perennial medicinal herbs to grow, harvest and use. As a general rule, harvest flowers when just opened, and don’t be shy. The more you harvest, the more the plant will produce- kind of like deadheading your hanging baskets. When harvesting leaves, do so before flowering, or wait for the new growth after you’ve cut back the flowerheads. This will ensure the bulk of the beneficial compounds are in the new leaves and not the flowers or seeds.
**Remember our pollinator friends when planting and harvesting your herbs. Most have flowers that are highly attractive to pollinators and beneficial insects, so consider planting extra, or when harvesting leave some of the bounty to share with the little guys.
Lavendula angustifolia (English Lavender): A calming perennial medicine. Used for anxiety, sleep disorders, depression and fatigue. Harvest flower stems when half open.
Calendula officinalis (Calendula or Pot Marigold): An annual with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antifungal and antimicrobial properties. Thought to soothe the digestive tract and other membranes. Harvest whole flower, but keep only petals. Petals are easy to remove from flower head when fully dry.
Foeniculum vulgare (Fennel): High in potassium, calcium, zinc, manganese, Vitamin C, Vitamin A and Iron. Aids with idigestion, constipation, bloating, bronchitis, congestion and cough. Harvest dried seed heads and let dry completely in a paper bag. Added benefit is lady bugs lay their eggs on fennel flowers!
Salvia Rosmarinus (Rosemary): Perennial evergreen High in Vitamin C, iron and calcium. Antispasmodic and Antioxidant. Good for digestion and helps balance gut. Best to harvest in Spring and Summer when it’s actively growing.
Nepeta cataria (Catnip): A calming perennial that also can be used as an insect repellant! Supports immune fuction, healthy digestion. Harvest just before flowering. Can cut and come again.
Origanum vulgare (Oregano): Perennial. Antiviral, antibacterial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, good for sore throat, cough, digestion and nausea. Harvest just before it flowers. Can cut and come again