Long before you went to the doctor to get a prescription, people used plants to treat illnesses and heal wounds. In fact, many modern drugs, such as aspirin, are derived from plants, now known as healing plants. “Over time, humans have found many plants are effective for nutrition, for adding spice to foods and also for healing us,” says vice president for botanical science at the New York Botanical Garden, Michael Balick, PhD. “There’s also a positive mental health aspect to gardening.” Science is proving that gardening isn’t just about all those pretty flowers in your backyard: More and more studies show that gardening can help you deal with anxiety and depression, manage weight, and control blood pressure. And there’s no question that getting outside and putting your hands in the dirt for a few minutes after a stress-filled day just feels good!
In his book, 21st Century Herbal: A Practical Guide for Healthy Living Using Nature’s Most Powerful Plants, Balick discusses Mother Nature’s brilliant chemistry and the healing properties of common plants. Although there’s still plenty for us to learn about natural remedies, here are a few of the best healing plants you can grow in pots or the landscape. (And don’t forget to check out our easiest flowers to grow guide and the best indoor trees.)
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Grow aloe vera indoors in bright light. Don’t overwater, as it doesn’t like wet feet. It prefers to be overcrowded in the pot, so don’t worry about dividing and repotting unless you want to make more plants.
How to use: Compounds in the leaves have anti-inflammatory properties that speed healing of skin tissue. Cut off the largest outermost leaves, peel and squeeze the gel-like substance onto minor burns or to soothe poison ivy or poison oak rashes.
SHOP ALOE VERA
There are hundreds of varieties of mint, with flavors varying from peppermint to chocolate. Mint is an aggressive grower, so keep it in pots or it will take over the whole garden. It likes full sun, tolerates most soils, and isn’t at all fussy. It’s probably one of the easiest herbs to grow.
How to use: Mint relaxes the smooth muscles of the GI tract, so it’s long been used for digestive issues. When you have tummy trouble or feel nauseated, make a tea for sipping. Strip about a dozen leaves (peppermint and spearmint are especially good) and steep in one cup of boiling water until it takes on a yellowish hue.
This versatile herb likes full sun and well-drained soil. It has small white flowers that aren’t particularly showy. Keep it in a container so it doesn’t spread rampantly throughout the garden.
How to use: Pour one cup boiling water over five or six fresh leaves. Steep for five minutes, strain and sweeten. Drink several times a day for an upset tummy.
SHOP LEMON BALM
Rosemary originates in the Mediterranean, so it needs full sun and prefers sandy or rocky soil. It’s drought tolerant and will be perennial in warm climates. In cold climates, pot it up and bring it indoors for the winter, giving it plenty of light.
How to use: Make a hair rinse (good for oily hair) by placing one teaspoon dried rosemary or a handful of fresh rosemary in a cup of boiling water; add one tablespoon lemon juice, and let steep for 10 minutes. Strain, let the infusion cool, and pour through freshly-shampooed hair.
Roman chamomile is a low-growing perennial, whereas German chamomile is an annual that can become two feet tall. It likes full sun to part shade but does best in well-drained soils.
How to use: Both types are used interchangeably. When the flowers just begin to open, harvest them and spread out to dry. Then make a tea to aid sleep or indigestion: Chop the dried flowers, add about one tablespoon per cup of hot water, and steep five minutes. Or place the chopped flowers in a small muslin bag with a drawstring to make a tea bag. Bonus: Use this after it cools to soothe red, puffy eyes!
Lavender is easy to grow in full sun in well-drained soil, but make sure you choose a variety that will thrive in your USDA Hardiness zone (find yours here).
How to use: Harvest the leaves and flowers (just as the flower spikes begin to open), chop them up and put them in a small sachet, and tuck a few under your pillow to reduce anxiety and help you sleep better.
Sage needs full sun and well-drained soil. It’s not difficult to grow and is a popular culinary herb in stuffing, chicken and pork dishes.
How to use: Sage’s antimicrobial properties may relieve cold symptoms. Chop up about one teaspoon of the leaves and steep in a cup of boiling hot water for 10 minutes. Cool, and use as a gargle for sore throats.
Thyme likes hot, dry conditions and soil that isn’t too rich. It’s incredibly easy to grow in full sun (it even tolerates some shade), and most varieties spread quickly.
How to use: Thyme’s antimicrobial activity may help relieve coughs and cold symptoms. Make a tea by pouring a cup of boiling water over a tablespoon of fresh leaves, and steep for 10 minutes. Drink several times a day.
These pretty orange and yellow flowers, also known as French pot marigold, like full sun and most soils. It’s an annual that blooms from summer until frost.
How to use: Pick the flowers when they’re fully opened, but not yet gone to seed. Pour one cup boiling water over two teaspoons of petals. Steep for 10 minutes, strain, and let cool. Use as a mouthwash or gargle to relieve inflammation.
Basil needs full sun and well-drained soil. To produce more leaves, pinch off the flowers as soon as they begin to form.
How to use: Basil has antiseptic and antibacterial properties. Crush a few leaves and apply to mosquito bites. Leave on for a few minutes to relieve itching.
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