Feature

Guide to healing herbs

G Magazine

With these handy herbs in your garden, a variety of common ailments can be treated naturally without the need to leave your front gate.

Lovely thyme

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

Credit: iStockphoto

Borage

Borage (Borago officinalis)

Credit: iStockphoto

Red clover

Red clover (Trifolium pratense)

Credit: iStockphoto

Calendula

Calendula (Calendula officinalis)

Credit: iStockphoto

Stinging nettle

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica)

Credit: iStockphoto

Comfrey

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)

Credit: iStockphoto

Chickweed

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Credit: iStockphoto

Dandelion

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Credit: iStockphoto

Basil

Basil (Ocimum basilicum)

Credit: iStockphoto

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We may habitually rush out to the chemist at the first onset of a cold or headache, but when it comes to mending a minor ailment, a fix may very well be found first in your own backyard. A range of easy-to-grow medicinal plants can effectively treat everyday ailments with the following advantages over store-bought herbs: they haven't been the cause of fuel consumption, nor have they been packaged and - best of all - they're completely natural. The following well-known culinary herbs and common weeds (also see our tips on growing these plants responsibly) can often be used as first aid treatments and/or to maintain our health.

Most of these plants can be made into a tea. A standard cup is made by pouring one cup of boiling water over 1-2 teaspoons of finely cut herbs and steeping for 10 minutes (preferably in a pre-warmed teapot.)

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

Like most culinary herbs, thyme not only compliments the taste of certain foods, but helps us to digest them. The tea is also used to treat digestive and respiratory infections as it has antiseptic properties. Women who are pregnant however should avoid large doses of thyme as it is a uterine stimulant.
Harvest season: Summer.
Growing conditions: Will grow in poor soil but prefers good loam.

Borage (Borago officinalis)

Borage has hairy leaves, a hollow stem and star-shaped flowers that can be either blue or pink - even on the same plant. The flowers taste sweet. The leaves can be used to make a tea for strengthening the adrenal glands and are therefore useful for people under stress or going through menopause. The tea also increases milk supply in nursing mothers.
Harvest season: Spring and summer.
Growing conditions: Light, dry soil.

Red clover (Trifolium pratense)

Red clover flowers can be made into a tea to cleanse the blood, soothe the nerves and promote sleep. They are also used for coughs and bronchitis as they have expectorant and anti-spasmodic properties. The tea, drunk three times daily over several weeks, can also help to clear skin conditions such as psoriasis.
Harvest season: Summer.
Growing conditions: Prefers light sandy soil.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis)

Calendula flowers can be eaten in salads, drunk as a tea or applied on the skin. They have anti-fungal properties and can be used for a wide variety of skin problems such as inflammation, burns and bruises. Oil to be applied on the skin can be made by steeping calendula flowers in olive oil over several weeks. The tea is also drunk for digestive inflammations.
Harvest season: Summer.
Growing conditions: Will grow in most soils.

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica)

Nettles have a square grooved stem and blue-green leaves covered with stinging hairs. Wear gloves to stop your skin coming into contact with the leaves and make sure kids keep clear. Nettle tea is drunk to strengthen the nervous system, ease skin problems such as acne and to treat arthritis and gout. It's often recommended as a general tonic for pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers can drink it to stimulate their
milk supply.
Season: The top leaves of the young plants are harvested in spring.
Growing conditions: Rich, wet soil.

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)

Comfrey leaves are hairy and large at the bottom of the plant, decreasing in size as they go up the stem. Purple tubular flowers appear in summer. Both the leaves and root speed up the healing of bruises, cuts, muscle strains, sprains and broken bones. (Note that if you have an infected wound, treat it with an antiseptic herb like tea-tree oil first.) The easiest way to use comfrey is to mash freshly chopped leaves or roots with enough hot water to make a paste, spread it on a cloth and place that over the wound, keeping
it in place with a bandage. Replace the comfrey mixture every few hours.
Harvest season: Leaves in summer, roots in autumn to early spring.
Growing conditions: Will grow in almost any soil but prefers slightly moist conditions.

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Chickweed has tiny, white, star-like flowers growing on light-green stems. A handy plant if you suffer from eye problems such as pink eye, conjunctivitis or irritation from contact lenses. Simply rinse a bunch of chickweed and place it directly over the eyes, then hold it in place with a bandage. The chickweed will heat up; when it does, replace it with fresh chickweed. The leaves can also be placed on bites, wounds and sores. Munching on fresh chickweed will give you a good nutrient boost.
Harvest season: Winter.
Growing conditions: Fertile, mineral-rich soil. Chickweed grows well in the shade.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Not to be confused with Catsear, which has a branched thin stem with many flowers, true dandelions have only one yellow flower per stem. The dark green leaves grow in a rosette from the taproot. Both the leaves and roots are used as a liver tonic, diuretic and digestive aid. The nutrient content of dandelion is dense. The roots can be sliced into stir-fries or stews and taste like a slightly bitter parsnip. Use the leaves in salads or as a tea. The roots are best brewed by pouring one cup of cold water over 1-2 teaspoons of finely cut root, bringing it to the boil and simmering for 10 min before straining.
Harvest season: Autumn - early spring for the roots, summer for the leaves.
Growing conditions: Will grow under most conditions. It restores abused soils, creates drainage and attracts earthworms.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum)

If you have a herb garden, you probably already enjoy the fabulous aroma and taste of fresh basil in your cooking. There are a number of medicinal uses as well. Basil tea is particularly good for the nervous and digestive systems. It is an anti-depressant and is useful for headaches, indigestion and nausea. Traditionally, basil was also used as an external medicine - the bruised leaves were rubbed on scorpion and wasp stings. Applied to the skin this way it can also repel flies and mosquitoes.
Harvest season: Summer.
Growing conditions: Plenty of sun; grows well next to tomatoes.

Pest control

As with many common garden plants, these herbs have the potential to jump the fence and cause problems in bushland if they're not managed responsibly.

Rod Randall, a weed specialist from the WA Department of Agriculture and Food, gives lavender as an example: "It can spread from seed and cuttings if the conditions are right. Old pot-pourri thrown over the back fence can often have viable lavender seed in it, and away they go. It can create dense monocultures, displaces the native shrubs and because it's so aromatic the native wildlife don't eat it."

So, before you plant your herbs, check with your local council or download a free copy of The Introduced Flora of Australia and its Weed Potential.

❖ Never throw seeds, stem or root fragments over the fence into bushland.
❖ Compost or dispose of garden and green waste in council green waste collections.
❖ Cover your compost so that seeds cannot be dispersed by wind or animals.