If you’ve ever kept a garden, then you’ve probably grown plenty of herbs. They are easy to grow and add delicious, fresh flavor to food.
Most backyard gardeners have cut a sprig of cilantro to add to tacos, trimmed a rosemary bush to flavor pork, or added homegrown basil to a caprese salad. We reach for herbs to add flavor in the kitchen, but we can also use herbs medicinally to treat a common pains and illnesses.
We asked Deb Blount, of 4 Bees Herb Farm in Sarasota, to share her favorite medicinal herbs with us. “Being asked to choose five favorite medicinal herbs is like asking which of my children I like best,” Deb explained. However, she was able to narrow her list of faves to the five herbs she uses the most for healing her family. Each herb is listed below along with its specific uses and growing conditions. All of these herbs grow well in the Sarasota-Manatee area, so you can get a start on growing your own medicine at home.
If you’ve ever forgotten to apply sunscreen during a day at the beach, aloe vera has probably been a friend of yours. Aloe is commonly used to soothe the tightness and pain of sunburn, but it can also be used to treat wounds, fungal infections, insect bites, and dry skin conditions (especially eczema on the face). Aloe can also be taken internally to aid digestion.
Using Aloe Medicinally: To treat sunburn or wounds, trim off a leaf at its base, cut it lengthwise, and apply it directly to the skin. To make a tonic, mix up to 2 teaspoons of fresh aloe gel in a glass of water or fruit juice three times a day. Don’t ingest aloe during pregnancy though, as it can cause vomiting.
Growing Aloe: Aloe is a succulent that can thrive in poor soils and needs very little water. Aloe needs full sun and is easy to grow in containers; be sure to let the soil dry out between watering.
If you can handle the heat (or are prone to making painful bets), you’ve probably eaten a few cayenne peppers. In addition to being edible, cayenne peppers (capsicum frutescens) also have medicinal uses. Cayenne are the hot peppers that typically grow a pale yellow color and mature to bright red. Cayenne can be used to treat sore throat, wounds, colds, chills, and bruising.
Using Cayenne Medicinally: To treat colds, chills, shock, or depression, take an infusion of the dried herb internally. To treat sprains, rheumatic pains, and bruising, soak a pad in an infusion and use as a compress. For throat problems, drink the following tincture: dilute five to 10 drops of cayenne tincture in a half-glass of warm water and add honey and lemon juice.
Many medicinal uses of cayenne involve using the dried herb. To dry the peppers slowly, simply string them up by their stems and hang until dried. To dry faster, place them in a dehydrator or in your oven on the lowest temperature. Important: avoid touching the eyes after handling fresh chilies, as the seeds can be toxic. Excessive consumption of cayenne can lead to gastroenteritis and liver damage. Avoid therapeutic doses while pregnant or breastfeeding.
Growing Cayenne: In our area, cayenne may be grown in a container or in the ground and require a long, warm growing season. Plant cayenne from September to March. One to three plants is sufficient for both the food and medicinal needs of a family.
Also called purple coneflower, Echinacea is often used as a decorative plant. A Florida native and a natural immune-system booster, it is an attractive plant that can also treat colds, inflammation, and infection. Many people have purchased capsules or tinctures of the plant to fight a cold, but Echinacea can be easily grown at home in our area.
Using Echinacea Medicinally: Most times, the root of the plant is used, but the flowers can be made into a tea to treat common cold symptoms. Treat inflammation, cold symptoms, or infections with a tincture of the dried root. Harvest the root after the plant flowers and then chop and dry. High doses may occasionally cause nausea or dizziness.
Growing Echinacea: Echinacea is native to Florida and can be grown in the ground or in a pot. It can be planted year-round. It does not tolerate full sun but can be grown in partial sun or in the shade. Echinacea has a high drought tolerance and clumps should be divided every few years to encourage blooming.
Plantains, the banana-like fruit common in Caribbean and South American cuisine, are delicious, but they have few medicinal uses. However, the medicinal herb plantain (plantago spp) has so many benefits, it is sometimes called an herbal panacea. Plantain can be used to treat wounds, infections, sore throats, and burns. Plantain can be very attractive and has the bonus of attracting butterflies as it is an important food plant for some caterpillars.
Using Plantain Medicinally: Harvest plantain after the flower spike forms. To treat bee stings, infections, and wounds, apply crushed fresh leaves. You may also treat wounds, burns, and hemorrhoids by making an ointment from the leaves. The juice from the leaves can be used for sore throats and gum inflammation.
Growing Plantain: Plantain is very easy to grow in Florida: It will succeed in any soil and prefers full sun. It can be grown in a container or in the ground. For more on growing plantago, check this out.
If you garden organically, you may be familiar with comfrey. It’s a fertilizer, so it’s of great use to organic gardeners. Its fast-growing leaves quickly accumulate nutrients and can be included in compost or used as fertilizer-delivering mulch. The properties that make the leaves great for fertilizing plants also make comfrey a great medicinal herb. Sometimes called “knitbone,” comfrey can help heal fractures, wounds, bruises, and sore muscles.
Using Comfrey Medicinally: Comfrey paste can be added to cream and used for bone or muscle healing, including osteoarthritis. Use a paste of powdered roots and water to treat stubborn wounds. Do not apply to wounds that are dirty because rapid healing can trap dirt or pus. Do not take internally, as comfrey may cause liver damage.
Growing Comfrey: Comfrey does well in Florida gardens, growing year-round. It is better grown in the ground than in a pot and needs to be cut back in January or February. You can start comfrey anytime, although it is best to start it in the spring.
If you would like to learn more about medicinal herbs, check out “The Complete Medicinal Herbal” by Penelope Ody, or visit the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension Office to learn more about growing these medicinal herbs in our area.