There’s no need to order a bunch of dried herbs from faraway places if you want to make your own herbal care at home. You can easily grow many of your own – many of them may already be in your garden! Here is a short list of some very useful plants you can easily grow find or grow in the Sierra Foothill region and beyond.
Plants You May Already Have Access To
You probably have some of these plants in your backyard already. Many of them are also abundant in foothill regions of California.
- Chickweed (Stellaria media). This lovely weed likes cooler temperatures, and you can often find it populating your garden beds late fall through early spring. Chickweed is a good skin soother and anti-inflammatory, making it a popular treatment for diaper rash and eczema. It’s also used as a topical treatment for pink eye. (It’s good nutrition, too! I put it my spring tonics and use it to make cool season pesto).
- Elder flowers (Sambucus nigra). Elderflowers present themselves in such lovely, ornate bundles, it can be hard to pick them off the tree. If you are wild harvesting this one, be mindful of how much you pick (10% or less is a good rule of thumb). Used topically, elderflowers are anti-inflammatory and have historically been used to promote healing of the skin, refine the complexion and fade freckles. Internally the flowers are used to reduce fevers associated with lung conditions. The berries have a long history of being used to prevent and treat influenza.
- Manzanita (Arctostaphylos species) The leaves are rich in tannins (and therefore highly astringent) and can be made into tea or a tincture for a topical treatment for poison oak. Manazanita (and especially her cousin Uva Ursi) has a history of use internally to fight urinary tract infections.
- Mugwort (Artimesia vulgaris) Mugwort leaves are another great topical remedy for poison oak, although this one is also heady and is often used ceremonially. It’s a strong astringent and anti-microbial.
- Plantain (Plantago major & lanceolata). It’s hard to find a place without plantain – this powerful little weed is almost everywhere. Plantain leaf has a strong drawing action, and makes a great topical remedy for bites and stings. It also has soothing properties and is popular ingredient in healing salves.
- Self-Heal (Prunella vulgaris). As the name suggests, self-heal leaf is antibacterial, antiviral, stops bleeding and promotes healing. It’s a great addition to a healing salve, and especially suited for lip balms to promote healing of canker sores.
- St. John’s Wort (Hypericum Perforatum). Look for these bright yellow blessings around the time of summer solstice. These cheery blossoms can be macerated in oil or alcohol and are often used topically for inflammation, viral infections, bruises, cramps, and nerve pain. It’s a great ingredient in a massage oil or linament for strains, sprains, sciatica and tendonitis. Many consider St. John’s Wort an invasive weed, so you may find land owners who are very willing to have you collect this plant off their property.
- Pine & cedar species: use green aerial parts, and especially sap, as an antimicrobial in salves.
What You May Want to Plant in Your Backyard
Here’s a good starter list for your backyard. These common herbs have multiple uses and are relatively easy to grow. Consider starting with a few that most appeal to you, and then expanding as you grow a better sense of your backyard herbal needs (see reverse side).
- Calendula (Calendula officinalis). A practical and versatile addition to your backyard pharmacoepia! Calendula (petals) is widely used for its ability to sooth and heal the skin, and is often included in treatments for tender baby skin. It’s antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and soothes burns, blemishes dry skin and rashes. As the name suggests, calendula can keep blooming throughout the calendar year. It will continue to reproduce itself in the garden with its ambitious seed heads, therefore it’s relatively easy to keep it going in the garden. You’ll get more blooms with regular watering and frequent flower picking.
- Catnip (Nepeta cataria). If you think this one is just for cats, you are missing out! The essential oil of catnip has been proven to be 10 times more powerful than DEET at deterring mosquitoes. It also has gentle and versatile soothing actions, and is a favorite for use with young children. Catnip has also been used to bring luster to hair. Like other mints, catnip will likely be a permanent, ever-expanding addition to garden, so be thoughtful about where you plant it. It’s hearty, and will last longer into the summer with partial shade.
- Comfrey (Symphytum officinalis). Comfrey is perhaps best known as a wound and broken bone healer. It is one of the preferred ingredients to heal injured skin and sprains. Comfrey also cleans the pores and has often been used in hair treatments. Once you plant comfrey in your yard, there is no turning back! It proliferates readily through even the smallest piece of root and is difficult to eradicate. But with all the uses this plant offers (for human health and for compost health), it’s worth the commitment to have some in the yard.
- Lavender (Lavendula and Lavadin species). As if lavender’s soothing and joyful scent wasn’t enough, this wonder plant has a laundry list of medicinal actions. In regards to body care, use lavender when you want to sooth skin, relax the psyche, reduce inflammation, heal blemished or burned skin, kill germs, stop itching, or encourage feelings of joy and love. Its no wonder this plant is so widely used in body care! Plant lavender in a sunny spot with dry, well-drained soil (think rock garden). There is no shortage of varieties of lavender to pick from (lavindins are hybrids and produce more flowers, although they don’t tend to live as long as lavendulas).
- Lemonbalm (Melissa officinalis). Ah, the joy of lemonbalm in the garden! Bring this one into the bath (or use as a facial steam) to calm the nerves, calm the stomach, and encourage a joyful mood. Lemonbalm is a gentle way to calm the psyche and calm irritated skin, and can also be used in creams. Like other mints, lemonbalm will likely be a permanent, ever-expanding addition to garden, so be thoughtful about where you plant it.
- Rose (Rosa species). As gentle nourishment for the skin, roses have been used for centuries in skin care practices and products. Rose petals soften, heal skin, and kill microbes. Choose a fragrant variety for best results, and avoid all chemical/petroleum bases fertilizers and treatments.
- Rosemary – Rosmarinus officinalis. Use topically as an anti-inflammatory, to stimulate blood circulation, to kill microbes, and as mild analgesic (think injuries, arthritis, sore muscles). Rosemary is often used in cosmetics for its cheery scent, astringent properties, and ability to bring luster to hair. Pick a spot with lots of sun, well-drained soil, and good air circulation.
- Violets (viola odorata) The leaves are very mucilaginous, making them a nice soothing ingredient in a poultice for wounded or irritated skin. Their vitamin A and C content also make them good additions for skin cream. The flowers bloom in late winter/early spring, and have historically been used in cosmetic preparations in Europe. In the garden, violets like cool, moist, well-drained soil in at least partial shade. Both native and hybrid varieties are available.
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) Perhaps best known as a wound healer, yarrow is a popular ingredient in healing salves. It can also be used directly on top of a wound to stop bleeding and kill germs. Use on the face for oily, irritated, or blemished skin (think facial steam, toner, face mask). Yarrow is a hearty, drought resistant plant. If you want to use it medicinally from the garden, keep it relatively dry and do not over water.