Tuesday, May 27, 2008

An Herb by Any Other Name...

I am fascinated by herbs. In my mid-twenties, I first visited an herbalist to help me with PMS related symptoms. It was an eye opening experience for never before had I deeply considered the medicinal properties of the plants around me. And soon, I realized the diversity of the smells and tastes of herbs could enhance my life to a great degree. Before this time, I thought of herbs as dried and sprinkled on chicken. Occasionally, fresh herbs were used for making fabulous mozzarella and tomato appetizers. After my herb conversion, I began using herbs on a regular basis for cooking, aromatherapy, pain relief, and beauty.

A couple of my closest friends are naturopathic doctors. From them I have learned about herbal poultices, herbal teas, and other herbal remedies. The other day I had the pleasure of walking through my neighborhood with one of these friends and was delightfully surprised when she began pointing out herbs on our local tour. Growing along the side of the road we saw burdock, wild carrot and other generally overlooked, but precious, plants. I have learned over the years that herbs extended beyond rosemary, parsley and thyme. Botanically speaking, an herb is any plant with a non woody stem. However, we generally call only the plants that have some practical benefit to man "herbs." It is amazing how many plants along the side of the road fit the bill.

When I arrived home from my walk, I offered to dig up one of my favorite wild flowers for my friend. My jack-in the pulpits have spread through my front yard over the past year. Their unusual flower and unique trefoil leaf seemed a fair trade for the jacob's ladder that my friend Sara dug from her woods for me the week earlier. While researching herbs online this evening, I learned that jackin the pulpit too is considered an herb with a wide variety of medicinal uses. This realization rings bells in my head. I think of all the land clearing that we humans perform. We have been warned of the dangers of losing flora that may benefit us by such practices. My walk in the neighborhood really brought this issue closer to home.

My favorite use of herbs is for aromatherapy. As others put on a pot of coffee in the morning, I plug in my aromatherapy burner. I usually warm lavender, but sometimes add rose, jasmine, chamomile, patchouli and a number of other favorites from my collection. The scents can change my mood and even fix ailments such as headaches. My favorite accessory is a Tisserand essential oil warmer and I highly recommend one for anyone who is interested in aromatherapy. Throw out your Glade Plugins and other scents. Once you use an aromatherapy warmer and your favorite fragrance you will be hooked. The natural smells permeate the house and can overpower the toughest unwanted odors. (I had a friend last week ask me why my house always smells so good.)

This year, one of my gardening goals is to expand my herb garden as much as I can and to learn about various uses of herbs. Many years ago, I purchased what I thought was my first herb. This St. Johnswort is a beautiful little bush with yellow flowers. After ten years and three St. Johnswort plants I have still not tried to make use of the plant, but just knowing that I have this common depression fighter cheers me for some reason. This year, I am learning that I have many more herbs than I realized and they are among the best growers in my garden. These gems include yarrow, evening primrose and bee balm. Their newly discovered status elevates them in my mind somehow. An herb by any other name is still an herb...I am anxious to discover which ones hide under pseudonyms.


Amy said...

I have an excellent plant identification book for my region that also covers the various ways First Nations people used the native plants. It's quite fascinating.

Ugh, air fresheners are just awful. One little trick I learned is to put a couple drops of essential oil on a cotton ball and put it in your vacuum cannister. While you clean the floors the essential oil leaves a hint of lovely fragrance on the air.

Daphne said...

I love bee balm, but have always been afraid to plant it in my garden. I'm afraid it will just take over.


thanks for the vacuum tip! Sounds great!


I've had bee balm in my garden for three years now and this is the first year I notice it spreading. I'm actually pleased though. It is in a spot all by itself that can use some filling. (I hope that these aren't words I'll come to regret.) I planted it in a relatively shady location where the soil isn't so great. I'm not sure if this is the reason for it's slow start or not.

Esther Montgomery said...

All sorts of disconnected thoughts came into my head while reading this post -

Tisserand oils are the only ones I like. It's interesting how differently the same 'smells' come out when extracted by different manufacturers.

In our house, we have 'Lamp Halos'. These are indented clay rings which rest on lightbulbs (the ones which hang down from the ceiling). You put oil in the 'halo' - the clay absorbs it - the scent is released when the light is turned on and warms up.

There are pitfalls with herbs - not just the obvious ones like poisons - but that some perfectly lovely plants can be bad for people with certain conditions.

I have epilepsy and have been advised to avoid Rosemary, Fennel and Evening Primrose.



Thanks Esther. This reminds me to mention that there are also herbs that are great externally, but should not be taken internally. One of my naturopath's favorite herbs is comfrey, which has a gorgeous large leaf that would be excellent in the garden in place of hostas (or in addition to ;) Comfrey makes an exceptional poultice for injury, but must not be taken internally! We must remember that plants can be "drugs" just like synthetic versions and must be careful.