Herbs as healers

Everyone knows that using fresh herbs in the kitchen can transform a meal into a feast. But we can also use them in the home to treat minor ailments.

Whether you have a garden, a window box, or simply room for a pot on a west- or east-facing windowsill, you can grow your own living first-aid kit.

Be aware that some plants can be poisonous if misidentified or misused so, if you are unsure, if you are pregnant or for more serious conditions, always seek medical advice.

Hangovers and heavy hearts
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) makes a restorative herbal infusion that’s ideal for waking up the grey cells, settling the stomach and lifting the spirits — perfect for sufferers of seasonal affective disorder, or a hangover.

  • How to grow: Wherever you plant your herbs, make sure they are easily accessible. Rosemary will be happy in containers filled with a soil-based potting compost or in the garden in welldrained soil in a sunny position.
  • Recipe: Cut a three to four centimetre sprig, place in a mug, pour over boiled (not boiling) water, cover to prevent steam evaporating and steep for five minutes before drinking. Take one cup a day for up to seven successive days, then have a few days’ break.

Burns and bites
I used to have an aloe (Aloe vera) growing in a pot on my kitchen windowsill because I am renowned as a clumsy cook. But I have started using the burn-jelly plant (Bulbine frutescens), which is also a succulent and produces many more leaves that are easier to use.


  • How to grow: Plant in containers using a soil-based potting compost mixed with an equal amount of sharp horticultural grit or perlite.
  • Recipe: To treat burns, simply cut off a bit of leaf and rub the glutinous gel straight on to the skin, reapplying if the burn becomes uncomfortable. The wound then heals without blistering. This gel can also be used to cool the itching caused by insect bites and allergies.

Headaches and cold sores
An infusion of lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) can be drunk every day to relieve headaches, tension and tiredness, and restore memory.

  • How to grow: Plant in a container to stop lemon balm marauding around the garden like its first cousin, mint. It will happily produce leaves throughout the growing season, provided you repot every autumn using a soil-based potting compost, either into a larger container or by cutting the plant in half and repotting into the same-sized pot .
  • Recipe: To infuse, add two teaspoons of fresh herbs or one teaspoon of dried herbs to a small mug, pour over boiled water, cover and steep for five minutes. Alternatively, allow to cool, then soak cotton wool in the tea and apply to cold sores to help them heal and prevent recurrence.

Sunburn and skin rashes
Calendula cream made from pot marigold flowers (Calendula officinalis) is simple to make and keeps in the refrigerator for up to eight weeks. Use on inflamed skin or minor wounds, rashes and sunburn.

  • How to grow: Sow seeds into small pots, using a seed or soil-based compost, in a frost-free environment. When seedlings appear, move to a warm, light position. Once established, and with no threat of frost, pot up or plant out in the garden.
  • Recipe: 150g emulsifying ointment (available from chemists); 70g glycerol (available from chemists); 80ml water; 75g whole pot marigold flowers, green parts removed.
    Melt emulsifying ointment in a ceramic bowl over a pan of simmering water. Add glycerol and water. It will solidify slightly; keep stirring until melted. Add flowers, stir well and simmer gently for three hours, checking periodically that the water does not boil dry. Strain mixture while hot through a jelly bag or tea towel into a jug, then stir constantly while cooling to prevent sepaOnce set, spoon into dark glass jars, seal and label.

Coughs and sore throats
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) has many therapeutic and culinary uses and its antiseptic, antibacterial and antifungal properties have been proved by research. Broadleaf thyme (Thymus pulegioides) looks lovely tumbling over the edge of a path, or cascading off the edge of a raised bed.

  • How to grow: Plant in containers using a soil-based compost, or directly into the garden in a sunny position. Well-drained soil is essential.
  • Recipe: To make a tea, use two teaspoons of fresh leaves or one teaspoon of dried; steep for five minutes, then strain. Sweeten with honey, then drink to ease a cough. Alternatively, allow to cool and use as a gargle for sore throats or mouthwash for infected gums.

Scars and sprains
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is a wildflower of the United Kingdom and has been used medicinally for thousands of years; applied to the surface of the skin, it helps scar tissue to heal and eases varicose veins, muscle strain, sprains and bruises.

  • How to grow: Comfrey is easy to grow but invasive, so plant it in a large container or a dustbin with drainage holes, using a loam-based compost.
  • Recipe: To make comfrey oil, stir 500g of chopped fresh leaves into 750ml olive or sunflower oil in a glass bowl over a saucepan of boiling water. Cover and simmer gently for two to three hours. Remove from the heat and allow to cool, then strain through a jelly bag or tea towel into a jug. Using a funnel, pour the oil into dark glass storage bottles, seal and label. Place in a cool cupboard away from direct light, and keep for up to one year. —

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