Some medicinal plants for the permaculture garden

In preparation for tomorrow’s talk, and as a way to ease my anxiety about teaching (see my earlier post), I thought I’d use a mode of communication that feels more comfortable to explore a few of the plants that we’ll be discussing tomorrow morning.  There are so many spectacular medicinal plants that have multiple functions in the landscape and offer us incredible gifts of food and medicine–not to mention joy, but we only have a little over an hour, so we’re focusing on nine plants: Elecampane, Thyme, Raspberry, Garlic, Lady’s Mantle, Black Cohosh, Catnip, Rose, and Bee Balm.  We had to cut Red Clover, Mullein, Borage and Heart’s Ease Pansy off the list because of time.  We could have talked for a whole hour about Elder alone, but instead we’re going to offer a snapshot of a handful of useful and diverse plants that are growing on the MOFGA grounds.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
20140701_151344Thyme is, in my opinion, one of the most underutilized medicinal plants we have.  It has been used for centuries to ward off illness, combat bacterial growth in food, and to clear the respiratory tract of infection (among dozens of other uses).  It often appears as an ingredient in Four Thieves Vinegar, which, according to legend, kept thieves during the time of the plague healthy. I can’t vouch for thyme’s ability to combat the plague, but what I have seen from my own experience (both using it myself and giving it to clients) is that if you use thyme at the very onset of symptoms of a cold, flu or other nasty, it will help dispel the illness.  I learned to use thyme in this way from my first herbal teacher Maia Toll, who loved thyme as much as I now do.  I have taken up thyme’s flag and I have consistently won people over to its simple yet powerful healing properties.  Use it in your food, make tea with it, add thyme tincture to your medicine chest, season your vinegar with it!  Its volatile oils are precious, so cover your tea & don’t boil it.

In the garden, there are so many varieties of thyme–creeping thyme, lemon thyme, wooly thyme, and your familiar garden thyme.  Some of the low-growing thymes are quite marvelous groundcover.  If you haven’t been to Avena Botanicals to walk on Deb’s wheel of thyme, then you are missing out!  Of course, you can create this at your very own home.  Thyme is adapted to warm climates, so it grows pretty freely without too much attention or fuss.  I have some growing in full sun, some in the shadier parts of the garden, and they are all pretty happy.  These tiny flowers offer us a moment of wonder and joy as we kneel down to look at them closely.  I would encourage you to get to know thyme, if you haven’t done so already.

I spent about an hour today with thyme, processing some dried plants while listening to Tom Waits’ album Rain Dogs.  I was amused as I was stripping tiny leaves from thin stalks at the lyric repeatedly sung to me in that moment: “Well it’s time, time, time…Oh, it’s time, time, time.  It’s time, time, time that you love, oh it’s time, time, time.”  Well, yes, I guess it is time.  Thanks, Tom, for the gentle reminder.  And thanks to thyme for always reminding me to love what is right in front of me.

Rose (Rosa spp.)
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There are so many species of rose, all of them great medicine for the heart.  The one pictured at right is Rosa rugosa, which has naturalized here on the coast of Maine.  It grows along the beaches, protecting the land from the harsh ocean waves.  It is a tough plant–great to plant along the driveway or near the road because it can take a lot of salt and the battery of wind and any other adverse environmental conditions happening in your landscape.  They make wonderful hedges, especially if you prune them, which help to energetically protect us from what is outside of us.  It is gentle medicine, yet quite fierce too.  The thorns cover the stalks of the plant, so you must handle Rosa rugosa with respect and care.  It is a wonderful offering to the bees, who we need to nurture and nourish as much as possible.  Yesterday, I walked on Peak’s Island to pick roses and watched bumble bees just rolling around in the pollen inside the soft, sweet petals of the roses.  It delighted me to see them relishing their work so deeply.

As a heart medicine, rose is an uplifting spirit, helping us to get out of our gloomy sense of isolation, soothing our broken hearts, helping us to heal traumas that have limited us in our lives.  I make a rose petal elixir every year to heal my own heart and the hearts of anyone I know.  I find this sweet remedy deeply nourishing, grounding, and, as I take it, I come to see that everything will be just fine, no matter the circumstances of the moment.  I planted three varieties of Rosa gallica this year in the garden at my apartment.  I just decided that I needed to have the roses nearby, whether I stay here just one more year or many.  I also scored a Rosa rugosa at a plant swap, though I have to think hard about where to plant it because they do spread vigorously.

Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla vulgaris)
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I learned to love Lady’s Mantle while studying with Deb Soule at Avena Botanicals.  I had not really used it prior to then, and I hadn’t grown it in my garden before either.  I have since grown to love and appreciate the gentle beauty, the delightful textures, and the sweet nectar of the subtle Lady’s Mantle.  I see her growing mostly in shady gardens, where she thrives in places that other plants eschew.  I have some growing in full sun and nearly full shade, and they are both equally vibrant.  It could be that I talk nicely to her, or it could be that she’s just a versatile plant who is happy to be alive.  I think Lady’s Mantle makes a great addition to the permaculture landscape because of the delicate flowers, the beautiful textures of the leaves, and the fact that it creates a nice low hedge.  In one of my gardens, the Lady’s Mantle (on right) is growing in a circular hedge around motherwort with sage interspersed. The colors and textures together are breathtaking.  I call this the “crone circle.”

Deb taught us (after her own teacher, Adele Dawson) to sip the droplets of dew that collect in the cups of the leaves in the morning.  I do this when I need a reminder to not take myself so seriously–to lighten up already and enjoy the gifts presented in every moment.  I have also added the dewdrops to my Lady’s Mantle flower essence because of Deb’s practice. (You can read more on Deb’s blog.)  Medicinally, Lady’s Mantle leaves are rich in salicylic acid, making it useful for reducing pain and inflammation.  It is a great ally for women as they enter perimenopause and menopause, as it helps to control menstrual flooding, and serves as a regenerative tonic.  Because of its uterine tonic effects, Lady’s Mantle is also helpful for any women who are experiencing heavy menstrual bleeding. Lady’s Mantle is helpful to women as they experience major life transitions and for anyone who has experienced sexual trauma.

Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)
20140701_151412I originally learned about Bee Balm when I did my master gardener training.  We talked about plants for pollinators, and Bee Balm was (predictably, perhaps) top among them.  Also called “Oswego Tea” here in the Eastern United States, Bee Balm has been traditionally used by Native peoples across the country.  It seems to be a bit out of favor as a medicinal plant right now, but it is quite powerful.  Its leaves and flowers have high concentrations of thymol (as does Thyme), the volatile oil that is one of the anti-microbial compounds that give these plants their medicine.  As with Thyme, an infusion of leaves and flowers of Bee Balm can help to ward off a cold or flu, and can help to remedy a wide range of digestive complaints.  I go to Bee Balm first off when I’m feeling digestive distress.  I like the spicy taste of it, which acts as a carminative to help move gas through the digestive system.  For people with chronic yeast overgrowth or leaky gut, regular use of the tea can be quite helpful.  Kiva Rose has a great article about Monarda that I recommend highly if you want to explore this plant as medicine.

All this, and it is an absolute stunner in the garden!  Hummingbirds are drawn to the red, tubular flowers of the Monarda didyma, and the bees are happy to frequent its flowers too.  It is a great plant to add height and visual interest–it spreads freely when it is happy, though, so choose carefully when you locate it.  I find it so wonderful to be around that I don’t worry about the fact that it is taking over a large swath of my garden.  I’ll take its magic any day.  I like to pull off petals to eat as I work in the garden.  The sweet, spicy flavor is invigorating and nourishing.  I add it to jars of flowers that I make tea out of in the summertime.  It is always a dramatic component to the visual appearance of the tea.

So there are a few of my favorite plants for your consideration.  I feel much better now as I ready myself for an early morning trip to the Convergence.  Flowers always help save the day.

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2 thoughts on “Some medicinal plants for the permaculture garden

  1. What a great post, Cathleen! This site is so delightful to read and learn from. Although I grow herbs at home and still do a bit of wild-crafting, I have gotten away from closer study and practice. You inspire me to learn more . . .

    • Thank you, Mihku. I hope to get over to see your place soon! I’m happy to talk about herbs any time.

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