I have been planning my herb gardens most of the winter and I realized that there were several must have plants. Today I want to share the top five and why I believe you should incorporate them into your gardens.
The first is arnica. There are two varieties of arnica recognised for their medicinal properties: Arnica montana, the European variety, and Arnica chamissonis, the American variety. While both are perrenials, the American variety is easier to establish, is hardy to zone 5 and contains the same medicinal qualities. I have personnaly grown arnica in a protected area in a zone 4 garden so give it a go. Just make sure they have about six hours of sun per day.
The medicinal part of the plant is the blossom. Harvested at full maturity they can be used fresh or dried. Just remember to leave some blossoms for more seed and just to look at, as these sunny yellow flowers are very pretty in any garden bed.
Arnica should, in my opinion, be in every first aid kit. It acts as an anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and antimicrobial aid. Its anti-inflammatory activity may explain why arnica reduces swelling time in injuries, and also quickly reduces bruising. It is also effective as an insect bite treatment and has been used as a topical pain reliever for sprains and burns. It has some mild antiseptic properties but as there are many herbs with better antiseptic qualities I would not use arnica for that purpose alone.
I have used arnica in tinctures, poultices, infusions, gel infusions and in creams. Anrnica should NOT be taken internally.
Growing up to 12 feet high, this shrub prefers a rich soil and full sun. Hardy from zone 3 - 11. The humble elder is coming back in favour and is quickly becomming a commercial crop in parts of North America.
Traditionally the flowers, berries, leaves and inner bark have been used medicinally.
Elderberries have powerful antibacterial and antiviral properties. I use themfor treating colds, sore throat and flu. Studies completed in the past few years have identified elderberry's ability to deactivate proteins the flu virus requires to attach itself to cells.
I use the berries in syrups, lozenges and teas. The flower is also used in infusions. Elder flower infusions or teas are used in Europe as an expectorant for chest colds. It is also worth noting that culinary use of elderberries and flower heads has a powerful effect on the immune system and plays a big role in prevention during cold and flu season. If you want an amazing treat, dip elder flower heads in a light batter and fry. They are AMAZING!
Please note the outer bark, roots, leaves and unripe berries are considered toxic and should NOT be taken internally.
It is an annual, but self seeds readily. The medicinal properties are located in the petals and should be harvested at full bloom.They can be used fresh or dried. The patals are also good in salads, omeletts and cheese.They also have a long history of use as a food dye.
Calendula has strong antimicrobial, antifungal, astringent,immunostimulant and anti-inflammatory properties. This makes it a great candidate for topiclal creams and ointments for cuts, burns, dermatitis, chafing, insect stings and diaper rash. I have also had success treating mild to moderate acne with calendula soap and infusion. Calandula also has the ability to stimulate collagen production. The main benefit of this action is the reduction in scarring when calendula is used.
As versitile as it is effective calendula can be utelized in creams, tinctures, infusions, teas, gels, facial steams and poultices. Calendula also rivals yarrow as a coagulant. During the American cival war calendula was used as an antibiotic and coagulant in battlefield dressings.
The leaves and flowers are the most commonly used parts of the plant although the root has historical uses also. Traditionally the leaves were used for chest colds, and asthma treatments. It is a powerful expectorant. The leaves are high in mucalage and thus are soothing to irritated inflames mucus membranes. The leaves should only be used by trained practioners as they contain rotenone, It is also a diuretic and has traditional use in treating kidney ailments. I use the flowers of mullein, harvested when open, in an oil infusion to treat earache. The flowers contain strong antibacterial compounds and are soothing. Combined with garlic in an infused olive oil it makes a very effective treatment for earache and ear infections.
Inaddition to potential toxin in the leaves the seeds of mullein are highly poisonous.
First, from a land management standpoint, as all you permaculture people know comfrey is phenominal plant to improve your land. It is a fantastic dynamic accumulator. Comfrey is deep rooted; these roots work to bring nutrients up from the subsoil and make them available at the surface. This is accomplished via the leaves. An average comfry plant will produce 4-5 lbs of leaves per established plant/ per year. The leaves are rich in nitrogen and potassium with a good amount of phosphorus as well, making them a wonderful homegrown fertilizer. Employing this nutrient is as easy as making compost tea with the leaves, or simply dropping leaves over the area you wish to fertilize. Comfrey leaves break down quickly, thus releasing their stored nutrient in an expedient manner. As they break down so quickly, compost leaves are also excellent compost boosters. If you have a lot of carbon in your compost pile and it isn't heating and braking down, a quantity of comfrey leaves incorporated into the pile will soon set things in motion.
Comfrey can be fed to animals. Comfrey CANNOT be exclusively fed to lifestock. As an animal feed comfrey is a protein powerhouse! Testing out between 22 - 30% protein. It is also micronutrient rich containing calcium, iron, potassium and phosphorus. Opinion varies on the amount of comfrey to feed. I have heard or read that it can comprise as much as 90% of the diet for poultry. (I wouldn't) I have also read that it shouldn't be fed to ruminants. ( I do). The general rule of thumb we use here is 30%. Pigs love it. Goats do too.Chickens I have found to be hit or miss on it. I have seen some of our meatbirds try to peck the eyes out of their neighbour for it, I have seen others peck at it a few times then walk away. Our egg layers like it and it does make a difference in egg yolk colour, and I suspect in the nutrient quality of the egg. So my advice with regard to lifestock feed is, as with all things, is in moderation.
For medicinal use. Comfrey is an amazing medicinal plant. Its ability to heal skin wounds is unsurpassed. It is so good in fact that you should not use it on puncture wounds or infected cuts as it will seal in the infection, or prevent the wound from healing properly. This is because comfrey has high levels of allantoin. Comfrey is also able to have a marked effect healing injury beneath the skin, as it's traditional name of "knitbone" alleges. I have used comfrey poultices to treat sprains in people, and breaks in animals.
Comfrey is : useful for bleeding wounds, diarrhoea and stomach ulcers, lung troubles including bronchitis and whooping-cough. It smooths and softens skin. It is demulcent (treats inflamed, irritated tissue by coating it – e.g. treating a dry cough). Antiseptic: helps treat or prevent infection in wounds. Styptic: helps stop bleeding. it is also a powerful antioxidant.
I use comfrey in poultices, tincture, creams, bath bombs, infusions and teas.
In the past 12- 15 years comfrey has become controversial. The powers that be have been warning about the use of comfrey because of the presence of PA . PA stands for pyrollizidine alkaloid, are naturally occuring alkaloids which many plants produce as a pesticide. It is estimated over 30% of all plants produce PA. There were several studies completed in the late 1990's and early 2000's which linked ingestion of PA to kidney damage. I have read many of the papers produced as a result of these studies, and found them to be somewhat flawed. The most oft quoted study involved extracting pure PA from comfrey and injecting large doses of it directly under the skin of rats. Obviously this is different than using comfrey as a medicinal. It has been a few years since I read this paper but I remember calculating at the time that a person would have to injest 65,000 leaves of comfrey in one sitting to equal the amount of PA cited in the study. It doesn't taste that good! I could go on for hours on this but all I will say is do your research. Make your own decisions. Unfortunately, because of the hoopla, Health Canada banned the sale of any products containing comfrey in Canada effective December 2003. You can still grow comfrey, you can sell the plant or the parts of the plant but you cannot sell products produced from the plant. Something to note, the Health Canada Ban applies specificall to russian comfrey, Symphytum uplandicum, a sterile variety, and prickly comfrey, Symphytum asperum, not common comfrey. However if you wish to sell products containing common comfrey you must produce lab results which prove the levels of PA in your product. Obvioulsly for small producers like myself and other herbalists this is coast prohibitive. So for now I can only use comfrey for my family and my animals.