By Julia Powers
Photos: Hortense McCarthy
When your seasonal allergies strike and you want relief from your irritating sneezing and watery eyes, do you head straight to the drugstore? Or, at the first sign of the sniffles, is your instinct to reach into the medicine cabinet? Have you ever thought of visiting your garden instead? Although it may come as a surprise, the colorful blossoms and fragrant herbs that make the garden such a lovely spot also have powerful healing properties that can help relieve minor, everyday ailments. These beauties are more than just a pretty face!
Throughout history, countless societies have relied on the botanical kingdom to support their health, and the United States is no exception. In the early days of this country, people turned to the curative powers of plants to treat minor ailments. However, with the advent of allopathic medicine, interest in the healing properties of these powerful plants declined.
Thankfully, this is not the case worldwide: in Germany, where Cohasset resident Hortense McCarthy was raised, botanical remedies remain a culturally accepted way of addressing minor maladies. Hortense is the owner of Back to Basics Soaps and other Essentials, which sells herb-infused soaps, herbal facial toners, herbal medicinal salves and sachets at local farmers markets. During her childhood, her mother taught her to forage for herbs, berries, and mushrooms while her grandmother, who was an avid gardener, educated her about “flowers and how nature nourishes us physically and spiritually.” Throughout her childhood, both women organically passed along their knowledge on the subject, ranging from which plants are best suited to which conditions to the optimal time to harvest.
After Hortense immigrated to the States, she used this knowledge to support the health of her own growing family and, ultimately, to start her business. At her home, most of her property is dedicated to growing the organic herbs, flowers, and roots that she uses in preparing her products. Many of these plants are native to New England or can be easily grown in the garden. In order to maximize the healing properties of the plants, Hortense advises, “harvest on a dry, sunny day before 10:00 or 11:00 in the morning, after the morning dew has dried.” This prevents evaporation of the essential oils, where much of the healing properties of the plant are found. And, when brewing an herbal tea, cover the pot or mug to prevent the volatile essential oils from evaporating. Interested in exploring how plants can help support your health? Here are some you may want to try:
Arnica: Weekend warriors or anyone suffering from minor bumps, bruises or muscle soreness will welcome the relief these sunny flowers can bring. Arnica flowers are used to make a gel or oil that is massaged into the skin and is widely available at health food stores and online. Care should be taken not to use on broken skin.
Calendula: With antibacterial and antifungal properties, these brightly colored, cheerful flowers can be used to make a salve useful for cuts, scrapes and minor burns. One of the more well known flower remedies, calendula gel is available at some drugstores, health food stores, and online. The flowers are edible and make a delicious addition to salads or a pretty accent on cupcakes.
Chamomile: This herb is known for its calming, relaxing properties. Brew a cup of chamomile tea to take the edge off of a stressful day or as part of a relaxing pre-bedtime routine.
Fennel: Although both have the familiar licorice taste, herbal fennel is a distinct plant from the vegetable fennel grown for culinary use. Fennel tea can be helpful in relieving gas and bloating. Another method is to simply chew about a ½ teaspoon of fennel seeds as you would a piece of gum, which in addition to releasing the beneficial essential oils, sweetens the breath.
Ginger: Although often thought of as a plant grown in warmer climates, ginger can be grown in New England. Gingerol, the most active chemical constituent of ginger, is responsible for its inflammatory properties. Ginger is one of the first plants I turn to when I feel a cold coming on; throughout the day, I will drink several cups of a spicy tea made with ginger juice, fresh lemon, cayenne pepper, and honey. Ginger is also calming for the digestive system with ginger tea used to calm an upset stomach. For travel, ginger candies, such as the brand Gin-Gins, are a convenient, portable way to ease the symptoms of motion sickness.
Marsh Mallow: With pale pink flowers, this plant is a beautiful addition to any garden. The roots are rich in polysaccharides that have mucilaginous properties, useful in soothing inflamed tissue. Scratchy throat? Try a cup of marsh mallow tea.
Peppermint: Peppermint and spearmint have antispasmodic properties and many find them useful in relieving gas and bloating. Hortense makes a refreshing iced peppermint tea with slices of organic cucumber and lemon. As gardeners know, mint spreads rapidly in the garden. Hortense advises growing it in a pot, which can then be dug into the ground, to prevent the roots from spreading. Fresh mint also makes a delicious addition to desserts and homemade ice cream.
Stinging Nettle: Seasonal allergies can cause low-grade misery that lasts for weeks. When a runny nose, sniffles and itchy eyes make their annual appearance, brew a pot of nettle tea. With regular use of this delicious tea, many seasonal allergy sufferers find symptom relief, and Hortense drinks it for four or five weeks each spring. Dried nettles can be purchased online; fresh nettles are often found growing wild throughout the area. But, take care (and wear gloves!) when gathering nettles as the plant is covered with tiny stinging hairs that cause pain upon contact.
Thyme: Traditionally, thyme tea is used to support respiratory health, especially during coughs and colds. Thymol, the primary essential oil in thyme, has antibacterial and antiviral properties. Thyme tea is easy to prepare with ingredients found in most kitchen cabinets.
This is just a brief introduction to the wide variety of plants that can provide easy and delicious ways to support optimal health. These plants are not miracle workers; along with sensible steps such as a whole foods-based diet that emphasizes plenty of vegetables and fruits, exercise, adequate sleep and stress management, they can be an easy and accessible way to address minor ailments. These plants are effective due to the bioactive compounds they contain. As such, before using them, be sure to check with your doctor to rule out any medication interactions or allergies. Then, think of the garden as your own beautiful—and tasty—first aid kit.
Both Julia and Hortense have many uses for herbs and flowers grown in their gardens. One of the simplest and most soothing uses is medicinal teas. Please take note that some teas call for boiling water and others hot water. It does make a difference in preparing various teas.
Back to Basics Soaps and other Essentials www.BackToBasicsSoaps.com
Mountain Rose Herbs www.MountainRoseHerbs.com
For additional information on the efficacy and safety of many common herbs:
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (www.nccih.nih.gov)
Julia Powers MS, CNS is a nutritionist and writer who lives in Hingham. For over 20 years, she has used botanical remedies to support her family’s health. Her medicine cabinet looks quite different from most with arnica gel, calendula cream, elderberry syrup and other botanical remedies front and center.