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Marin IJ Articles

Herbs for what ail you

  • D. F. Braun
  • Most of us would describe herbs as health-giving, beneficial and tasty plants. Having recently purchased a lemon verbena, I discovered that along with my anticipation of using the leaves for tea and fragrance, the plant is also valued for its mild sedative properties and relief of spasms. This last bit of information was a little surprising so I decided to discover a bit more about "herbs."

    A gardenia? An herb? Yes indeed, it is by our definition, which I questioned until I discovered its ancient use. The Han dynasty of China (AD 15-220) mentioned it being used to treat colds, coughs, and diabetes, as well as to check bleeding and aid liver function. My Prom Corsage!

    That really got my attention. Are we overlooking the serious benefits that can exist in our gardens?

    The primrose (Primula vulgaris) is native to Europe and Northern Asia where it not only grows wild in woods, but is also cultivated as it is here. Traditionally it was seen as a medicinal plant, recommended by the Roman natural historian Pliny for rheumatism, gout and paralysis. The seventeenth century herbalist Nicholas Culpepper recommended it for healing wounds. Its roots were used to treat headaches and, in fact, the plant does contain salicylates, as found in aspirin. It was sometimes used as an expectorant in the treatment of bronchitis. If consumed today its flowers and young leaves are used in salads and desserts.

    Borage (Borago officinalis), also known as the starflower, is native to the Mediterranean and to western Asia. It has long been cultivated in kitchen gardens for its leaves, which have a mild cucumber flavor used in mayonnaise, cheese dips and salads. Its exotic appearance belies its taste. In England borage flowers have traditionally been added to Pimm's, an alcoholic drink, long known to "purge the veins of melancholy" -- so wrote Burton in 1621.

    Clove pink, also known as Dianthus, is the wild ancestor of the cultivated carnation. The clove pink's pretty, little flowers with their strong clove fragrances have long been valued for both appearance and perfume. It is one of the oldest flowers to be cultivated in England. In traditional medicine it was mixed in tonic cordials to treat fevers. Culinarily, the petals are used to flavor vinegars, ales, sauces and salads.

    Nepeta cataria is better known to us as "catnip" or "catmint" because of its well-known effect on felines. They nibble the leaves and roll upon the plant with obvious pleasure. It is thought that the main component of the plant's volatile oil, nepetalactone, resembles a feline sexual pheromone. But despite this enlivening effect on cats, catnip is used in herbal medicines as a sedative, drunk in infusion form to treat insomnia and other ills. Its leaves can be made to make a soothing tea. Blackberry (Rubus ursinus) grows wild throughout Marin and the berries have long been enjoyed in many forms. It is also prized medicinally. Since ancient times the use of blackberry tea has been a remedy for many bowel problems, notably diarrhea and dysentery.

    Lastly, the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), which certainly has no need of any description, was long used by Native Americans as a food, medicine and green vegetable. It was also used for toothaches, and a killer of lice. Amazing! It is a plant with mild sedative and analgesic properties, which continues to be used in the treatment of children.

    Some thought should be given to the placement of herbs in your garden. If plants are to be used year-round, there should be easy access to your kitchen for their use even during our rainy winters. Certainly some herbs may be dried for use in stews, soups and teas, but consider a large pot of mixed herbs just outside the kitchen or in a nearby window box for some creative cuisine or comforting beverages.

    But what of the annuals we could also enjoy during winter? Here are a few suggestions on drying for future use:

    If you plan to dry the herbs by hanging them upside down suspended from a line or cord you'll need to separate them in to small bunches and fasten them together with string or a rubber band at the base. Don't make the bunches too large for there's a risk they won't dry properly and might mildew.

    You can also dry herbs by laying them on screens or in baskets. It's good to occasionally move them about gently to avoid moisture buildup.

    Microwave-dried herbs retain excellent color and potency. Start by laying the foliage on a single layer of paper towel. Cover the leaves with another paper towel and microwave on high for one minute. Check and see if they're still "soft" and, if so, keep testing at 20 to 30 second intervals until dry.

    The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 499-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato.