Written by Meghan Gemma with Juliet Blankespoor, this article from the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine discusses Medicinal Plants:
Growing Healing Herbs for the Home Garden- Elderberry, Lemon Balm & Rose. While you are thinking of ideas for your spring garden, don’t forget the medicinal plants.
Ready to start or expand your herb garden?
Here we’re introducing medicinal, edible, and cultivation profiles for three cherished healing plants: elderberry, lemon balm, and rose. You can also find a wheelbarrow-full of articles on designing, growing, and tending a home herb garden via our Medicinal Herb Gardening Hub (and you’ll find cultivation featurettes for dozens more herbs!).
(Sambucus nigra, S. nigra var. canadensis, Adoxaceae)
Elderberry is an herb gardener’s reverie. Blessed with lush foliage, creamy clusters of frothy blossoms, and heavy bunches of dark fruit that beckon birds to flit and flutter between its branches, elder captures the eye and the heart. Humans are drawn to its canopy just as readily as the birds. This herbal shrub is a rich source of immune-boosting medicine, and is deeply steeped in lore; around the world, stories abound about a healing spirit said to live within the tree. She is often called the Elder Mother, Elder Lady, or Elda Mor—and she can be appealed to on behalf of the ill.1
Elder’s Medicinal Uses
Parts used: Flowers and berries
Preparations: Syrup, tincture, infusion, decoction, mead, wine, honey, shrub, and vinegar
- Immune tonic
- Cardiovascular tonic
Elder is a traditional immune system tonic with significant antiviral properties. The berries are more potent than the flowers in this light, and work by strengthening cell membranes against viral penetration. Elderberry also increases the production of cytokines—chemical messengers that enhance communication between white blood cells and the body during an infection.2 You may have read concerns regarding elderberry as a possible cause of cytokine storms. My opinion is that elder is likely safe for most people, but if you’d like to read more on the topic, I recommend this article by herbalist Paul Bergner.
Elderberry is effective against many viruses, including the common cold and a broad spectrum of influenza strains (especially when taken at the first signs of illness).
The most delicious and nourishing way to imbibe elderberry’s medicine is to prepare a rich purple syrup that combines elderberry tincture, elderberry tea, and elderberry-infused honey. For children and folks who avoid alcohol, I swap out the alcohol in the tincture for apple cider vinegar. I also add liberal quantities of cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) and ginger (Zingiber officinale). It is beyond tasty! See our video tutorial on preparing herbal honeys and syrups for more guidance.
Taken tonically, elderberry has a range of other benefits; it is anti-inflammatory for arthritic conditions, iron-rich and building to the blood, a preventative for vascular disease and atherosclerosis, and an antioxidant preventative for cancer.
Elder flowers are gently antiviral and healing for the upper respiratory system. Rich in tannins and volatile oils, they effectively dry up excessive fluids and help mucus flow more freely from the sinuses, alleviating stuffy nose, headache, and earache. In addition, their flavonoid compounds are anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and immune-stimulating.
When taken hot, a tea or tincture of elder flower can help sweat out a cold or fever, especially when combined with other diaphoretic herbs like peppermint (Mentha x piperita) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium).
Safety and Contraindications: All parts of elder (except the flowers) contain cyanogenic glycosides (CGs) that can cause varying degrees of upset stomach—nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The seeds and unripe berries are the most common culprits, but any toxicity is generally neutralized by cooking or tincturing. The leaves, bark, and roots contain progressively higher levels of CGs and are more likely to cause side effects. Once the plant has been purged from the system, there is no lasting illness.
Elderberry is an exemplary nutritive tonic food that is rich in vitamin C, minerals, and bioflavonoids. The berries are not naturally very sweet and benefit from a bit of added honey, maple syrup, or other sugar. This makes them classic for pies, cobblers, jams, syrups, homemade sodas, and meads. Try combining them with other wild berries like serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.), black cap raspberries (Rubus occidentalis), and blackberries (Rubus spp.).
Elder blossoms contain fatty acids and have an almost buttery consistency. They can be added to pancakes, banana bread, muffins, and crepes. They’re also traditional in cordials, liquors, sodas, and tea. And if a special occasion is on the horizon, you might consider looking up a recipe for elderflower champagne.
How to Grow + Gather Elderberry
In Old World Europe, elders were traditionally planted near the home or at the edge of the herb garden as a guardian and protector. In North America, Native Americans have gathered medicine from wild elders (including S. canadensis) for millennia. Given their own choice, elders will prefer a moist habitat with rich, loamy soils. To raise a lush tree or hedge, I recommend a little pampering: enrich the soil with organic matter, mulch heavily after planting to retain moisture, and water young plants frequently. Once established, they need little care. Note: elders are generally tolerant and can establish themselves in dry conditions and poor, salty, or clayey soils.
Elderberries are propagated easily from seed, and even more easily from vegetative cuttings. Follow the guidelines for taking cuttings below. (You can also order cuttings and live plants from many edible plant and permaculture nurseries.)
If you have a local stand of elders, or know someone who has planted a shrub or two, you can harvest cuttings. Be sure to gather cuttings from bushes that have tasty berries, healthy growth, and prolific fruit.
- Take cuttings in late winter or very early spring, before the branches have begun to leaf out. From a living branch, take several 10- to 12-inch (25 to 30 cm) cuttings with at least two pairs of leaf nodes apiece. Make an angled cut at the “root” end, about ½ inch or so below a leaf node. At the other end, make a flat cut about ½ inch above a pair of leaf nodes. Use sharp pruners that have been sterilized with hydrogen peroxide or rubbing alcohol.
- Apply a rooting hormone. Dust the angled ends of your cuttings with a rooting hormone. Alternately, you can try using willow (Salix spp.) tea. This will increase your success in propagating viable plants.
- Fill 1-gallon pots with a planting medium. You can use coarse sand or perlite. If you don’t have either of these on hand, regular potting soil (preferably without fertilizer) will be adequate.
- Make holes in the soil in the center of each pot using a pencil or twig and settle cuttings into the holes. Plant the cutting, burying the bottom leaf nodes about 2 inches (5 cm) below the surface of the soil. It’s fine to plant many cuttings into one large pot. Make sure to tamp the soil securely around each cutting.
- Water, and try to keep the cuttings consistently moist but not soaking wet. Place them in diffused sunlight until they begin to grow both roots and leaves. Harden them off by gradually introducing them to direct sunlight.
When ready, transplant the cuttings that have successfully rooted in fall or early spring. Space transplants about 6 feet (1.8 m) apart. Many transplants flower and fruit in their first year, though it may take several years before you can gather a sizable harvest.
The berries ripen in mid- to late summer and should be a deep dark purple before they are plucked. You’ll likely have competition from the birds, so be sure to check your bushes regularly. The stems of the berry clusters are considered somewhat toxic, so you’ll want to remove all of the larger stems and most of the smaller ones. If a little “stemlette” or two finds its way into your medicine, don’t fret—it won’t do any harm! Berries can be used fresh for medicine making or cooking, frozen for later use, or dried, which sweetens up their flavor.
(Melissa officinalis, Lamiaceae)
The patron herb of bees, lemon balm encourages a bounty of sweetness in the world—not only does it gladden the heart, but it’s traditionally planted near honeybee hives to dissuade the bees from swarming (they adore lemon balm’s aroma). I know few herbalists who are without this plant in the garden. It is a traditional nervine, digestive, and antiviral ally.
Lemon Balm’s Medicinal Uses
Parts used: Leaves and flowering tops
Preparations: Infusion, tincture, vinegar, essential oil, salve, succus, pesto, and condiment
With bright green leaves that waft an uplifting lemony fragrance into the air, lemon balm is known to levitate the spirit. It is a brightening nervine remedy for melancholy, mild anxiety, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and mild depression.* With relaxing, antispasmodic, and gently sedative qualities, it’s also indicated for tension headaches, stress-related insomnia, panic attacks accompanied by heart palpitations, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and overexcitement or restlessness in children.3
I find a fragrant infusion of lemon balm to be more encouraging for downcast spirits than a tincture, but both are effective. Try blending in other gladdening herbs like rose (Rosa spp.) and tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum). For tonic use, you might consider adding replenishing nervines like milky oats (Avena sativa) and skullcap (Scutellaria spp.). Taken regularly, these herbs can strengthen and rehabilitate a stressed, strained, and saddened nervous system.
Like many members of the mint family, lemon balm extends its aid as a carminative herb and digestive remedy. Its high concentration of essential oils has an antispasmodic and calming effect on dyspepsia, gas, nervous indigestion, nausea, heartburn, and the pains and cramping associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).4
Lemon balm is also widely used as a topical and internal antiviral herb, especially for herpes (types 1 and 2), chickenpox, shingles, mononucleosis (mono), and sixth disease (roseola).5 Internally, the tincture or strong tea will be appropriate, taken regularly. Topically, a concentrated store-bought cream is highly effective. A dab of the essential oil diluted in a carrier oil is also wonderfully relieving (note that the essential oil is very expensive).
Safety and Contraindications: Lemon balm may be contraindicated for hypothyroidism (in large or consistent doses) because it inhibits the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH).6
*A note here on depression: Therapies to treat mental illness are highly individualized; each person and situation is unique. People typically need therapeutic treatment beyond herbalism: this might include acupuncture, talk therapy, nutrition, supplements, or pharmaceuticals. Please do not judge yourself or anyone else for needing and seeking help, natural or otherwise!
If you’re in a dark place or considering hurting yourself, please reach out right now—there are folks who want to talk to you. And we’re in this together. You are not alone! This helpline is one option: (1-800-273-TALK).
Lemon balm is one of my favorite nutritive kitchen herbs; its fresh and tender shoots can be added to salsas, jams, liquors, ice cream, sorbet, smoothies, pestos, finishing salts, and infused vinegars. I often chop up a handful and combine it with mint (Mentha spp.) and flower petals as a topping for tacos. Likewise, the fresh leaves can be minced and tossed into fruit salads, tabouleh, and leafy green salads. Lemon balm leaves stirred into lentils or bean dishes add a nice flavor and improve their digestibility.
The simplest way to prepare lemon balm, however, is as a summertime iced tea. It is delicious on its own or combined with herbs like calendula (Calendula officinalis), hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa), and mint. I also love Dina Falconi’s recipe for Everything Lemony Lime, which blends lemon balm, lemongrass, lemon verbena, lime zest, lime juice, sea salt, and raw honey. I make this at the height of summer when all the herbs can be gathered fresh from the garden. You can find the recipe in Dina’s exquisite book, Foraging & Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook.
How to Grow + Gather Lemon Balm
Lemon balm has been cultivated in medicinal gardens for over 2,000 years. Native to the Mediterranean regions of south-central Europe and the Middle East, it is a sun-loving botanical that can thrive in USDA zones 3–10.
Among the easiest culinary and medicinal herbs to grow, lemon balm is most easily propagated by root division. If you know someone who already has a patch in their garden, you might promise to bring them a plate of lemon balm shortbread cookies in exchange for a division or two. For best success, see our guide to herbal root division here.
Lemon balm is also easily started from seed. Because this plant is a light-dependent germinator (LDG), the seeds should be planted right on the surface of the soil or just barely covered. Watering will gently press them into full contact with the soil. Expect germination after 7 to 14 days.
Lemon balm prefers rich soil with a bit of moisture but will also do well in dry or sandy soils. It is a bushing herbaceous perennial and can become extravagantly lush as summer unfolds. Space plants 1–2 feet (0.3–0.6 m) apart.
If you’ve heard rumors that lemon balm wantonly sows its seeds, I have to tell you the reputation is well-deserved. Many gardeners complain about its proclivity to produce offspring that will inhabit the near and far corners of your garden (though I don’t mind this myself). If you wish to thwart lemon balm’s advance, be sure to harvest the flowering tops before they set seed (but after the bees have had an opportunity to sip their nectar!).
I like to harvest lemon balm several times throughout the growing season. You can simply cut back all of the aboveground growth when the plant is looking at its verdant peak, usually right before it flowers. The leaves and stems can be dried, but I prefer to use lemon balm fresh as its aromatic oils quickly disperse. For fresh preparation suggestions, see the Edibility section above.
(Rosa spp., Rosaceae)
As an herbalist, it took me a while to come around to rose. Growing up, my only context for its blooms were the florist-perfect, sanguine-red bouquets that emanated a cloying scent on Valentine’s Day. I had never seen an heirloom rose in the garden or buried my nose in the petals of a wild bramble. So, I held little favor for this luxuriant medicine. Years later, as a budding gardener and herbal student, I discovered—with surprise and wonder—that I love rose with all my heart.
Rose’s Medicinal Uses
Parts used: Flower buds, blossoms, and hips
Preparations: Infusion (buds and flowers), decoction (hips), tincture, oil, salve, honey, syrup, elixir, rose otto essential oil, vinegar, flower essence, hydrosol, compress, poultice, and soak
- Flowers and Buds:
- Blood tonic
- Nutritive tonic
Rose is a deliciously nuanced medicine—it is ancient, paradoxical, and mythic. The Greek poetess Sappho aptly named it “Queen of the Flowers.” After all, wild roses have been rambling on the planet for at least 70 million years (compare that to the first fossil evidence of Homo sapiens appearing around 300,000 years ago).
With velvety, kitten-soft petals, rose bears a doctrine of signatures that suggests succor and soothing. Both the blossoms and unopened buds are a remedy for those who are experiencing grief or loss, or feeling tenderhearted or unloved. The benefits are amplified when combined with hawthorn blossoms (Crataegus spp.), lavender blooms, (Lavandula angustifolia), and/or mimosa flowers (Albizia julibrissin). Rose is also an ally for those in conflict—a tea, elixir, cordial, or essence of the blooms can temper anger and encourage resolution.
In children, rose can impart a sense of comfort and security. It calms irritability, fits of anger, and nightmares. A spritz of rosewater on the pillow right before bedtime is a soothing ritual and helpful measure toward sweet sleep…(continues)