Medicinal Plants

Medicinal Plants

  • By Nona Kaplan with Cathy Caldwell
  • /
  • December 2018 - Vol.4 No.12
  • /

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”  — Hippocrates (460BC -375BC)

I can’t imagine a world without plants. Plants give us the air we breathe and in one way or another the food we eat. But over the eons of human existence, plants have also given us remedies that have helped heal human bodies, both physically and emotionally. I have found through my studies that many people believe plants have the power to heal, and in recent years, scientists have begun to research this subject.  “Research Helps Shed Light on Medicinal Benefits of Plants, (2011).  I’ve explored this topic and I’d like to invite you to do the same.

Before I dive into the topic of medicinal plants, I’d like to encourage us all to consider the connection between food and health.   My great-grandparents mostly ate a diet of farm-raised or wild food. My grandfather was a commercial farmer and exported rice, cotton, and soy beans. Yet his staple diet was food from his garden as well as meat he hunted and fished. I can now recognize that my mom chose to feed us more processed and fast foods. With so many choices today — such as a gluten-free vegan non-GMO soy protein salad in a bag,  not to mention vitamin C packets with non-carb electrolytes and herbal energy boosts, I have now reached the point that I don’t know what to feed my daughter! What does organic mean again? And if it is better for you, then why should there be nonorganic foods?  How did we manage to set aside or genetically modify thousands of years of agricultural practices that fed our health?

Everybody knows we need to eat to live.  So why don’t we start bringing back the “Victory Gardens” and liberating ourselves from the overwhelming offerings at grocery stores and pharmacies.   I have found that growing and processing my own food to be a healthier option.   We most likely can’t grow all of our food to be completely self-sufficient, yet we can subsidize through supporting community gardens, shopping at local farmer’s markets, and visiting herbal apothecaries. It is always a challenge to change ways, but small steps can make big moves.



It is hard to believe how many plants have a recorded history of medicinal use.  Ancient mythologies celebrate mythical powers of certain plants, and stories have been told about the healing properties of plants for thousands of years.  I have found the scope of the plant world to be limitless and infinite; therefore, it is difficult to tell anyone what their journey through the plant world should be.  But I’ll tell you a bit about my journey.  I am including a list of books at the end of this article to help you explore the topic of medicinal plants with more depth.

I’d like to start by discussing plants the reader may already be familiar with and identifying the  medicinal properties these familiar herbs are known for.

Lavender (genus Lavandula)   Lavender has a long history of medicinal use, most recently for relief of stress and anxiety.  Scientists have only recently begun to study lavender’s medicinal properties, and so far have conducted research with animals and humans to determine whether in fact lavender does have this anxiety-relieving effect.  A recent analysis of 15 randomized clinical trials revealed that lavender was indeed shown to be effective in some of these trials; however, the authors of the study cautioned —

“Methodological issues limit the extent to which any conclusions can be drawn regarding the efficacy/effectiveness of lavender. The best evidence suggests that oral lavender supplements may have some therapeutic effects. However, further independent replications are needed before firm conclusions can be drawn.”

“Is lavender an anxiolytic drug? A systematic review of randomised clinical trials,”  (June 15,2012).

‘Provence’ Lavender
Photo: Eileen DeCamp


If you are growing lavender already, you might try it in cooking by adding it to flavor meats or vegetables. I have used it to steam with vegetables such as broccoli. You might want to experiment with drinking it as a tea. If you do not like the way it tastes, use it in fresh or dried flower arrangements. You can dry the lavender flowers and make sachets that can keep closets and drawers fresh. We made lavender wands for a friend that was going through chemotherapy, and it seemed to help her with the nausea that usually accompanies chemotherapy.   Lavender has also been used as a salve for dry or burned skin.


Here are some sources for further study of lavender:

“Lavender: History, Taxonomy, and Production,” N.C.StateUniversity. edu

National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health /lavender/ataglance (U.S.Department of Health and Human Services)

“Lavender and the Nervous System,” Evidence-Based Complementary Alternative Medicine (2013)

For a recent Garden Shed article on growing lavender in this area, see


Photo: Nona Kaplan

Rosemary  Not only can you cook with rosemary, but I’ve discovered that you can also use it in baths with epsom salts to reinvigorate sore muscles!

Here are some sources for further study:

“Rosemary,” Aromatic and Medicinal Plants Index,



Sage has a long history of medicinal use, as suggested by its Latin name, derived from the Latin salvus “to save” and salvere, “to heal”.  It has been used to soothe sore throats. It is, of course, excellent for enhancing food, and adds a fresh smell to cut flowers.

Photo: Nona Kaplan”Tis-the-season-for-sage”

“Growing Sage,” Gardening Association



Thyme is known for its cleansing antiseptic qualities, and has been used as an insect repellent, and for respiratory problems.  Find out more at the links below:

“Thymes: Plant Care and Collection of Varieties,”

Thymus vulgaris,

“Review of Ethnobotanical, Phytochemical, and Pharmacological Study of Thymus serpyllum L.,”


Oregano is known for its antiparasitic, antifungal, antioxidant, and antibacterial properties.  Recent research has shown that oregano oil has antibacterial, antifungal, antiparasitic, antimicrobial, and antioxidant properties.  See, for example, “Essential Oil Composition and Antibacterial Activity of Origanum vulgare subsp. glandulosum Desf. at Different Phenological Stages,”


Find out more at the links below:

“Antioxidant, Antibacterial, and Cytotoxic Activities of the Ethanolic Origanum vulgare Extract and Its Major Constituents,”

“Oreganos: Plant Care and Collection of Varieties,”

““O” is for Oregano,”


Lemon Balm is used as a sleep aid. It also considered a stimulant. My favorite summer drink is water with lemon balm and mint. I find that this drink is calming yet revives me in the heat.  For more information, check the following link:



Mint is used as a stimulant, yet like lemon balm, is considered to be calming as well. It is also used for digestion.

“Chemical composition and antimicrobial and antioxidant activities of Mentha (longifolia L. and viridis) essential oils,”

“Pharmacological and therapeutic effects of Mentha Longifolia L. and its main constituent, menthol,”

“Mints:  Plant Care and Collection of Varieties,” NationalGardeningAssociation/plants/mints

“Mint Condition,” Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics,


Basil has vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron. “Traditionally, basil has been used as a medicinal plant in the treatment of headaches, coughs, diarrhea, constipation, warts, worms, and kidney malfunctions. The oils of basil, especially the camphor-containing oil, have antibacterial properties.”

“B is for Basil,” New York Botanical


Photo: Nona Kaplan

Other herbs I like to grow are chamomile and feverfew. They are in the Asteraceae family and have dainty little white daisy-like flowers. I chew feverfew leaves for headaches and inflammation. I use them in cut flower arrangements too. Chamomile tea (from the flowers) is fairly common, mild, and can be used for calming. These can be grown in containers and beds as well. Feverfew can be invasive but is easy to manage.

“A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of oral Matricaria recutita (chamomile) extract therapy for generalized anxiety disorder,”

“Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium L.): A Systematic Review,” NationalCenterforBioinformatics/NationalInstituteHealth/



Fennel, dill, and parsley are in the carrot family (Apiceae or Umbrelliferae). I read that Hippocrates prescribed fennel to colicky infants. It is known now as a digestion aid. Dill (Anethum graveolens ) has manganese, folate, iron, riboflavin, calcium, vitamin B6, potassium, and antioxidants. I like to grow dill to make pickles, which can be a great fermented food. So many of our herbs have all of these qualities.  Parsley is one of my favorite herbs to grow! I love running outside in the dark with a flashlight and cutting it up to toss into my dinner. I am constantly zipping in and out pinching herbs and throwing them into a kettle to liven up a dish. My favorite breakfast is fresh parsley and oregano from the backyard with a handful of eggs my neighbor passed to me over the fence from their chickens. It starts the day off right, and it is so easy (and I live in downtown Charlottesville).

For more information about these herbs, check these links:

Anethum graveolens: An Indian traditional medicinal herb and spice,” Pharmacognosy Review (2010), NationalLibraryofMedicine/

“The Role of Anethum graveolens L. (Dill) in the Management of Diabetes,” Journal of Tropical Medicine (2016),



Making a bouquet of fresh sage, mints, lemon balm, holy basil, lavender, and rosemary is sometimes all I need to boost my mood. However,  I must insert a word of caution here. Don’t stop taking your blood pressure medicine and then run outside to pick a few mint leaves and assume you are good to go!  Creating a “healing garden” may indeed aid you in cultivating a more holistic lifestyle that offers plant therapy and health benefits; you might even discover the root of a health problem that could eventually lead to a lower dose of that prescribed medicine.

Another word of caution for those doing internet research on medicinals:  there are many websites dedicated to herbal remedies, but for reliable information, go to the website of National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine,, which was established by Congress and is funded by the U.S. government.  It is “the Federal Government’s lead agency for scientific research on the diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not generally considered part of conventional medicine. NCCIH was formerly known as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.”


Which herbs would go in my ideal “Healing Garden”?     I believe there are reasons people love certain plants, so I choose herbs I’m familiar with and tend to grow well for me.  I encourage others to do the same. For example, I love using mints and peppers, so they would be part of my Healing Garden.   I’ve also found that containers or beds with lavender, rosemary, and sage combine nicely with each other visually. In another container or bed, I plant thyme and oregano together (they are closely related). Finally, I like growing lemon balm and mints in an area that keeps them from getting into other beds because they can be invasive. Lastly, basil is another herb in this family that I use often, especially on tomato sandwiches.  If you’re just getting started growing herbs, you’ll find helpful advice at Va.Coop.Ext. Pub.No.426-420

The next question is to decide how much space and time you have to put into your garden.   There are so many ways you can grow plants. If you do not have much space, containers are a great way to grow most anything in small quantities. You can even grow herbs inside your home in the window. There is almost no excuse not to try to grow something! I even grew herbs in my laboratory that had no windows. I was working in there for seven years. Having no plants was detrimental to my health!

Photo:  Greenside Up website,


Containers  Almost any vessel can be used for a container. You can get very creative with the possibilities or you can purchase them online or in a store. You can even hire someone to build you a container garden.

“Herb Gardening in Containers,”

“How to Grow Vegetables in Containers,”


Vertical herb garden
Photo: Ruth Hartnup

Hanging or Vertical  Gardens   I was recently at a restaurant and saw a pallet repurposed on the wall that the cooks were pulling herbs out of and using to season food. I loved this idea. You can use shelves, even create a cinder block board with containers that is vertical.  Some people have used rain gutters!



Raised beds   These can also be bought, put together or built from repurposed lumber. Making the beds for your plants to grow in is part of the healing process so it should be relaxing and enjoyable (whether you build them or someone else does).

“Making a Raised Bed Garden,” Gardening Association


In my Healing Garden, I grow vegetables along with the herbs.  Again, I suggest growing vegetables you like to eat and are familiar with. Grow what ya know! However, here are some ideas if you are wondering what to get started with: Cucumbers and tomatoes; squash and zucchini; peppers; and sweet potatoes.

One of my biggest accomplishments is to send Julien out into the vineyard during growing season with a cucumber, tomato, and basil sandwich that I harvested.It makes us both so happy.  I really enjoy receiving a text that reads “best sandwich ever”! There are so many positive factors to this story, not the least of which is the contentment of growing that lunch myself.   I encourage you to create a garden in any way that you can. Sometimes the most simple food choice is the healthiest. Cucumbers have antioxidants and help with hydration, and tomatoes have ample benefits as well (vitamin C and potassium).

Peppers are a super food that can be hot or mild. They also have B6, vitamin C, and antioxidants. I’ve discovered that peppers can be good for the circulatory system, inflammation, and joint pain. My daughter loves to munch on peppers. This is one snack I encourage her to eat!

I also grow squash and zucchini in my Healing Garden because they have lots of health benefits such as fiber, B6, potassium, manganese, plus antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. One year when we lived in Montana, we did not have any pumpkins to carve for Halloween, but we had these extraordinarily gigantic zucchinis we made into Jack-o-Lanterns. Your garden (big or small)  will provide for you more wonders than you can imagine. Just grow it!

The sweet potato is a favorite of mine. This plant that can provide iron, calcium, and beta-carotene (an antioxidant). My daughter and I worked in the garden at Monticello one summer, where we helped grow and harvest the sweet potatoes, and then showed them to the people who came to visit. We eat sweet potatoes several times a week. They are a fun plant to try to grow and dig up.

Finding the plants you connect with and want to grow is the first step if you’re starting your own garden.  Take it step-by-step and try not to feel overwhelmed.  You’ll be traveling a path our ancient ancestors trod.

Sometimes we humans have to re-discover the ancient staples of our diet.  In searching for a healthier diet, I decided to try quinoa as it has been marketed as a highly nutritious food.  When I cooked it and started looking at it, I realized it was chenopodium (Chenopodium quinoa). This is a plant that I have identified and recorded often in archaeological samples that would come into the lab. People have been eating it for thousands of years, and now it’s in bags on the shelf at the supermarket!

We all know we benefit from eating food.  I believe we need to find a path to lead us to the foods that make us better, stronger, healthier people. My mom got me to return home from living in my beloved England by simply saying “you might just find what you’re looking for in your own backyard.”  I’d like to apply this bit of wisdom to growing food that could help benefit our well-being. The food we eat is what makes us who we are. How we get it is just as important. Catching fish off the dock with my grandfather and cousins and then going to pick squash at my great-grandmother’s was not only our dinner but what connected us to a complete life cycle. It now seems to me that the protein, vitamins, herbs, and stories from the food are the healing powers of the food.



“The doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but rather will cure and prevent disease with nutrition.”  –Thomas Edison



Brown, Tom , Jr., Tom Brown’s Guide to Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants (Berkley Books, 1985)

Buhner, Stephen Harrod, Herbal Antibiotics: Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug-Resistant Bacteria  (Storey, 1st ed.  1999; 2nd ed. 2012 )

Elliot, Rose and De Paoli, Carlo, Kitchen Pharmacy: A Book of Healing Remedies for Everyone (Chapmans 1991)

Flowers, Frankie and Wylde, Bryce, Power Plants: Simple Home Remedies You Can Grow (Harper Collins Canada 2014)

Gladstar, Rosemay, Herbal Recipies for Vibrant Health (Storey Publishing, 2001, 2008)

Han, Henry, O.M.D., Miller, Glenn E. M.D., Deville Nancy, Ancient Herbs, Modern Medicine (Bantam Book, 2003)

Harris, Ben Charles, Eat the Weeds (Barre Publishing, 1968)

Kane, Chalres, W., Herbal Medicine: Trends and Traditions (Lincoln Town Press, 2009)

Katz, Sandor Ellix, The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes From Around the World  (Green, 2012)

Murray, Michael, N.D. and Pizzorno, Joesph, N.D., Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine (Atria, 3d ed. 2012)

Orr, Stephan, The New American Herbal (Clarkson Potter, 2014)

Peterson, Lee Allen, Edible Wild Plants (Houghton Mifflin 1977)

Readers Digest, Magic and Medicine of Plants (1986)

Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs (Rodale Press, 1987)

Weil, Andrew, M.D., National Geographic Guide to Medicinal Herbs (National Geographic)

Weiner, Micheal A., Earth Medicine, Earth Food (Fawcett Columbine, 1972, 1980)



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.