Your Essential Herb Garden

Four easy-to-grow herbs for pesky everyday ailments

Growing medicinal herbs isn't for everyone, but if your thumb is even slightly green, and you have a small, sunny garden or even a large window box, you might want to give it a try this spring. But with all the medicinal herbs out there, which should you try to grow first? May I recommend chamomile, horehound, St. John's wort, and feverfew? These four herbs ease the peskiest of everyday ailments, are easy to grow, and are simple to prepare and use.
Count on Chamomile

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is the best treatment I know of for an upset stomach: It's a highly effective anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic herb. Why grow your own? Two reasons: It's most effective when freshly dried, and I find that the quality of the ground commercial stuff found in tea bags is pretty poor. What you want are flower heads without a lot of stem or leaves.
How to grow

Plant the seeds for this annual in the spring. Be sure to use the German, not the Roman, species, which is very different in taste and effectiveness. The seeds sprout in a week or two, and the plants, which are covered with many tiny, daisylike flowers, grow to a height of a foot or more even in fairly poor soil. Chamomile likes sun, not shade.

Pick only the flower heads as they open, and dry them in a warm place with lots of circulating air. One way to do this is to place the flower heads on a window screen set horizontally on some bricks in a dry shed or garage. Adequate drying should take place within 5 to 10 days; then store in a tightly closed jar.

You will be pleasantly surprised by the marvelous fragrance and great taste of the tea (steep 2 teaspoonfuls for 15 minutes in a cup of hot water) made from these freshly dried flower heads. The store-bought stuff doesn't compare.
The Perennial Cough Cure

A useful, easily grown herb is horehound (Marrubium vulgare). Its aboveground parts provide a very effective treatment for coughs, and the herb also facilitates digestion. It is grown much like chamomile, but horehound is a perennial and requires a bit of patience because it is harvested only when it starts to bloom, which doesn't occur until the second year. Related to mint, horehound is an attractive bushy green plant with tiny white flowers.
How to harvest

The plants are best cut with pruning shears. Spread the whole flowering plants on a horizontal screen with good air circulation; they should be crisp-dried in about 5 to 10 days. Store in tightly closed glass jars. A tea prepared from 2 teaspoons of the dried herb and a cup of hot water is an effective expectorant, which breaks up the thick mucus that so often accompanies a cold and causes that nagging cough.
It's Not Just the Blues Herb

Another plant that's a cinch to grow is St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum). In fact, it is so easily grown that in some parts of the US it is truly a weed. The plant is best started from seeds or divisions; you can sometimes find seedlings at nurseries. Germination of the seed is light dependent, so it's best to cover it only lightly with soil. Flowering of this perennial starts in the second year. St. John's wort's tiny yellow flowers bloom in mid-June, and you should harvest the top third of the plant shortly after you see the flowers.
Using St. John's wort

A tea made from 2 heaping teaspoons of the dried herb to 1 cup of water may be useful in the treatment of mild to moderate depression. But since you'd have to drink at least 3 cups a day consistently, it's best to use a standardized preparation available in the form of capsules.

I admire one very useful St. John's wort remedy that can only be made from the fresh flowers: a wonderful, bright red oil that speeds the healing of cuts, abrasions, and minor burns. Here's what to do: Fill a clear glass bottle with the flowers, and cover completely with olive oil. Stopper tightly with a cork or screw-on cap, and place in the sun for a week or two; it will turn a bright red. This "red oil" is then applied locally to the wound. If you'd like to give St. John's wort oil a try and can't wait for the fresh flowers in your own (or someone else's) garden, check your local health food store for a commercially prepared version.
Feverfew: The Migraine Chaser

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) has a more specialized use than the other herbs I've recommended for your small garden. But if you are one of the millions of people who suffer from migraine (vascular) headaches, you may wish to consider growing this plant with little daisylike flowers. As with St. John's wort, you cover the seeds with a thin layer of soil; their germination is light dependent. The herb grows well in most soils, and it prefers the sun or only a bit of shade. You'll find it easy to cultivate. As is the case with many perennials, the first year's harvest is small, the second year is the best, and after the third year or so, it may need to be replanted if it isn't reseeding itself.

For migraine relief, use the leaves only. Because of their lacy nature, they dry quickly, but many people use them fresh simply by chewing and swallowing. The taste is a bit bitter, but not unbearable. If the plant is of good quality, only about one or two leaves (fresh or dried) are required daily. That's a very small quantity, particularly since two dried leaves amount to about one-third the weight of a normal aspirin tablet. After drying, the leaves are best stored in a tightly closed container in the refrigerator. That assures maximum stability of parthenolide, which is believed to be feverfew's effective constituent.

Of course, there are literally hundreds of medicinal herbs that can be cultivated even in a small garden, but the ones discussed here are easy to grow, to prepare, and to consume.

If you want to learn more about growing herbs, a number of excellent how-to guides are available. A book that I have found useful is The Bootstrap Guide to Medicinal Herbs in the Garden, Field & Marketplace, by Lee Sturdivant and Tim Blakley (San Juan Naturals, 1998).

PHOTO (COLOR): Grow a windowsill medicine chest.




PHOTO (COLOR): Varro E. Tyler


By Varro E. Tyler, PhD, ScD bertson tant

Varro E. Tyler, PhD, ScD, is America's foremost expert on herbs and plant-derived medicine. He is dean emeritus of the Purdue University School of Pharmacy and Pharmacal Sciences in West Lafayette, IN, and distinguished professor emeritus of pharmacognosy. He is also the author of more than 350 scientific articles and 30 books, including a new edition of Tyler's Honest Herbal, written with herbalist Steven Foster (Haworth Herbal Press, 1999).


Seeds for all of the herbs mentioned in this column are available in many garden centers and nurseries. If you have trouble locating the seeds, you can also order them from Heirloom Seeds. Call them at (412) 384-0852 to check availability, prices, and ordering information. For a link to their Web site, you can visit

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