By Laura McKissack
Long before modern chemistry, man relied on plants to heal, protect and manipulate the body. Many medicinal herbs grow very well in Central Texas, and a medicine garden can be just as pleasing and useful as a kitchen garden. To get the inside scoop on creating one, I recently visited Gayle Engels, the special projects director at the American Botanical Council (ABC), who offered her wisdom and a tour of ABC’s wonderful garden on Manor Road.
The medicinal gardens on the grounds of ABC are arranged by the action they take in the body. For example, there’s a bed containing herbs that aid in digestion, another with herbs that relieve respiratory ailments and one with herbs for skin care. On the other side of the property are the culinary gardens, arranged by regional cuisine, such as Mediterranean, Asian and Mexican. But many herbs fall into both medicinal and culinary categories. Cayenne, for example, grows in the Mexican culinary garden, but as Engels points out, the plant also has many healing qualities. “The topical use of capsaicin preparations can relieve acute and chronic postherpetic pain, diabetic neuropathy, psoriasis and osteoarthritis,” she says. “Internal use of cayenne or cayenne preparations can help prevent peptic ulcers and protect the GI tract against cancer. Additionally, cayenne may lower triglyceride levels and platelet aggregation, improve circulation and protect against elevated metabolic rate.” It can also be used in nasal sprays to relieve allergies, but don’t attempt to make those at home. For topical use or use as a nasal spray, find a product containing capsaicin—don’t just rub the peppers on your skin or inhale them.
Included in the ABC medicinal garden is a goji berry tree, which has purported anticancer properties. There’s also a variety of mints, which cool the body, lift the spirits and soothe stomach issues, as well as lemon verbena and lemon balm, which can be used in children’s bathwater to help them sleep at night or as a soothing spritzer when steeped with antique rose petals and chilled. Nearby are alliums—onions, garlic, leeks, chives and shallots—that possess powerful healing properties and are known for their anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and anticancer properties. The most pungent of these is garlic, and according to Engels, the more pungent the allium, the stronger the medicine. “Garlic is also antithrombotic, antimicrobial, lipid lowering, antihypertensive, antiallergenic, antioxidant and can help regulate the immune system.” Tasty culinary-medicinal herbs such as oregano and garlic can be added to food, of course. Engels suggests adding them at the end of the cooking process to preserve the plants’ medicinal properties as well as the flavor. And parsley, she notes, is an excellent digestive aid as well as a superfood. Engels suggests a daily dose of it, along with fresh garlic, in your morning smoothie. “If your friends don’t like the smell of garlic on your breath, then they’re not really your friends,” she says with a laugh.
There are many ways to use medicinal herbs in addition to cooking with them. Skin-healing herbs like calendula can be applied directly to the skin or made into a poultice by crushing with a little water. Yarrow acts as a styptic (stops bleeding), and the leaves make a perfect little Band-Aid applied as a poultice or simply wrapped around the finger. And herbal infusions can be quite powerful, too. Mullein, for example, can be made into a tea and has been used to treat respiratory ailments for centuries. It grows like a weed in Central Texas.
When asked for the top five recommended herbs for the home medicinal garden, Engels suggests lemon balm, for its antiviral and antianxiety properties; peppermint or milder spearmint for their cooling and antispasmodic (think upset tummy) properties; calendula for its beauty and skin healing properties; aloe vera for use in burn relief and skin healing; and holy basil for its adaptogenic, antibacterial, antiseptic, fever-reducing, antispasmodic, gas-relieving, expectorant, nervine and stimulant properties.
American Botanical Council
6200 Manor Rd.