Around this time of year we begin thinking and planning our herb gardens. For the most part, we choose the basic culinary herbs that most recipes call for. But have you ever stopped and wondered what therapeutic effects these plants have other than tasting good? Let’s explore some of these!
Sweet Basil is one of the favorites in Italian cooking. I put up jars of fresh pesto every summer and enjoy its unique flavor all year long. Basil is a very stimulating essential oil, used therapeutically not only for the mind but for physical well-being also. It encourages blood flow and release of toxins in the body. Basil clears the respiratory tract and helps relieve sinus pressure, bronchitis and lung tension. Also, when used in massage oil, basil stimulates and reinvigorates fatigued muscles from over-exertion. Used in hair products, basil stimulates the scalp and encourages hair growth. Chamomile is quite the opposite of basil. It is extremely calming and sedating. Used primarily in nighttime teas, chamomile soothes fractious nerves and eases tension. Stress can affect all parts of the body, so by calming the nervous system, chamomile also then ease gastric discomforts such as bloating, gas and heartburn. The essential oil can be rubbed on the belly (in a carrier oil) in a clockwise motion to quiet the intestinal tract. Soothing the nerves can also affect moods, so emotions like anger, grumpiness, petulance, anxiety and fears can all be eased by this therapeutic plant. Chamomile, whether in tea, in a massage or a bath, can release the pent up energy of over-stimulation and bring you into a peaceful mellow place.
Sweet Fennel is another wonderful plant for an herb garden that is used in Italian cooking and especially fish. Fennel is wonderful in supporting the digestive system, and can be used as a mild diuretic, releasing fluids from the body and tonifying the kidneys. Also great for edema and cellulitis, fennel essential oil can be massaged onto the abdomen and thighs to break up the stagnant fluid retention where it collects under the skin. It’s anti-bacterial, anti-spasmodic, and antiseptic qualities make it perfect for cleansing and detoxing the liver.
Rosemary is a common site in most herb gardens and is probably one of the most versatile and helpful essential oils to have around in your medicine cabinet or healing box, as rosemary is a superbly refreshing and invigorating oil. One of rosemary’s gifts is its ability to stimulate. This makes it an excellent oil to use for poor circulation, sluggish blood flow to the heart and organs and for scanty or irregular menstruation. It also aids in detoxifying organs such as the liver, gall bladder and intestines, helping with infection, spasms and gallstones. Rosemary stimulates the brain and nervous system and is great for mental clarity and memory. It aids in hypertension, mental fatigue and headaches. When clear thought is needed or detailed memorization is necessary, this oil will give you the ability to concentrate and retain facts. It also helps in quelling strong emotions during stressful fearful times. I’ve heard it said that those who can grow rosemary wear the pants in the family!
Marjoram is an easily grown herb commonly used in seasonings, fragrances and cosmetics. In the olden days, people believed that marjoram could contribute towards longevity for those who used it in cooking and medicines – and indeed because of its calming and relaxing qualities, one might feel like one could live forever. It is a great sedative and because of its soporific effect, it is wonderful for high blood pressure, stress, tension, anxiety, and irritability. Inhaling marjoram essential oil relaxes one to the point of stupor, which can assist with insomnia and sleep disorders. Marjoram can also be used to relieve the pain of migraines and if added to a massage oil, can release sore tense neck muscles that cause headaches.
Parsley is a lovely addition to anyone’s garden. (I was once told when planting parsley, put it under your rose bushes because its odor keeps aphids and other bugs away from the roses.) You may think that it is only good for garnishing a meal, but parsley has many therapeutic qualities, including support for the digestive and uro-gential systems. Its carminative properties mean that it is wonderful for intestinal disorders and can relieve colic, flatulence, indigestion and bad breath (especially good for neutralizing garlic smells.). In aromatherapy use, it is very helpful in reducing any accumulation of toxins in the joints and in musculature. It relinquishes swelling in arthritic joints, increases elasticity in tissues and encourages regeneration of smooth muscle. Parsley seems to have a tonic effect on blood vessels, supporting and shrinking broken blood vessels, thereby reducing the discoloration of bruising.
Peppermint needs very little introduction since it is one of the most popular herbs in the garden. From the moment we awake and brush our teeth, mint is a part of our routines-– we use it in mouthwashes, shampoos, soaps, lotions, in our teas, in cooking and in our health care. Because it works into the hippocampus part of the brain, it stimulates mental activity and is excellent for mental fatigue, memory loss and the inability to concentrate. It also is good for dizzy spells, nervous tension, rapid heartbeat, depression and headaches caused by mental over-exertion. Peppermint calms nausea, motion sickness and can settle stomachs after vomiting. The main constituent of mint is menthol, which seems to have a cooling effect while heating and invigorating the body. It affects the lymphatic system, stimulating lymphatic drainage. Mint also acts on the circulatory system, increasing blood flow. Peppermint works both on mental stress as well as the physical tension caused by the stress and is a great massage oil to rub on the back of the neck where pressure most often settles. It not only releases the muscle tension, but also seems to relieve the mental confusion and help focus the mind so that the stress disappears.
Sage was considered to be sacred by the Romans and used to scent their hair, their bodies, their clothes and their baths. Native Americans also honored this herb and would burn it to cleanse an area of unwanted energies. In modern times, our pharmaceutical companies widely use this fragrance in mouthwashes, gargles, soaps, shampoos, detergents and in men’s colognes. Sage activates the nervous system by stimulating the adrenal cortex and is said that sage can help reduce hot flashes by regulating the functioning of the adrenal cortex. This also aids menstrual difficulties and depression associated with menopause. By supporting the nervous system, sage can reduce mental fatigue, stress and mental exhaustion. Considered antiseptic, sage oil can be used in an aroma lamp to disinfect a sick area and contain respiratory infections by killing the germs that float in the air. It also seems to be beneficial for asthma sufferers as it calms the respiratory tract and allows greater expansion of the lungs.
Lemon Verbena (vervain) is another wonderful addition to an herb garden. It is known to relieve tiredness, overcome listlessness and apathy, and help the brain to focus. Its lemony scent revitalizes the senses and wakes up one’s interest in life. Especially good for those who get lost in daydreams, verbena seems to help people release the past, let go of nostalgia and be more present in the here and now. When we are stressed, we often have a nervous stomach. Lemon verbena acts as a tonic and carmative, relieving stomach cramps and nausea. The leaves can be infused as a tea and in France is often drunk as an after dinner digestif to relieve bloating and indigestion. Used in sports massage, verbena tones muscles and reduces lactic acid build-up. It encourages healing of weak connective tissue. For skin complaints, it can be used in facials to tonify the skin and cleanse the pores. It is also helpful with acne and greasy hair.
So this spring, when choosing your herbs, give a thought to how the plants can help therapeutically, as well as adding flavor and interest to your meals.