Friday, February 3, 2012

Ten essential herbs

Last weekend I attended the Guelph Organic Conference, which was a wonderful opportunity to share time and space with a vibrant community of people there to discuss ideas and practices for a more sustainable, healthier and robust local food system.

I attended several workshops and while I learned a lot from each, one of the most readily applicable was "Ten Essential Herbs" presented by Kerry Hackett, a medical herbalist based in Peterborough, Ont. I'm often a bit wary about these "top 10" kinds of presentations, but even Hackett said that she finds "all herbs essential" and that this was her top 10 list when she assembled the presentation.

While herbs are commonly known for their edible and nutritive properties (what would Italian food be without basil, oregano and thyme?), they also have amazing medical and therapeutic properties and are among the oldest forms of healing.

Hackett's list (with a few of their main functions/actions) included:

• Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) -- soothes, cools, calms and coats
• Calendula (Calendula officinalis) -- a brilliant "first aid plant"
• Cayenne (Capsicum minimum) -- stimulant, pain reliever, stops bleeding
• St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) -- aids with agitation and anxiety, also nerve damage
• Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) -- helps relax, also good for cuts, bites and burns + muscle aches
• Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) -- good for inflammation, indigestion, fever, insomnia
• Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) - she spoke mainly on its properties when used externally for cuts, burns, bruises, etc.
• Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) -- good detoxifier, aids skin ailments
• Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) -- useful for sore throats, dry coughs, plus cuts/bites
• Nettle (Urtica dioica) -- nutritive tonic & detoxifier

Beyond simply listing the properties of these 10 herbs, Hackett explained how to make herbal teas (hot infusions, cold infusions and decocted teas), macerated tinctures and infused oils, and gave suggestions on best methods of drying -- all which helped bring light to the rudimentary knowledge that I'd so far only gleaned from books.

While the practice of tending and healing with herbs is an ancient one, and some herbal cures seem rather fanciful in today's over-prescribed world, I find many simple remedies are both restorative and nurturing. My friend Karen is the green-thumb behind Porcupine Creek Farm and her beautiful Cold Comfort Blend tea, made with spearmint, yarrow and mallow blossoms, is our go-to remedy when we're suffering from a cold or respiratory infection. And just the other day my throat was feeling raw, so I took some Oil of Oregano in my orange juice. Wonderful stuff, that.

I've been cultivating herbs over the past few years, but on a small-scale and casual basis; herbs were more like accessories than intentional parts of my garden plan. I've grown basil, oregano and thyme in the vegetable garden, stuck some chamomile and lemon balm in the strawberry patch, scattered bergamot, Echinacea and lavender amongst the flower beds, and found mullein, comfrey and chicory growing wild throughout the farm. Then there's the small collection of culinary herbs that Ella helps me tend on the deck just off the kitchen, composed of favourites such as basil, rosemary, tarragon, parsley and the like.

Since we're approaching our fourth summer on the farm, I've been looking to increase the efficiency of the land while reducing my workload. This means that before I plant something in the garden, for example, I want to consider its function(s) and favour the tending of plants that serve more than one purpose.

While I have a large collection (read jungle) of perennial flowers that grow in the garden closest to the house, they are really mostly eye candy (and overgrown eye candy at that), though the bees do love the poppies. I've been thinking (for a while) about revamping that space to make it both beautiful and functional and Hackett's presentation helped give me the boost I need to start planning for this spring.

I haven't decided what'll live there yet, but this list gives me a good place to start. And as Kerry Hackett says, herbs "enliven the soul just from their beauty." I think we can all use a little soul enlivening, don't you?


karmacoy said...

Nice post! Next time you're going to an herbal type workshop, I'd love to go with... Are you going to Amanda's workshop in the spring?

Funny, I blogged today too and I'm not sure if you've visited this blog before. I'm thinking of abandoning my old one for this other one.
We still need to plan that tea date!

Erin said...

Nice list! Every year I tell myself I'm going to do more medicinal type herbs but never get around to it!

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