By ALINA BAKER RHT, Guest Writer
Plants have been cultivated for their medicinal value for thousands of years. In addition to their healing properties in humans, many make fantastic additions to the home or vegetable garden. In fact, you may already be growing some for other purposes – e.g. purple coneflower (or Echinacea) as a pollinator attractant. Others you may recognize as pesky weeds (Dandelion) but even these have their place! Whether you have a hundred acres or just a bit of balcony space, medicinal herbs earn their place in any garden. Here are just a few of the reasons to consider incorporating them.
1. Deterring pests. All fragrant plants owe their scent primarily to compounds called essential oils – from the pungent aroma of culinary herbs, to the sweet smell of a flower, to the enlivening scent of a conifer forest. Despite their lovely smell, most of these chemicals are actually defense compounds which the plant uses to keep away predatory insects, bacteria, and molds. Taken as medicine, essential oil rich plants offer unique and broad-spectrum anti-microbial activity to protect us from invading microbes. In the garden, they make great allies to particularly pest-prone crops such as tomatoes. Examples include thyme, lavender, rosemary, mugwort, lovage, and catnip.
2. Attracting pollinators. Most plants rely on pollinators to reproduce. To attract them, many have developed deeply-coloured pigments, such as flavonoids and anthocyanins. This group of compounds has been found to have a wide range of medicinal actions in the body, including some powerful anti-oxidant effects which help to offset the effects of call-damaging “free radicals” in our environments. These are particularly high in plants like calendula, skullcap, borage and red clover.
3. Improve soil quality. Many medicinal plants are “nitrogen-fixers” – plants that form a mutually-beneficial relationship with nitrogen-producing soil bacteria. Since nitrogen availability is the growth-limiting factor for most plants, increasing the availability of this nutrient in your garden will promote growth of the whole garden. Additionally, these plants are often high in other minerals, making them great medicines. For example, horsetail contains high amounts of silica, a key ingredient in skin, hair, nails, and bone while nettles are particularly high in iron. By a similar token, comfrey and clover make great “chop-and-drop mulches,” returning their nutrients to the soil for use by other plants. A word of caution though – these plants are VERY enthusiastic growers and can easily take over if not managed properly!
4. Improve soil moisture and decrease water demands. Did you know many medicinal plants are actually considered weeds? In fact, often it is the very same adaptations that allow them to grow just about anywhere that makes them such potent medicine! Additionally, they often have important (and typically overlooked) roles in remediating poor quality soils and damaged ecosystems. Dandelion, for example, has a long tap root which allows it to penetrate deep into dry, compact soil. In doing so, the taproot creates a “channel” for water to penetrate into the soil, carrying minerals nutrients from the surface with it. It also increases oxygen in the soil, allowing beneficial soil organisms to thrive and laying the “groundwork” for other plants to establish.
5. Improve your health and mood! In addition to the examples mentioned, there are literally thousands of ways that plants can increase our health and help us combat disease. They contain complex constituents which, for the most part have been intentionally bred out of our food crops in favour of more appealing compounds such as carbohydrates and sugars. We are only beginning to understand how consuming a diverse range of phytochemical compounds is essential to our physical and mental health. Most of these plants are incredibly easy to grow and use, and with the additional benefits they offer to the ecosystem, there’s simply no reason not to invite them into your garden!