5 Easy Medicinal Herbs You Should Know and Grow

Long before humans had pharmaceuticals at our disposal, we depended on plant remedies to cure and treat our ailments. Archeologists have found evidence of herbal medicine practice from as far back as 60,000 years ago. Now, of course, we have the wonders of modern medicine. But knowledge of plant remedies persists; according to the World Health Organization, 75 percent of the world’s population uses herbal remedies for basic health needs.

The world of plant-based medicine is vast, but you may be surprised at the health benefits just a few common herbs could provide. No one’s suggesting you stop seeing your doctor (definitely don’t do that!), but with immune-boosting plants and herbal remedies for minor ailments, you may find yourself visiting them a little less.

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“I believe that plant medicine is a very practical, yet in-depth study,” says Jenel Schaffer, a certified herbalist and owner of the Pennsylvania-based Sheep Hill Herbs.

“Many generations have lost the art and knowledge, as well as wisdom of the plants. Herbalists have been called quacks and witches and been discredited for a few hundred years,” Schaffer says. “To return to the knowledge, there needs to be a learning, a passing down, from those who have studied, or who have been taught by parents and grandparents, and elders who preserved this wisdom.”

The really great news is that many medicinal herbs are super easy to grow and even have added benefits for your garden itself. The list of plants and herbs with medicinal qualities is long, to say the least, but it’s a good idea to start with things you’re at least a little familiar with. These plants are easy to find at your local nursery or grow from seed, but they’re also medicinal powerhouses. 

So, if you’re interested in dipping a toe into medicinal herb gardening, here’s how to get started.

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1. Peppermint

“Peppermint’s good for nausea, belly aches, headaches, fevers and, in some instances, pain,” says Schaffer. “It is also a wonderful-tasting herb that anyone can enjoy.”

Peppermint grows best in partial shade, where it has some protection from the midday sun of hot summer days. The plant needs frequent watering, but overall, it doesn’t need much encouragement to grow. In fact, because it grows like a weed, it’s not a great idea to plant peppermint too close to other herbs or vegetables because it can easily crowd them out.

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2. Chamomile

Chamomile has a long history of being grown and used all over the world by the ancient Egyptians, Romans and others. “It’s a sweet little herb, with a hint of apple, that’s so good for nervousness and sleeplessness; both common problems,” says Schaffer. “Chamomile is a long-standing remedy for tired minds and bodies and has a long and safe history of usage.”

To grow the leafy plant, which blooms prolifically with small white and yellow flowers, direct seed or plant seedlings in the spring, after the threat of frost has passed. Chamomile appreciates cool conditions and is drought-tolerant, but too much fertilizer will cause it to grow fewer flowers.

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Use it as a companion plant alongside cucumbers: The strong scent of the herb will keep pests off the cucumbers, and the vegetable’s large leaves will shade the delicate chamomile.

3. Echinacea

Another garden addition with both medicinal and aesthetic value, the most recognizable part of the echinacea plant is its bright purple, cone-shaped flower head.

“Echinacea is gorgeous in the garden,” Schaffer says. “This herb is a flower, and the root is also very powerful and used to make many cold and flu remedies. Echinacea may stabilize blood sugar, shorten sickness, and the Native American Indians used it as a remedy for poisonous snakebites. This plant is a must, in my opinion, for every home garden.”

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Choose the echinacea’s place in your garden carefully; they’re hardy perennials that will spring back up year after year. Echinacea needs little care other than the occasional watering if the spring and summer are especially dry. Once the blooms fade and frost sets in, simply cut the stems back to the soil line.

4. Yarrow

This herb, scientific name Achillea millefolium, has a serious reputation. “There is an old story in Greek mythology that Achilles got his name and strength from this plant,” says Schaffer. “Some stories say that his mother dipped him in yarrow water, holding him by the ankle. Thus, his entire body was protected, but the ‘Achilles heel,’ so to speak.”

Yarrow is a great garden addition, as it attracts beneficial insects and repels pests. And, of course, it’s got major medicinal benefits. As a poultice, it can be used to calm inflammation and bruising, and heal rashes, bug bites and stings.

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“Yarrow is a styptic and can stop bleeding,” says Schaffer. “Soldiers have been known to use this plant for wounds, both for the styptic purpose and antiseptic properties.”

5. Catnip

You’re probably at least a little familiar with this one — “the famous herb that cats go nuts over,” says Schaffer. But catnip does much more than make your furry friends happy.

“Catnip is the herb I go to for balancing the entire body,” explains Schaffer. “It is rich in B-vitamins and will soothe a stubborn nervous system. Catnip is also safe for many people, including children. There is not a parent who wouldn’t appreciate some soothing catnip for teething or fussy children.”

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Catnip grows best in full sun and, like many of the other herbs on this list, can be a great pest repellant when planted alongside vegetables. But be aware: Catnip is a member of the mint family, and it’ll spread fast. It’s best planted in raised beds or containers to avoid overrunning other plants.

Knowledge Is Key

While these basic plants are a great place to start, there’s a lot to learn in the world of medicinal herbalism, and Schaffer, who teaches courses for beginners and more advanced practitioners alike, says one of the biggest mistakes you can make is trying to go it alone.

Instead, she says, seek out herbalists who can help you use what you’ve grown to its highest potential.

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Dandelion is one of the most maligned medicinal herbs out there. It is treated as a weed and destroyed when it can be used to detoxify the liver and gallbladder and keep the kidneys functioning correctly. It is also an immune system booster and has great antioxidant properties. Don’t kill it, eat it!

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