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Local Limelight: Weeklyish Articles Of Interest

Easy Medicinal Herbs for the Portland Garden 
By: Laura Altvater owner of Mostly Medicanals

Winter is upon us.  It’s the season of warm cups of tea, hearty soups and doing what you can to stay healthy.  It is the time when the garden is sleeping, and time to plan for the next season so you can grow your own medicine.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have your tea be a blend of herbs from your garden, your soup seasoned with what you have grown and a homemade Echinacea tincture to help keep you healthy?  Winter dreaming can lead to a full medicine chest provided by your garden.  Please note that you should check with your primary care practitioner before taking unfamiliar herbs. 

Medicinal herbs are beautiful, and grow in a variety of conditions which make them easy to tuck into any kind of garden.  The hardest part is deciding what to grow.  Starting small and simple is best.  A tasty, easily grown tea blend can include Chamomile, mint, lemon balm and Fennel seed.  This combination can be soothing for the stomach and mind.  These four herbs can be grown in full to part sun in ground or in containers.   I do recommend containing mint and repeated harvest of lemon balm so they do not take over. 

Marshmallow, Elecampane and licorice would be a nice tea for aiding the recovery from a cough.  Marshmallow and Elecampane will yield a nice harvest in the first year.  They both grow quite large, prefer full to part sun, average soil and regular water.  Marshmallow has lovely pale lavender flowers all summer whereas elecampane has delightful yellow daisy flowers all summer.  Licorice is a bit more advanced needing good drainage, full hot sun and 4-5 years before the roots are harvestable.

If you are accustomed to bitter medicinal teas, Aztec Sweet Herb and Lemon Verbena are two tender herbs which can really improve the flavor of any tea.  Aztec Sweet herb or Lippia dulcis is fantastic in hanging baskets in full sun.  You can throw in some calendula or nasturtiums to add some color if you wish.  As an herb it is an expectorant.  For tea it is incredibly sweet with a minty aftertaste.  Lemon Verbena is just divine.  What else can I say, yum!  It is best in a container in full sun, with regular water.  Both of these plants need to be pulled inside by late October so you can enjoy them again the next season.  However, bee balm, Monarda (2nd photo) or Bergamont is fantastic outside all year, lends a great flavor to teas and attracts hummingbirds. 

There are so many Echinacea (3rd photo) cultivars out in the market ranging in color from orange to yellow, giant flowers to double flowers.  I recommend staying as close to a species for the highest medicinal content.  Of course they all have medicinal qualities, but with cross breeding, the potency is uncertain.  It grows in full sun, well amended soil with minimal to average water.  An Echinacea crop will mature in one and half to two years.  It is best dug in fall or early spring.  The flowers and seeds can be harvested in the first year.

I also love to grow my own herbs for smudging.  Smudging is a practice of slowly burning small amounts of plant material to scent the air and clear the space.  There are many spiritual meanings to smudging that I will not go into here.  However, my favorite herbs to grow for this include white sage, sweet grass and mugwort.  My white sage plant is now 4 years old and lives in a container.  I call her my mamma plant and have the utmost respect for her.  She moves out in the open in full sun spring through fall.  I pull her under my porch for the winter so she doesn’t get rained out (white sage can rot easily).  More and more I am seeing and hearing of white sage plants living successfully in the ground here in Portland.  If you have a south facing side of your house with an over hanging eave, your chances are good for over wintering one of these prizes in the ground. 

Sweet grass and mugwort can easily take over the garden if you close your eyes for too long.  I grow sweet grass in a pot only because I do not want it to take over.  It would be a very effective plant for erosion control.  I will harvest the grass and make braids all summer and fall.  Mugwort I am constantly cutting back so it does not go to seed.  Take my word, do not let this plant go to seed!  It is also an effective emenagogue and digestive aid.  Both sweet grass and mugwort can grow in full to partial sun, most soils and minimal water.

There are also several native medicinals that are easy to grow in the garden as well.  Pearly Everlasting, Anaphalis marginata, is a tough native with white papery flowers that are good for the lungs.  The dried flowers are also fun in dried wreaths.  Grindelia integrifolia (first photo), is another drought tolerant native great for the lungs.  Also a tincture from the sticky flower buds can help quell the itchiness of poison oak rashes.  Our native ginger Asarum caudatum, has a mild ginger taste and helps with digestive issues.

The dreams of the medicinal garden are endless.  It is often fun to look at the ingredients of your favorite tea blend and just ask “can grow all these plants?”  Please visit or call your local nurseries to see what medicinal herbs are available. 

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