by Victoria Jungwirth
I gave a presentation recently to a class of students at NMU and was asked what herbs I would grow if I was just starting up an herb garden. I had to think for a moment because I don’t grow many herbs, using mostly wild-crafted plants, or herbs I buy because they don’t grow well in our climate. But I do have some things in my garden that I can’t imagine life without, all easy to grow for beginners, good basics for medicinal use, and available from most seed catalogs.
(Urtica Dioica): I have cultivated a good patch of nettles in my garden. They arrived by accident in compost imported from the city, and I was very happy to see them. A perennial, they are one of the first greens to appear in spring, well before anything I might care to sow, and I pick the young leaves for steaming and eating. (I am very careful when picking and don’t mind a few stings, but if you do, wear gloves for this!) As the season progresses, I pick and dry bunches for tea in the winter and make a batch of tincture. Nettles are high in vitamins and minerals, especially iron, so they make a useful addition to winter teas and stews, and are a great tonic, especially for treating persistent skin problems. They are easily cultivated from a root cutting or from seed, and grow well in most garden situations.
(Symphytum Officinale): Another perennial that grows vigorously, the pretty blue flowers attract bees to the garden, which is an added bonus. Comfrey appears early too and I add small leaves to salads, but they quickly become too furry to be palatable. Comfrey is the consummate healing herb for open wounds, speeding the healing process and reducing scarring. It can be infused in oil, or the leaves can be used fresh as a poultice. Excess leaves can be used to make manure tea for the garden by rotting them down in a bucket of water. The smell will quickly remind you why this is called “manure” tea! Again, a root cutting is the easiest way to propagate, but it can be grown from seed as well and grows anywhere!
(Calendula Officinalis): This is an annual, so it needs to be sown each year, but the seeds are easy to save, and it often reseeds itself! The flowers are a beautiful addition to any garden and continue flowering late into fall, tolerating the first few frosts. Sometimes it’s hard to bring myself to harvest the flowers, but the more you pick, the more flowers will come. Calendula is mildly antiseptic and anti-inflammatory, so it is useful for skin rashes or abrasions, especially if infection is suspected or there is swelling. It makes a great massage or baby oil, so consider putting some up for gifts. Pick the flowers on a dry, sunny day and cover them with good quality oil for four to six weeks. It’s as easy as that!
This year I grew feverfew and chamomile for the first time. The feverfew did well and I was able to make a batch of tincture with it, but the chamomile was not as productive. I’ve found some non-native plants do not produce such strong medicine, even if they appear to cultivate well. Echinacea is an example. I got some growing in my garden, but when I harvested the roots and made tincture, it was nowhere near as strong as the product I made with roots from the West Coast. I’m assuming that the shorter season and less sunshine contributed to this effect. So there is lots of room for experimentation.
Victoria Jungwirth is the owner of Wilderness Herbs and specializes in local medicinal plants. She lives in a remote corner of Marquette county where she and her husband build birch bark canoes. She is also a manager at the Marquette Food Co-op.
This article was reprinted with permission from the Spring 2013 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, copyright 2013. All rights reserved.