Monday, March 18, 2013

Good Health Grows in Nature: Seeds to Sow

by Maria Noël Groves, Clinical Herbalist & Co-op Wellness Educator

In spite of a few last-season snowstorms, the itch for spring is on. We're dreamily eying the High Mowing Organic Seed rack in the Co-op's produce department, anticipating a summertime bounty of vegetables. But amidst those veggie and melon seed packets, you'll find some very useful culinary, medicinal, and ornamental herbs. I must admit, I am not one for growing plants from seed. Coddling plants is not something I do well. However, a few forgiving herbs like calendula don't seem to mind. For the rest, I tend to get my seedlings from local organic growers like Good Earth Farm, Snow Dragon Mountain Farm, or Red Fox Farm at the Co-op later in spring or at the NOFA-NH Herbal Network's Spring Herb and Garden Day (coming up in Concord on June 8). But, for those of you who like a good challenge, here are some of the most forgiving and useful herbs available on the Co-op's seed rack...

Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
Sunflower Family
This is one of our most ornamental garden herbs, and it’s also incredible multipurpose as food, medicine, and a topical remedy.
Medicinal Uses: Calendula is most famous as a skin care herb – when infused in water or oil and applied topically (as a poultice, bath, cream, salve...) it has a potent yet gentle soothing, healing effect. It’s the primary anti-itch and rash herb and can also be used for hemorrhoids, cuts and scrapes, dry skin, conjunctivitis, baby skin issues, and more. The flowers are almost equally famous as a pot herb, hence the name Pot Marigold. The orange-yellow hued blooms have 100 times the carotenoids of a sweet potato by weight! You can add the mild-tasting petals fresh like confetti to almost anything or a handful of the whole blooms (slightly bitter) to soups and tea. Feeding calendula to chickens makes their yolk brighter orange-yellow. Calendula is lesser known but also very useful as a tincture or tea to move the lymph and assist with detoxification. The sticky resin is responsible for calendula’s topical and medicinal properties; the color for the nutritive.
Growing Conditions: This annual will sometimes self seed (though it’s prone to mold that inhibits it) and is more often available as seed than seedling. Plant in spring or fall in good soil, full sun, with regular water. Clip the blossoms as needed – it simulates more growth, too. Happy calendula will bloom from June through November.
Tea Attributes: Vitamin-y and slightly bitter especially if using the middles of the flowers. Nice color for dry blends.
Try It As: Oil/salve/cream, bath/wash, soup, tea.

Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum)
Mint Family
Conventional basil (O. basilicum) is a valued herbal plant, but I’m especially a fan of the purple-hued holy basil which has an aromatic, sweet taste and is revered in Ayurvedic medicine in India. It’s one of the few stress-relieving “adaptogens” that grows easily in the garden.
Medicinal Uses: Holy basil appears to modulate stress hormone output and help the body adapt to stress (“adaptogen”). In particular it may help lower cortisol, the stress hormone implicated in diabetes and abdominal weight gain. Holy basil makes a lovely tea for modest blood sugar control and to reduce carbohydrate cravings (great with jasmine green tea). The herb is calming and well-suited before meditation or a yoga class to promote a good mindset. It has many other uses, from colds and flu to ulcer protection to radiation protection. It’s a remarkable herb that is gaining ground in the U.S.
Growing Conditions: This herb thrives in a sunny location in well-drained rich soil. Basil species are well suited for containers, as seen throughout the Mediterranean neighborhoods, as well as in temples throughout Indian temples. Grow from seed, buy seedlings, or use a cutting. Harvest the top two thirds of the plant, just above a node, every few weeks. Basil will grow in all zones as an annual. Young basil plants are prone to “dampening off” due to fungus in wet soil. Water in the morning to help control this. I find holy basil to be more forgiving than conventional basil, though it will also not tolerate frost.
Tea Attributes: Holy basil has a strong aromatic scent reminiscent of cinnamon, mint, and bubble gum. Enjoy it on its own, with mints, lemon balm, or jasmine green tea.
Try It As: Tea, herbal honey, cordial...

German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
Sunflower Family
The tiny daisy-like chamomiles cheer up any garden and give it a meadow feel. The flowers and foliage have a light pineapple-apple scent to them. Also consider the hardy perennial & Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), which can be used similarly.
Medicinal Uses: Chamomile is best known as a relaxing herb. Many folks enjoy a cup of it before bed or to soothe frayed nerves. Bitter, aromatic properties also make it a great relaxing digestive remedy. It is a premiere children’s herb for digestion, colic, irritability, and teething (weak tea, chamomile popsicles or soak a cloth in tea, freeze, and let the baby chew on it.) Studies suggest that chamomile can even protect the stomach from ulcers.
Growing Conditions: Chamomile will thrive in most soils and conditions, though it prefers a sunny spot. Grow both types of chamomile by seed. Roman chamomile can also be grown by cuttings and root divisions. Dedicate a few leisurely mornings or afternoons throughout the growing
season to collect the small flowers for tea. While it may take a while to harvest an adequate amount, their flavor will surpass any store-bought chamomile. German chamomile is an annual that often reseeds. Roman chamomile is a perennial.
Tea Attributes: Often enjoyed solo, fresh and dry chamomile flowers also provide a light pineapple-y flavor to tea. Consider blending chamomile with mints, alfalfa, and lemon balm.
Also Try: Herbal honey, fresh or dry tincture.

More Herb-Growing Tips...
Herbs to Grow & Use - Extended Notes
Growing Global Flavor
The Art of Local Tea
Fast Flavorful Fresh Recipes with Local Herbs
How to Make Your Own Herbal Remedies
Recommended Reading
Useful Links for Seeds, Seedlings, etc.

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