Grow your own medicine

Your kitchen garden may also be your medicine chest.

Cultivate echinacea to help cure what ails you. – Courtesy Jardin Mahoney

Some of the most interesting and valuable native medicinal plants on Martha’s Vineyard are usually considered to be weeds and, at least until properly appreciated, will be seen as having little glamour. Do you like towering burdock (Arctium lappa — complete with burrs to catch in your pets’ coats) or curly dock (Rumex crispus) in your landscape? By getting used to the look, you could be availing yourself of an herbal medicine chest.

Burdock, for instance, used as root and seed, offers support for the liver, urinary tract, and skin. The plants have ornamental potential–large, coarse texture, appearing similar to rhubarb. It is eaten as a vegetable and may be made into a large array of dried and fresh herbal preparations.

Dock (in the same family as French sorrel, below) leaves may be eaten young as a cooked or salad vegetable, but should be consumed in moderation as they contain oxalates, which may interfere with digestion. The roots are used medicinally for their high iron content as treatment for anemia.

Source books for wild-crafting and growing herbs include Ancestral Plants: A Primitive Skills Guide to Important Wild Edible, Medicinal, and Useful Plants of the Northeast, Arthur Haines (Delta Institute, Anaskimin), and The Essential Herbal for Natural Health, Holly Bellebuono (Shambhala Publications/Roost Books) and Growing 101 Herbs That Heal, Tammi Hartung, (Storey Books).

Herbalists usually separate culinary and medicinal herbs, but sometimes they are one and the same. Take for example, coriander (Coriandrum sativum) or cilantro, as the leaf form is known. High in iron and magnesium, cilantro is an essential ingredient in recipes for salsas and guacamole, and figures prominently in the cuisines of Asia, India, Europe, and Central and South America. The seed, coriander, has been used as an aromatic stimulant and spice since ancient times. More recently, cilantro has been used to mobilize mercury and other heavy metals in the brain and spinal cord tissue out into normal elimination systems. Cold-hardy, coriander seed may be sown in early spring, in full sun. If allowed to, it freely self-sows, so learn to recognize the seedlings.

Garlic (Allium sativum) is another garden subject with known culinary and medicinal properties, especially antiseptic and antibiotic. Its organic sulfur content assists in detoxifying heavy metals as well as infectious microbes. On the Vineyard, garlic is planted in autumn, wintered over, and harvested the following summer. Start with quality seed garlic, and grow it in fertile soil — use your best spot or make a special bed — in full sun.

Raspberries (Rubus idaeus) need no introduction as a fruit prized for desserts, preserves, and eating fresh. All parts of the plant have been valued for their medicinal properties as well. Traditionally, leaves are used as an herbal tea to help with chills, colds, tonsillitis, and stomach complaints (Herbs, Phillips & Foy, Random House), and all aspects of pregnancy and childbirth. Easily grown in a corner of the garden, raspberries respond to fertile soil and annual pruning.

Echinacea, in several species, is a beautiful ornamental and excellent cut flower, which has been widely hybridized to produce an array of colors, heights, and flower forms that were previously unknown. “Advances in immunology have shown that E. angustifolia and E. purpurea … have a marked effect on the body’s resistance to infectious diseases of all kinds, particularly the influenza and herpes viruses.” (ibid.) Root and leaves are used.

Another perennial culinary herb to tuck away in a corner of the vegetable garden is French sorrel (Rumex scutatus), prized as an early spring physic, diuretic, and laxative, and the delicious accompaniment to many fish dishes. It is the main ingredient in sorrel soup. The sorrel plant is used for its leaves primarily. Therefore, flowering stalks are usually discouraged as leaf quality then suffers. The perennial shoots emerge early in spring and are harvested for salad, soup etc as soon as they grow large enough. The flower stalks come later, just like rhubarb, but are cut out, to keep the supply of leaves coming along.

Garden sorrel (R. acetosa) and sheep’s sorrel (R. acetosella) are similar, if less choice, forms than the French. Plant out in rich soil and divide regularly, to keep plants vigorous and producing a continuous supply of brittle, tender leaves.

Raspberries, echinacea and sorrel are grown and sold primarily as container plants; planting them can happen any time the ground is able to be worked, until fall.