Five pretty and practical herbs

Many of our garden plants, beyond those we instantly recognise as culinary herbs, have a history of usefulness as traditional medicinal plants, going back centuries.

Plants such as the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), from which morphine and codeine were derived, and Cinchona officinalis (quinine or fever tree), which offers anti-malarial compounds, are well known for their importance in pharmaceuticals. Today, we may grow many of them as ornamentals in the border or in containers. Even if we have no need or intention of using them as medicinal plants, it adds interest to know their hidden history and what they were once used for or that they are of interest currently for research. And of course, discoveries and research never stop, so that it is likely that even more of the plants we known and love for their ornament, could contain components which become the next ‘big’ thing for science and medicine.

Echinacea purpurea (used to make preparations that help boost our immune systems), yew (anti-cancer properties) and periwinkle (cancer treatments) are among the plants that have ‘big futures’ in medicinal research. Even the humble primrose (Primula vulgaris) and cowslip (P. veris), both loved as heralds of spring, were once widely used medicinally. Today, primrose or cowslip flowers infused in boiling water are said to have a calming effect. **It is important to be able to recognise exactly what the plant is. There are many modern herbals containing recipes for using plants medicinally as well as for cosmetics, but if you are concerned about health matters always seek advice from your GP or from qualified practitioners of traditional medical herbalism. **Unless you are absolutely sure of what the plant is and its usage in any kind of treatment, medicinal or otherwise, avoid ingesting or applying any plant material.

Peony (Paeonia lactiflora), with its fragrant, white to pink flowers, is an important herbaceous plant in summer borders. Known as the Chinese peony, it was introduced from Europe into our gardens via Kew in 1789. Since it thrives and flowers abundantly if left undisturbed in the ground, it is no wonder that the medicinal attributes of its roots are not often remarked on. It is a plant much used in traditional Chinese medicine. The bark from the peony root is used as an anti-inflammatory, an analgesic, a sedative and as an anti-convulsant and for treating a wide range of ailments. In autumn the plant dies back to the ground, with stems appearing once more in spring. Peony petals were once commonly infused to make fragrant peony water.


Bergamot (Monarda didyma and Monarda citriodora) are among the late summer border flowers that offer a real height lift, as well as a colour boost. They are also, as their common name, bee balm, suggests attractive to bees. Lemon bergamot (Monarda citriodora) has the additional charm of a citrus-scented foliage. Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) was used by Native Americans to make a tea (Oswego tea), which they used for treating colds and chest complaints.

Monarda and bee

Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) is one of those low-key, relatively low-growing plants, that can romp through a border or raised bed, and goes on flowering and flowering. I always deadhead spent flowers mainly to prevent seed setting, but towards the end of the summer I do let some flowers go to seed, providing me with a stock for next year’s plants. The cheery, open daisy-like orange flowers make a hot colour spot low down at the front of the border. In the kitchen the petals are useful for colouring rice and adding zing and taste to a leafy salad. It has a long history of medicinal use (Romans, medieval monks etc) and is noted for its astringent and antiseptic properties. It is also known to relieve inflammation and promote healing in digestive and gastric ailments, and is a diuretic. Often made into soothing ointments and used to staunch bleeding.

  • There is a caution though that it should not be taken internally during pregnancy.

Clove pinks (Dianthus caryophyllus) are one of the most fragrant carnations to grow in the front of a border. Their grey spiky foliage is attractive and the range of colour in their flowers – pink, white, cherry red and mauve – makes them versatile garden plants. The petals can be used in salads and to add spicy flavour to vinegar. You need to snip off the bitter-tasting white part of the petal where it was attached to the main flower. Medicinally clove pinks were used to make a calming tonic.

Pinks in a range of colours

Scented pelargoniums (Pelargonium species) offer wonderfully aromatic foliage and small scented flowers. I grow one or two outdoors in summer, bringing them in to overwinter in frost-free sites, and watering them sparingly. Pelargonium graveolens is known for its zesty lemon scent and for its relaxant, antiseptic properties. Pelargonium radens is used as a rub for aching feet or legs, while my favourite Pelargonium tomentosum, with its peppermint fragranced foliage, is useful as a poultice for bruises and sprains. Another scented pelargonium that I love to use just for its relaxing fragrance is Pelargonium ‘Attar of Roses’ which is so strongly rose-scented you might think you have a roomful of rose blooms.

Pelargonium ‘Attar of Roses’

Have you tried?

Subscribe & Save 20%

Have you read?