Plants have played a vital role in our health for centuries, Debi Holland explains.
Cottage gardens evoke romantic thoughts of closely planted intermingling colourful flowers and edibles; delicately wafting in the breeze but their history has more practical origins.
The first cottage gardens were not created to be aesthetically beautiful but were actually grown for survival. People were growing their medicine cabinet outside their front door.
The first record of a cottage garden was around 1349. It was a time of great change. In England round 70% of the population died from the bubonic plague. Survivors escaped mass communities and learned to live self-sufficiently from the land.
People could not travel far to seek medical attention so had to create a first aid kit in their own garden. Plants were foraged, dug up, transplanted and shared.
Over the next 700 years cottage gardens evolved. Edibles and ornamentals grew side-by-side. The densely packed, rustic planting attracted wildlife, produced food, reduced the need to travel and saved money.
Although we need not worry about such extreme measures now, the recent lockdown has reiterated the importance of gardening. Many of the everyday plants in our gardens have hidden talents and healing properties, which can benefit our health.
Our gardens are not just places of floral beautiful but they are also nature’s first aid kit and for centuries have healed us humans of all manner of ailments. The more we discover about the power of plants the more fascinating and purposeful plants become.
Here are some easy-to-grow popular plants, which possess remarkable talents.
Thymus vulgaris, Thyme
Thyme was a symbol of courage to ancient Greeks. Its antiseptic quality was used as incense for public places such as theatres. Packed with vitamin C and A, thyme is a natural cold remedy and can soothe sore throats, coughs and bronchitis.
Rubbing the herb between your fingers releases its essential oils, which can repel mosquitoes and make a disinfectant!
Thyme has been proven to positively boost wellbeing so have a whiff if your spirit needs lifting.
Achillea millefolium, Yarrow
Legend has it that Greek hero Achilles healed his warriors with yarrow in the Trojan War so the name ‘Soldiers Woundwort’ stuck. As nature’s anti-inflammatory and antiseptic, yarrow ointment has been used to heal open wounds, fever, toothache and constipation and yarrow tea was used to sooth colds and chest complaints.
Yarrow’s old English self-explanatory common name was Nosebleed!
Lavendula angustifolia, Lavender
Lavender has been used medicinally since ancient times and most commonly in aromatherapy. The essential oil of this multipurpose shrub promotes calm and wellbeing, reduces anxiety and stress. Its uplifting properties help with depression and mental health issues, relieve headaches and nausea and its antibacterial qualities soothe insect bites and minor burns.
Insomnia? Place a lavender bag or dab a couple of drops of lavender oil on your pillow for a restful night’s sleep.
Used in an array of beauty products, from skin creams, balms and soaps, it is antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, and even edible, Lavender truly is a multi-use superhero of the plant world!
Salvia officinalis, Sage
Salvia comes from the Latin word salvere, to be saved.
It was introduced to the UK by the Romans and used by the ancient Greeks as a soothing lotion for sunburn; its antiseptic, cooling properties help draw out the heat.
The volatile oils in sage leaves were historically used to treat throats and mouth infections, digestion and to disinfect wounds. Inhale the scent of the crushed leaves to sharpen memory and focus thoughts, keep a posy by your workspace to keep yourself motivated.
Calendula officinalis, Pot Marigold
Grown since ancient times calendula holds a plethora of medicinal properties. Its oil has antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and can be used to sooth skin conditions such as eczema, acne, rashes and wounds. Fresh or dried petals can be made into a poultice, tea or infused oil and is also a core ingredient of many skin products such as soaps, lotions and balms.
Cichorium intybus, Chicory
A mass of green stems are littered with bright blue stars that close in the afternoon or when rain is due but flowers continuously from July to September. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans prized chicory and from the 17th century the root was ground and roasted as a coffee substitute. It was used as a mild diuretic and laxative. Chicory has been used to treat kidney and gallstones, liver and urinary disorders.
The list of healing plants is endless and if you look around your garden you will probably be surprised just how many beneficial plants you find. But always consult your GP for any advice regarding medical issues and be sure of an accurate identification of any herb you intend to eat or use as a healing aid.
Historically gardeners used crushed sempervivum, houseleek on insect bites, stopped nettle stings itching with dock leaves and drank nettle tea as a blood purifier. Lady’s mantle tea was used to treat acne, bruises, digestion complaints, menstrual pains and the menopause. A poultice of crushed comfrey leaves was used to alleviate bruising and sprains and to make a healing tea to treat colds and bronchitis.
A poultice of crushed antiseptic leaves of feline favourite Nepeta cataria, catmint was used to reduce the inflammation of sores and boils. This sun-loving perennial was also used as a tea to reduce fevers, headaches and calm nerves whereas Echinacea angustifolia still is a popular herbal remedy to boost our immune systems.
Lemon balm infused tea can sooth tension. Ancient Greeks believed it promoted long life and it was used in the Middle Ages to dress sword wounds. This may not be a requirement for modern times but handy to know if you come a cropper pruning spikey shrubs!