Homesteaders will tout the many health benefits of their lifestyle including fresh air, sunshine, and healthy food straight from the garden. Another, sometimes overlooked, benefit is the herbal medicine you can grow or forage yourself. Although serious, life-threatening medical issues should always be checked out by a medical professional, everyday cuts and scrapes, stuffy noses and coughs, or even stress can be handled successfully at home with old-fashioned herbal medicine.
Herbal medicine can seem intimidating, but the remedies are broken into the general categories of adaptogens, aromatics, astringents, bitters, nervines, carminatives, diaphoretics, emollients, expectorants, and tonics. Several herbs are in multiple categories so, to make things simpler for the beginner or busy homesteader, it is best to think about the health issues that are common to your household. If your family is prone to the flu, those are the herbs you need to know and grow.
Most herbs can be enjoyed as tea. This is the mildest remedy and, generally speaking, you can enjoy as many cups of tea as you want. A secondary benefit of taking your medicine as tea is that you are also drinking water. Basic hydration can in itself solve a multitude of health problems. To make tea with fresh herbs, put a handful of clean herbs in a pot. Pour boiling water over the herbs, cover, and let steep for 3-5 minutes. Add honey to taste.
Adaptogens are herbs that can be used regularly to help us handle stress. These herbs can be either stimulating or relaxing, but all adaptogens work to support the body as a whole. Some of the more common adaptogens include ashwagandha, chamomile, both American and Asian ginseng, and rhodiola. Chamomile, ashwagandha, and rhodiola are relatively easy to grow. Chamomile is the simplest to prepare, and ashwagandha and rhodiola are high-value crops that will do well at farmers’ markets.
To make chamomile tea, you use the flowers, but to use ashwagandha you need to use the dried root. Simply harvest the roots, wash and cut them into small pieces, and place them in a dehydrator or your oven with the pilot light on. The root will become very brittle when completely dried. To make a simple ashwagandha tea, you can simmer one teaspoon of the dried root in one cup of water for 20-40 minutes, depending on the strength desired. Using a coffee grinder, you can also powder the roots and combine them with other herbs such as ginger or cinnamon.
Aromatics have strong aromas and are the foundation for aromatherapy. Taken internally, they provide relief and support for the digestive, reproductive, and respiratory tracts. Aromatics include angelica, cardamom, fennel, ginger, peppermint, and rosemary.
Astringents dry or shrink tissue and can be used either topically (for splinters) or internally, to tone mucous membranes and dry up excess phlegm. Astringents include agrimony, blackberry root, and leaf, green or black tea, rose, witch hazel leaf and bark, and yarrow.
Bitters are not very tasty, as their name implies, and are most often used in a tincture. Just a drop or two on the tip of the tongue is enough to encourage the production of gastric juices which stimulate appetite and digestion. Artichoke, dandelion, gentian, and orange peel are good bitters. Tinctures are the strongest form of herbal medicine. A tincture is a concentrated distillation of herbs, usually in 80-100 proof alcohol. If you are avoiding alcohol, you can make tinctures with glycerin. For information, including recipes, read How to Make Herbal Tinctures.
Nervines are a category of herbs that supports the nervous system. These herbs help with worry and are also good for the occasional sleepless night. Chamomile, California poppy, hops, and lavender are gentle nervines to try.
Carminatives are herbs that aid digestion and reduce or prevent gas. You can add them to food or herbal tea. Excellent carminatives include angelica, anise, caraway, chamomile, fennel, ginger, and peppermint.
Diaphoretics help raise your body temperature to make you sweat, stimulating circulation. They also cool the body through increased perspiration. This is the category of herbs you turn to for fevers. The herbs include cayenne, elderflowers, garlic, ginger, linden, and yarrow.
Emollients are to be used externally for wounds and burns. For information on the benefits and preventative uses of herbal-based skincare, I recommend reading Grow an Herbal Skincare Garden: 7 Easy-to-Grow Herbs for Skincare.
Emollients, such as aloe vera, chickweed, comfrey, marshmallow, and violet, are used topically to soothe and protect skin. These herbs can be added to a salve, lotion, or handmade soap. As you already know, aloe vera can be split open and applied directly on a scrape or burn. A comfrey poultice immediately relieves some of the pain of a bad scrape or sunburn. Comfrey contains allantoin, a substance that helps the formation of new skin cells while reducing inflammation. To make the poultice, roughly chop a handful of large comfrey leaves and mix in the blender with a half cup of water until you have a liquid. Add ¼ – ½ cup of flour and blend until you have a paste. Fold a clean dishtowel or cheesecloth in half lengthwise and spread the comfrey paste on the cloth. Apply to the affected area and secure the poultice with an ace bandage.
Oxymels (made with vinegar, herbs, and honey) and syrups are the next steps up in herbal remedies. You can find a lot of good information about oxymels, including how to make them here: Making Oxymels: The Sweet-Tart Medicine. Expectorants encourage productive coughing. You can make cough syrups or oxymels with elecampane, horehound, licorice root, slippery elm, or violet leaf. It is worth the effort to buy raw honey from a local beekeeper, as raw honey that is local to your area is extra beneficial for seasonal allergies.
Finally, tonics are nutritive herbs that can be consumed daily to keep your body systems strong and healthy. Dandelion, hawthorn, milk thistle seed, moringa, and nettle leaf are all excellent tonic herbs.
Growing, harvesting, and using herbs on your homestead for medicinal purposes is not as difficult as you may have thought. In addition to the healing properties of herbs, it is a good feeling to know you have the resources to care for yourself and your family when they are under the weather.