Planting the Healing Garden: Medicinal Herbs

Lavender fields image courtesy Oregon Lavender Festival website,

Lavender fields image courtesy Oregon Lavender Festival website,

One of the most frequently-asked questions at the Therapeutic Landscapes Network is about what grows in a healing garden. Many people assume that a “therapeutic landscape” is a garden filled with herbs grown and harvested for their medicinal properties – in essence, that the healing comes from the plants in the garden. And this is certainly true some of the time (for a more thorough explanation about and definition of healing gardens, therapeutic landscapes, and landscapes for health, see this post and this post). More often, though, a healing garden is simply a garden filled with plants; research has shown that the more heavily planted a garden is, the more restorative it will be. The type of plant seems to be less important, though a variety of flora that stimulates the senses is a good start.

That said, many healing gardens contain at least some medicinal herbs, which are grown for a variety reasons: Their scent, or texture, or aesthetic qualities, or for their symbolism (for example, Topher Delaney designed the Carolyn S. Stolman Healing Garden at the Avon Foundation Breast Center in San Francisco, CA with plants that were traditionally used to treat cancer). Are they always harvested, processed, and used for salutary purposes? Nope. The fact is that especially in a healthcare setting, there often isn’t time or knowledge or the right equipment for, say, distilling Echinacea flowers into the tincture that you would use to boost the immune system. Are they beautiful, native, easy-to-maintain flowers that attract butterflies and symbolize health? Absolutely! Do they get harvested to ward off the common cold? Not usually.

The wonderful thing about herbs is their versatility. Lavender, for example, is easy to grow; drought tolerant; beautiful; attracts honeybees; smells wonderful; and is easy to harvest for a variety of uses, including in tea, cooking, baking, and potpourri. Lavender is known for its calming properties, and, if distilled in a tincture, is an excellent anti-bacterial disinfectant.

Some other reasons to grow herbs:

1. Herbs are great for children’s gardens because they tend to be easy to grow and are a delight to the senses.

2. Many herbs do well in containers and small spaces, as they don’t take up much space and often need less water than other annuals or perennials. For many years, the only gardens I had were herb gardens in pots on steps or front porches.

3. To the delight of gardeners with deer, rabbits, and other ravenous garden invaders, many herbs are not attractive for nibbling. In fact, sometimes they can even act as a deterrent and a “mask” for other more inviting flora.

4. Herbs often do “double duty” as culinary and medicinal herbs. If you have a kitchen garden, you may already be growing medicinal herbs: Rosemary improves memory and circulation and relieves sore throats and gums; peppermint aids digestion and treats sore throats, colds, and toothaches; parsley cures urinary tract infections and also helps to alleviate bad breath; marjoram treats tonsillitis, asthma, and bronchitis; thyme is used to treat gastrointestinal problems as well as sore throats and coughs; lemon balm is calming; basil reduces fever, lowers blood pressure, and is also an analgesic.

Sometimes you don’t even have to grow medicinal herbs – you can simply find them in your backyard or woods; those dandelions and pursane plants that are “ruining” your lawn? Think of them (or better yet, use them!) as medicinal herbs and/or delicious, nutritious greens and maybe your grass will look greener on this side (who needs a full-blown victory garden when you can just graze from your weedy lawn, right?). Worried about the stinging nettle at the edge of the garden? Harvest it – carefully! – to treat a whole slew of ailments, as well as for delicious meals like nettle soup.

With any herb, a little research may be needed to find out what part of the plant to use and how to prepare it for use in an herbal remedy. Sometimes it’s as simple as harvesting the flowers (chamomile, lavender) or leaves (lemon balm, peppermint) and making tea, other times preparation may be a bit more complex.

There are so many good books and websites about medicinal herbs, but here are a few resources that we list on the Therapeutic Landscapes Network. If you know of a great book, website, organization, or garden as resource about medicinal herbs, please share it with us! We will gladly add it. We are also looking for more examples of healthcare gardens and horticultural therapy programs that use specific plant material, including medicinal herbs. Use the comments section at the end of this post to submit suggestions, ideas, and information.

To get you started, here’s a nice article from about common medicinal herbs that are easy to grow, harvest, and use.

And here are a few fairly comprehensive websites to bookmark as references:

Herbs to Herbs

Plants for a Future (Includes a 7,000 plant database for US and UK, and they have a book, too. Very impressive!)

Traditional Chinese Medicine Database System

The University of Washington Medicinal Herb Garden

And thanks to WMassHerbGarden on twitter for this recommendation: Growing 101 Herbs That Heal.