By Orna Izakson
Gardening is the world’s most popular and enduring recreational activity, feeding the spirit and the body, reducing dependence on the florist and the supermarket, and, when done organically, curtailing the use of toxic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Gardening feeds the senses with scent and color, and feeds the body with exercise, fresh air and the freshest—and therefore more vitamin-packed—foods.
But gardens can also feed your health in other ways: By growing your own medicine, you can reduce your trips to the doctor and pharmacist. Garden plants can help with everything from infections or insomnia to healing wounds and broken hearts. Best of all, you can grow these gems in a floriferous landscape that keeps the neighbors happy and boosts your property values.
Here is a small sample of the many flowers that do double duty in a vase and in your medicine cabinet:
Calendula (Calendula officinalis): These indefatigably cheery bright orange flowers are good for both the garden and the gardener. Like their marigold cousins, the plant deters pest insects.
Calendula’s sticky resin is superlative for healing wounds. Make a flower tea and use as a skin wash, or steep flowers in olive oil for two weeks and apply topically. Used internally, calendula combines well with drying herbs for respiratory infections. The dried flowers make a bright addition to wintertime teas—you can eat the whole flower as it floats around in your cup.
Even two or three plants will give more flowers than you can keep up with, self seeding prolifically to ensure your garden will always have their blooms. This annual plant is hardy to Zone 6, but may over-winter in warmer climates. Easy-going calendula tolerates many soil and sun conditions, but thrives in full sunlight.
Lavender (Lavandula spp.): Best known for its perfume, lavender is also a remarkably versatile medicine.
The chemicals that make lavender so wonderfully aromatic also make it a potent pathogen fighter. The name comes from the French word for washing; the earliest antimicrobial soaps were made with lavender. The flowers fight bacteria, viruses and fungi, and the essential oil helps heal wounds and burns.
Lavender is also deeply cheering in cases of sadness or mild depression. A hot cup of lavender tea, brought to you by a friend, is wonderful for alleviating a broken heart.
Cultivars of this mounding, Mediterranean perennial can grow larger than four feet high and wide. These sun lovers are hardy to Zone 5.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata, P. edulis, P. caerulea.): Fast-growing, vining passionflower is one of the best herbal medicines for promoting sleep without making you feel drugged. It also has been used for the pain of shingles.
The flowers of these prolific climbers look almost extraterrestrial. Depending on the species, passionflowers can be hardy to Zone 6, evergreen unless knocked back by a cold snap. The sprawling vines require support, growing as much as 18 feet in a year. Warm-climate gardeners may even get some of the delicious tropical fruit.
Roses (Rosa spp.): Roses raise the spirits, both for their beauty and their medicine. Possibly the world’s most famous garden flower, roses come in every imaginable form, from groundcovers less than a foot tall to ramblers that clamber up trees or power poles. So many cultivars means there’s a rose for almost every situation, whether you live in chilly Zone 2, have a fully shaded yard, or garden within spitting distance of saltwater.
The most famous rose medicine comes from the fruit, known as hips, which are high in cold-fighting and antioxidant vitamin C. Picked after they soften in the year’s first frost, fresh hips are dried for tea or used fresh in jams.
Rose leaves, flowers and buds also make excellent medicine, calming the nerves, easing indigestion, and acting as a mild astringent for skin wounds or sore throats.
Purple coneflower (Echinacea spp.): This native of the North American prairies is not only striking, but one of the best known medicinal plants—Echinacea. This sun-loving, hardy perennial grows from Manitoba to Texas, thriving down to Zone 3 and growing grander each year. The medicinal species (Echinacea purpurea, E. angustifolia and E. pallida) are covered with two-inch to three-inch flowers, each with a corona of pink or purple petals surrounding a prominent, spiky seed cone.
From root to flower, all parts of this plant are medicinal. In summer, one way to get coneflower’s medicine is by cutting the central cone in quarters and biting the soft inner part like an orange slice. Be careful at first: The medicinal constituents will zing your tongue like pins and needles.
Echinacea is thought to be an immunity booster, best taken as early as possible in the case of infection. Ideally, begin taking the tea or tincture when you think you might get sick.