Medicinal Herbs for the Northern Gardener

Every year I get a number of inquires from Minnesotans who want to plant a medicinal  herb garden.   Of course, you could plant any medicinal plant in the garden…Burdock, Stinging Nettle, Motherwort.  I have known herbal enthusiasts who have, in fact, intentionally invited the weedy herbs into their home landscapes.  You could also plant any number of attractive native and naturalized wildflowers in your garden as well, that would be handsome additions to a naturalistic garden like Monarda, Goldenrod  and  Yarrow among others.

As a wildcrafter and medicine maker, my opinion has always been why plant herbs that you can find for free and with very little effort?  Yarrow and Goldenrod and Monarda and many others thrive everywhere in the city and the countryside.  And as for the weedy ones, well, they will invite themselves to any garden party that doesn’t involve herbicide.

The following is a list of medicinal herbs for the gardener who doesn’t have 10 acres to plant a prairie and who is able or willing to seek out resources and teachers to learn to identify the common weedy and wild medicinal plants. This list is an  exploration of  the classic garden herbs, those culinary and medicinal plants that don’t grow in the wild. These are the plants who are intimately dependent on humans for their cultivation. They have evolved with our assistance and to be in our space. Most of these herbs happen to come from the European herbal tradition, they are highly useful, easygoing with respect to growing conditions, often tolerant of poor soil and with low watering requirements.   A few set seed rather exuberantly, but for the most part they are a pretty well behaved bunch.  You can add these plants to your garden and have a fantastic, self-sustaining source of organic herbs for your healing work.

Note: I’ve listed some common medicinal uses for these plants, but if you are new to herbal medicine, make sure you do some research and take some classes.  You’ll want to know the part used, when to harvest it, what to use it for and any relevant information about safety and contraindications. You can check my classes and workshop section for herbal education available in the Twin Cities area.

Herbs for the Sunny Garden

Borage (Borago officinalis)  Borage  is a classic garden herb.  boast a thick stem and big fuzzy, prickly leaves and lovely true  blue flowers that look like stars looking down at the earth.  This plant thrives in the rich soil of my vegetable garden.  It’s an annual and like most annuals it sets seed very successfully. If you have planted Borage once you will never have to plant it again.  Uses:  culinary as leaves and stalk and flower in salads, syrups, jams, stews, pestos. It has a crisp, fresh cumber like flavor.  Here’s a great post  (and here)with recipes. As a medicinal Borage is cooling and moistening and used for hot, dry upper respiratory conditions, as a soothing nervine for stressed out, overworked individuals and people with the modern affliction of adrenal fatigue.  It’s also galactogogue and is traditionally used to increase breastmilk production.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis) Calendula is a lovely annual for the herb garden. It’s yellow or orange daisy like flower heads add a burst of sunny color. It’s an exuberant self-sower, if you let a few go to seed each year you will have a self-sustaining patch.  The root word calend, as in calender, refers to the fact that this plant blooms for many, many months, from June until the snow falls.  In fact, there have been a number of years where my children and I have used the golden blossoms to decorate our snowmen. Like many annuals, Calendula tolerates dry, poor soil, but appreciates deadheading.  Uses:   immune stimulant, swollen glands, depression, externally for wounds, infections and first aid.

calendula officinalis

Chamomile There are many species of Chamomile, including several wild ones.  At some point I planted both Roman and German chamomile in my garden.  I have an exuberantly self-seeding batch and I know longer know which is which. Chamomile loves the sun and it reproduces wildly.  Luckily for the gardener it is  easy to pull out unwanted seedlings.  While it’s not an especially beautiful garden plant (it’s a little messy and rangy) it is one of the most useful and beloved medicinal herbs around the world.   Uses: in tea, tinctures, herbal baths, compresses, eye washes etc.  gentle nervine, promotes relaxation and sleep,digestive aid,  for colic, stomach upset, teething and associated crankiness in babies and toddlers, excellent for eye infections, anti-histiminic action, useful for seasonal allergies.

Hops  (Hummulus lupus)  Hops is not for those with a tiny space or those who can’t tolerate spreading behavior in plants.  Hops is an herb bent on world domination, but if you have a spot for it and don’t mind ripping out some of the creeping runners each year, it’s a fantastic vine for the home herbal landscape. In the upper midwest it dies back to the ground each year but puts out fantastic growth each spring and summer. In late summer hops produces soft, fragrant and distinctive cones which are used in herbal medicine. Uses:  brewing, insomnia, galactogogue (increase breastmilk), hormonal imbalances, menopasuse dream pillows.

Lavender  (Lavandula spp.) There are a lot of varieties of Lavender on the market these days.  Not all are hardy in the upper midwest.  Plant your lavender near the foundation with southern exposure. Notwithstanding Lavender’s trouble surviving the deep freeze, it’s one of the most carefree herbs you can plant.  It  thrives with virtually no care and puts out a profusion of beautiful fragrant blossoms well into the first weeks of fall.  Uses: dried for baths, potpurri, cooking (delicious in desserts),  externally for burns and wound healing, as tea or tincture for headaches, stress, insomnia, PMS.

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)  Lemon Balm is a non-descript mint.  Like most mints it requires little fuss to thrive in the garden.  The bright green leaves have a strong lemon scent.  Lemon Balm sets seed exuburantly, but is considerably easier to rip out than other more aggressive mints.  Uses:  insomnia, anxiety, heart palpitations from anxiety, stomach aches from anxiety, sadness and melancholy, topical use for cold sores, herpes and related viral conditions.

Sage (Salvia officinalis)  I think if I only had room for one plant it might be sage.  Those soft, slightly sticky silverish leaves, those pretty purple flowers, that beautiful aroma…..mmmm.  Sage is also a workhorse in the garden.  It’s a hardy plant that looks great and can be harvested until the ground freezes.  I have mine in full sun, in the rich soil of the vegetable garden.  Uses:  culinary spice, aids in digestion especially of fats and oils, wonderful tea for sore throats, strep and swollen tonsils, menopausal hot flashes and night sweats, anti-galactogogue.

Thyme  (Thymus vulgaris)  Thyme is an attractive, fragrant groundcover. It’s not too fussy about growing requirements either.  I have various Thymes all over the yard and garden in all sorts of conditions from the rich soil in the sunny vegetable garden, to mostly shade and part shade with dry soil, it does well everywhere I put it.  Uses:  culinary, a warming herb for coughs and colds, upper respiratory conditions, cold hands and feet.

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis).  Valerian is a sturdy, tall garden herb that requires no staking. It’s pale pink-purple flowers are very fragrant and attract bees and beneficial insects. In my garden it grows in full sun.  Valerian reproduces by seed.  Valerian Root is famous as one of the best herbal sedatives and is widely used for insomnia and as a nervine.

For the Shade

Agrimony  (Agrimonia eupatorium) There are three species of Agrimony that are naturalized in Minnesota. Agrimonia eupatorium is also traditionally a garden plant. This perennial member of the rose family thrives in part shade. The foliage  and the spikes of yellow blossoms are very attractive.  This plant creates large seeds that stick to clothing and pets, sort of like mini burdock seed heads. It reproduces by seed very successfully.  I sometimes have to pull these out of the grass. Uses:  a wonderful nervine for tension, worry and anxiety.  Agrimony is also used for the kidneys and urinary tract and as an herbalist I sometimes recommend it for people with frequent night waking for urination or bed wetting in children.

An Agrimony flower head near a hosta in my part to mostly shade MN garden

An Agrimony flower head near a hosta in my part to mostly shade MN garden

Black Cohosh  (Actaea racemosa) Black Cohosh is not a classic European garden herb; it’s an exquisite native wildflower. Due to habitat destruction Black Cohosh is considered “at risk” by the United Plant Savers.  It is believed to be completely extirpated (the plant person’s word for extinct) in a couple of states where it once grew and in peril in a variety of other states. It’s unlikely that you will find Black Cohosh wild in Minnesota (in fact, it may never have been native here) but it makes a great addition to the shade garden. It’s a handsome tall perennial that requires no staking and although, most sources say that it grows in moist, rich woodlands, I find it thrives in the  dry shaded corner of my urban garden. Not only can you grow it for harvest but it’s an attractive tall addition to the dry shade garden.  Uses: The root is the part used for headaches, migraines, whiplash injuries, hot flashes, PMS, menstrual cramps and other hormonal imbalances and in childbirth under the guidance of a skilled midwife or herbalist.

Lady’s Mantle(Alchemilla vulgaris) This is a real little beauty that would be welcome in any garden. Lady’s Mantle is a small mounding perennial with beautiful pleated leaves that catch the dew and the sparkly drops remain on the leaves into the midday.  The flowers are lime green and modest, blending in with the foliage.  Lady’s Mantle does set seed but in a rather restrained and welcome way. Lady’s Mantle tolerates full sun to mostly shade and is relatively care free.  Both leaves and the root have been used medicinally. Common medicinal uses:  astringent, uterine tonic, urinary tract, perimenopause and menopausal symptoms.

Solomon’s Seal  (Polygonatum biflorum)  Solomon’s Seal exists in the wild, both in the city and in the forest,  but it is so wonderful in the garden that many gardeners include it in the home landscape. It perfectly thrives in that cursed space–the dry shade.  Solomon’s Seal has thick, lily like leaves that are borne on a graceful, arching stem.  Creamy, white, bell-shaped blooms from the underside of the leaves and give way to a blue berry.  It is grown primarily for the foliage as the flowers are not really show stoppers.   It reproduces by spreading rhizome and seed.  Uses: Solomon’s Seal is wonderful for joints, tendons and ligaments.  Use it for arthritis, repetitive stress injuries, sports injuries and more.  It is also a wonderful moistening agent and related species are used in TCM for various issues of aging.

Wood Betony (Stachys officinalis) Wood Betony is a diminutive plant in the mint family.  It forms a small clump, unlike many of it’s relatives it spreads very slowly, in fact, I wish it spread more!   It thrives in the shade and is virtually care free. Clusters of lavender colored flowers are born upon slender stems up above the leaves. The bees love the Wood Betony flowers.  Wood Betony was the herb to have in the Middle Ages when it was considered a virtual panacea.  Uses:  tension, anxiety, depression, has a grounding influence on the psyche and is also used for headaches and stomach upset.  The leaves are the part used in medicine.

Shrubs and Trees

You may have a medicinal tree on your property already and not even know it.  Common boulevard trees like Linden, Ginkgo, Black Walnut,  Northern White Cedar/Arboervitae, White and Bur Oak have many medicinal uses.  Another medicinal small tree, Sumac, is naturalized all over the midwest.  If you live in the countryside you can like find lots of medicinal Prickly Ash, Wild Cherry Bark and Trembling Aspen.

Do you have room for a medicinal shrub or tree? There are two great choices that are both beautiful and functional.

Elder(Sambucus nigra) If you love naturalized landscapes, birds, or herbal medicine Elder is a great shrub to plant in your yard.  Elder bushes are cane-bearing shrubs that spread by suckering.  While they will tolerate some shade, they thrive in the sun.  In their native habitat they are often along the banks of lakes, ponds or streams or in the ditch.  They do benefit from supplemental watering during dry spells.  They are about as high or a bit higher than your average adult. In June they boast big, beautiful clusters of creamy white blossoms.  In late summer the blossoms give way to deep purple clusters of berries. This little shrub seems to droop with heavy fruit.  Uses:  blossoms: the classic children’s fever remedy,  upper respiratory infections, ear aches, an when constitutionally indicated elder blossoms are also helpful in eczema, asthma, ADHD and women’s health concerns like fibroids or endometriosis.  Berries:  jams, cordials, jellies and other culinary uses,  traditional remedy for colds, fevers and flu, anti-viral, immune stimulant.

elder 3

Viburnums (V.  opulus or V. trilobum) We herbalists often call these shrubs Cramp Bark, evoking the uses of the plant in medicine.  Gardeners may call them High Bush Cranberry, American High Bush Cranberry or Guelder Rose.  The Viburnum genus suffers from some naming confusion.    The “official”  medicinal is V. opulus.  In my garden I have a lovely Viburnum trilobum, one of the native species, which I use interchangeably.   It’s a gogeous shrub with a vase like shape. The leaves are maple like and the flower clusters look like hydrangeas. The flowers give way to clusters of bright red berries.   It doesn’t like to be dry for extended periods and does require supplemental watering when the rain is infrequent. Uses:  The berries are edible in small servings, but they are pretty tart and have a large seed.  The bark is used for menstrual cramps and works fantastically!  Cramp Bark is also used for threatened miscarriage, afterpains, large muscle cramps like leg cramps and is slightly hypotensive (lowers blood pressure).

IMG_0491

Sources for plants and seeds:

Horizon Herbs  You can get the seeds for just about any medicinal plant from this Oregon company. They also sell and ship some bare roots.

Friend’s School Plant Sale  This annual fundraising sale for the Friend’s School takes place in St. Paul every May.  Plants are affordable and well labelled and they offer a wide variety of culinary and medicinal herbs and native wildflowers.

Co-op Plant Sales:   Many (perhaps most) of the local natural foods co-ops have plant sales.  While you may not be able to get hundreds of different herbs, these sales are a safe bet for Thyme, Sage, Lavender, often Calendula, Borage, Lemon Balm…maybe more.

Divide, trade, share with other herbal enthusiasts. You can connect with other local plant enthusiasts at the North Country Herbalist Guild. 

Did I leave out your favorite medicinal plant for the garden that grows in the upper midwest.  Please tell us about it in the comments section.

Happy gardening!

7 thoughts on “Medicinal Herbs for the Northern Gardener

  1. Hi, Erin, I’m so happy to read this post! I started some seeds this winter to begin a medicinal herb garden. I was surprised to read that viburnum and cramp bark are the same. Definite naming confusion! Do you have a schedule yet for classes this spring and summer?

    • Yes, there is a lot of confusion about the common names of the Viburnum genus.

      Cheat sheet: V. opulus (European species, sometimes naturalized in MN) typically called Cramp Bark by herbalists. May be called Guelder Rose or High Bush Cranberry in the garden world.

      V. prunifolium (grows in Southern U.S. not in MN) typically called Black Haw by herbalists

      V. trilobum (native MN species) typically called High Bush Cranberry or Northern High Bush Cranberry. I grow this species and use it as medicine in place of V. opulus.

    • No, I transplanted mine from an abandoned community garden that was going to be turned into a football field. It was looking pretty sad at first. It appeared to die. I just kept watering it all summer long and the next year it came back from the roots. There are a lot of places online where you can buy and have shipped to you bare roots of elderberry for planting. A lot of local nurseries sell elder plants but often they are highly bred ornamentals with burgundy foilage or pink flowers. As an herbalist, I prefer the traditional kind.

  2. I’m intrigued with what I’m reading about elecampane (Inula helenium), which seemingly grows tall in shady locations, and can be propagated by root division in the spring. I wonder if any is available in the Twin Cities area?

    • Pete, Elecampane is a wonderful remedy! It’s one of my favorites for colds, coughs and sinus infections especially when there is postnasal drip, irritated stomach and green, infected mucus.

      Several years ago I planted one seedling and it didn’t survive (probably I got busy and neglected it). Last year I got a large plant from a fellow herbaist in Minneapolis and planted it and it is back this year and looking fine. I don’t have enough experience growing it to include it in my list.

      You might head over to the facebook group Greenways Guerilla Herbalist Club and ask to join. It’s our local facebook group for all herbalists, practitioners, students and herb enthusiasts. Questions are welcome; lots of people are looking for certain plants or sometimes giving away seedlings. Good luck!

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