Introductory Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. Use medicinal herbs under direction from your own doctor and with your own discretion. Always do your research before taking any medication, herbal or otherwise.
Does the world as it sits right now have you feeling overwhelmed and more than a little nervous about the future? Maybe you’re prepping like crazy, putting back food and water. Maybe you’re rearranging your investments and starting some of the projects you’ve been wanting to do for years.
In all of your preparation, have you made considerations for what you will do if modern medicine takes a nosedive? If cold and flu season ends up being much more problematic than it has ever been? What if you can’t find painkillers or cold medicine at the stores anymore? What if the pharmacy doesn’t exist in a future world?
Enter the medicinal herb garden. Often talked about as an alternative to modern prescription drugs, this is not a new topic to today’s prepper. Maybe when you think about medicinal herbs you conjure whimsical images of cottage gardens with neatly labeled herbs, shrubs, and trees. Or do you picture a romp through the woods gathering the herbs you need for your newest brew?
While there is nothing wrong with an apothecary-esque garden or a foraging expedition, the goal of this article is to place medicinal herbs in the spotlight as specimen plantings and feature plants of your front yard. The herbs, plants, and trees I suggest here will be powerful medicine for you and your family and are beautiful enough to sneak into even the most limited of spaces.
A Word of Encouragement for the Beginner
When I first heard about medicinal herbs, the first emotion I felt was fear. I’m not joking. My brain had a physical reaction to that combination of words because over the span of my lifetime there were subtle warnings. “DANGER!” “NOT APPROVED BY THE FDA.” “ALWAYS SEEK APPROVAL FROM YOUR DOCTOR BEFORE TAKING ANY HERBAL SUPPLEMENT.”
There is even a disclaimer at the top of this article, but I’m telling you right now, that is there because it has to be there, on the advice of attorneys. I don’t want any one of the people reading this to go out and drink 2 gallons of elderberry syrup, proceed to throw up, and sue the pants off me. I believe the general population is smarter than that.
The collection of warnings from bureaucrats made me feel like I needed a Ph.D. in pharmacology to even think about tinkering around with herbs for medicine. But, I’m here to encourage you. Don’t be afraid! While it is always smart to use caution when trying something new, it is insanely unlikely that taking herbs will harm you to the extent that you are made to believe.
Many beginners are afraid that you will take these herbal medicines and immediately drop dead from a heart attack. Or poison yourself unknowingly. Or start singing “Kumbaya” with the spirits of your ancestors. No. These are all a response to the same signals I have been getting my whole life from big pharma and the government at large. Have you ever read the fine print on the over-the-counter (OTC) drugs you take on a daily basis? Most modern medicines have a way higher likelihood of causing unwanted side effects than herbs do.
We have been programmed to shy away from a sustainable way to care for our everyday medical needs and depend on a system that makes a lot of money from us being sick. How much money do you think would be lost if a whole population of people discovered how to care for their basic medical needs? I’ll leave it at that.
A wise practice when you are first starting to look at herbal medicine is to start slowly. Find the herbs that are considered safe for all age groups and go from there. When trying an herbal recipe for the first time, start slowly. Use only a small dosage to see how your body reacts. Your body is a very unique thing, and your personal experience will differ from everybody else’s.
I made sure to include only herbs in this article that the beginner can feel safe starting with. This collection is highly researched even within the medical community, and all of the herbs here have been proven to have little to no side effects for most people. So beginners, proceed with confidence!
Take heart, start slowly, and know that it is going to be okay.
Hawthorn (Crataegus viridis)
This stunning tree has many varieties available for nearly any growing zone from a chilly zone 3 all the way to zone 8. Find your growing zone here. My favorite variety for the landscape is the “Winter King” green hawthorn, which is a smaller variety of hawthorn, only growing 20-35 feet tall with a lovely rounded shape.
It erupts in white flowers mid-May after leaves have emerged, and develops small red berries that ripen in September. The bark is typically multi-colored with smaller thorns than many other varieties. In the fall, leaves will put on a show of deep red to purple. Another bonus for urban growers is the tolerance to air and road pollution.
Medicinally, the berries, leaves, and flowers can be used in teas or tinctures to help strengthen the heart. According to renowned herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, in her book Medicinal Herbs A Beginner’s Guide, hawthorn has been shown to dilate arteries and veins to increase circulation and release blockages. It helps strengthen the heart muscle and stabilize blood pressure, and has been used to treat heart disease, swelling related to water retention, and heart rhythm issues.
Many herbalists agree that taking hawthorn with modern heart medications is safe. While the physical healing attributes are incredible on their own, this herb also supports the mind when a person is suffering from grief and depression. Ms. Gladstar offers many useful recipes for these tonics and tinctures in her book.
Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea)
The balsam fir tree is easily recognizable because it is one of the top choices for Christmas tree production. What a fun way to grow your medicine! This symmetrical, pyramid-shaped evergreen tree is native to the U.S. and Canada. Balsam fir grows in zones 3-6 on well-drained soil in full sun to part shade.
Growing in the wild, it will reach a mature height of up to 90 ft, but for landscaping purposes can be sheared yearly to keep the tree at your desired height. Its needles grow ¾ to 1 ½ inches long and are dark green with silvery undersides. The cones are narrow and strikingly beautiful, starting as a deep purple color, and morphing to gray as they age.
Balsam fir can be used in an infusion, tea, tincture, or salve for a variety of purposes. A tea made from fresh needles is rich in vitamin C, and is a great way to support your body during times of illness. Its resin, which forms in patchy buildup on the bark of the trunk, helps heal the respiratory tract and can help soothe a sore throat. It is also a solid choice for a hard-to-kick cough and other issues of the lungs. One major benefit that this tree offers is the ability to help a person give up smoking by relieving withdrawal symptoms like irritability, constipation, and insomnia. A salve of balsam can be applied to help heal burns, wounds, or strained muscles.
Elder/Elderberry (Sambucus nigra and Sambucus canadensis)
The elderberry is a small tree or very large shrub that can grow from 10 to 30 ft tall, depending on species. It grows from zone 4-7 in well-drained, moist soil and full sun. Its prized white flowers grow in large clusters from 4-10 inches wide and bloom in late spring to midsummer. Following the flowers’ spectacular show is the development of small berries that ripen to a very deep purple, almost black coloration. Berries are held on pink to crimson stems that droop with the weight of the fruit.
There are two different types of elderberry, European (sambucus nigra) and American (sambucus canadensis). For higher yields of fruit, it is recommended to plant more than one variety of elderberry within 50 ft of each other for cross-pollination, especially for lower-producing European varieties. European varieties tend to be more ornamental, while American varieties are typically more heavy bearers of the medicinal berries. That being said, both are beautiful and worthwhile additions to any landscape.
For use as a medicine, the flowers and berries serve two different and distinct purposes. Elder flowers, harvested just as they are beginning to open, are used in teas and infusions to induce sweating and lower fevers. If you have children, this is a safe way to bring a fever down without the use of over-the-counter medication.
Elderberries are widely considered to be one of nature’s powerhouse medicines. They must be harvested at full ripeness, as dark as possible, to avoid any digestive discomfort. These little berries are known to prevent viruses from replicating and are used to treat influenza viruses, herpes, upper respiratory infections like the common cold, and shingles. During the C-word crisis of 2020, elderberry was widely used to help try to combat the pandemic virus. You couldn’t find the tinctures on the shelves then, and producers are just now catching up.
The berries are packed full of vitamin C and support the immune system and cellular health throughout the body. While some immune-stimulating herbs can cause problems with some autoimmune conditions, elderberry is generally regarded as safe and is tolerated quite well among people with preexisting autoimmune disorders.
Rose (Rosa canina, multiflora, and rugosa)
You would be hard-pressed to find any homeowners’ association or public land use group who would balk at the planting of roses because they are considered so traditionally beautiful. Roses come in a plethora of sizes, colors, and growing conditions and should be widely available to the homeowner. Rose petals as well as the red berries, known as rose hips, are used for medicine.
Some hybrid varieties have had the scent bred out of the flowers. When selecting a rose for medicinal use, try to find varieties that have a strong rose scent. Generally, the rugosa varieties bear larger and more prolific rose hips. So those would be a good choice if you are considering planting new bushes for your front yard pharmacy.
Rose petals are commonly used in beauty products such as face washes because they are gently drying to the skin and body. This is useful for all sorts of skin ailments such as eczema, acne, and skin rashes.
Rose water is a helpful wound wash for small areas of broken skin or a soothing topical treatment for burns. Internally, rose can be taken to help stop diarrhea, heal leaky gut conditions, and reduce inflammation of the digestive tract. The petals are also high in antioxidants and are delicious in a tea. Rose hips are well known for their high vitamin C content and ability to boost the function of the cardiovascular system.
Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
Witch hazel bushes are a great option for a winter interest specimen. They can grow up to 20 ft tall and wide, but may be pruned to retain a smaller shape. Growing from zones 3-9, they are widely versatile and can be grown in any well-drained soil in full sun to partial sun locations.
Witch hazel blooms in the fall, when most other plants’ flowers have long gone. During the spring and summer months, the bright green foliage is a nice filler for the background of your showier summer plantings, turning yellow and orange in the fall. The whimsical flowers are a stunning yellow color and look like spiders along the branches. They give off a spicy fragrance while in bloom.
Commonly found in grocery and drug stores bottled as a clear liquid, the bark, twigs, and leaves are used in medicine. The twigs and bark can be boiled in a tea that is useful for relieving all types of inflammation from sore throats to diarrhea. But the real anti-inflammatory properties are evident in the use as a hemorrhoid treatment and as a soak for sore bones, bruising, and for postpartum care.
Perennial Flowers and Greenery
Lavender (Lavandula officinalis andLavandula angustifolia)
Lavender is a hardy perennial herb that grows well in zones 5-8 in a sunny, warm location with well-drained soil. This herb is native to the Mediterranean and does well with somewhat sandy soil and a more alkaline PH.
Lavender grows 12-24 inches tall and wide and grows as a compact shrub with grassy, upright stems and flower spikes that produce a fragrant purple flower in summer. The flowers are most potent as a medicine when they are harvested just before opening. The foliage color is a grayish green that interacts well with other greenery and stands out in the border.
For centuries, lavender’s reputation as a calming, soothing agent has been widely accepted. Needing a break from the stressors of life? Used in a bath, lavender can relieve tension, stress, and insomnia. It is gentle enough to be used to bathe a new baby and is soothing to even the most sensitive skin. But, don’t be fooled by the gentle nature of this herb. It is a powerful antibacterial and antifungal, backed by clinical studies.
Lavender is used to treat viral and bacterial infections including staph, strep throat, colds, and flu. In the form of an essential oil, lavender can be used topically to treat fungal infections like ringworm and athlete’s foot, and it is useful for helping take the sting or itch out of a bug bite. A wound wash made of the tea can disinfect and heal wounds and burns. The tea can also be taken internally to soothe an upset stomach or spasms caused by Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome.
Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)
This absolute powerhouse of a plant is arguably one of the most unique and beautiful herbs you can grow in the front border. Growing from zones 3-8, it is a perfect replacement for wooly lamb’s ear because the sage coloring of the leaves is almost an exact duplicate of the widely used lamb’s ear.
Hardy and not particular about its growing conditions, mullein grows in a rosette shape, with each plant sending out a spiraling whorl of leaves. This biennial forms its rosette in the first year. The second year, it sends up a tall flower spike with multiple yellow flowers blooming along the stalk in midsummer. As a rosette it sinks to the background as a subtle, geometric presence, but in its second year takes a commanding lead with its tall flower spikes and tropical look.
Both leaves and flowers are used in medicine, with the leaf serving as a relaxing antispasmodic and expectorant. As such, it is used widely for deep respiratory issues and unrelenting coughs to bring up any mucus and infection and clear it from the body. Personally, I have used it with my young son who frequently gets respiratory infections which almost always turn into pneumonia. Since treating him with a tincture of mullein and marshmallow leaf, we have not yet had another cold turn into pneumonia. A great recipe for that tincture can be found at the Healing Harvest Homestead website.
Additionally, the leaf can be rolled and smoked to help relieve flare-ups of asthma. The flowers are combined with olive oil to make an ear oil that is used to heal ear infections related to upper respiratory infections.
Catnip (Nepeta cataria)
Catnip grows as a rounded, shrubby plant that can be up to 3 ft tall and wide. It grows from zones 3-9 and is an easy and abundant keeper, spreading easily by underground rhizomes to form a patch in just a few years.
The coloring of the leaves can be dark green to dusky gray and the small purple flowers it sends up throughout the spring and summer are fairly subtle. In the landscape, these would be useful for greenery and filler plants. Be careful with the variety you choose, though, because this member of the mint family has many species that can be invasive. If this is a concern where you garden, catnip plants look fantastic in pots as well as in the ground.
The reason I have included this herb, which some may consider “weedy,” is because of its wonderful ability to calm the nerves. Those same compounds within catnip that give your feline friends a “high” are also effective on the human nervous system as a powerful relaxant. A tea, tincture, or elixir of catnip can be most useful to children and adults alike to calm their nervous system and promote sleep for those struggling to fall asleep and stay asleep. The relaxing properties of catnip also allow the heat from a fever to escape, which is especially useful for bringing down a fever in children.
When it comes to preparedness and readying your homes and families for SHTF or TEOTWAWKI, it is important to consider your alternatives to modern pharmaceuticals and think about growing your own medicines. While this can certainly be done in a backyard herb garden or even using guerrilla gardening techniques, my proposal is that herbal medicine can become the focal point of your front yard garden beds and in doing so, can be hiding in plain sight. Whether you live on a 1,000 square foot lot in the city or a compound in the woods, I think all can benefit from these additions to your landscaping and can take you one step further to surviving and thriving no matter what comes your way.
The following are my favorite books for the beginning herbalist. They include uses of different herbs, recipes, and how-to guides for making tinctures, infusions, salves, and teas.
- Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs A Beginner’s Guide
- Herbal Medicine for Beginners
- The Herbal Apothecary