Or the one where we contemplate growing our own drugs.
“We might think we are nurturing our garden, but really it is our garden that is nurturing us.” – Jenny Uglow.
As much as I love wildcrafting and spying out medicinally useful botanicals growing wild wherever I am, I do very much yearn for a garden of my own to be a custodian of. Amongst the strands of stories that weave themselves through my DNA, there’s the one about the holy man, or maybe it was a woman, who tended the garden in whatever sanctuary they found themselves in service to. This may or may not have actually happened, but I like to think that maybe, in some place, some time, it actually did.
(or maybe I’m just remembering the very beginning)
And of course, they had to be considered holy, set-apart for the work, whether a priest – or maybe a priestess, or a prophet – or maybe a prophetess, a monk or a nun, a druid or a shaman – because something sacred exists in the garden. These idioms of tangibles – of soil, and of trees, and flowers, and of fruits, and the great turning of the wheel of the Heavens, and the first and the latter rains, and of harvests, and from one new moon to the next, and of appointed times and seasons. Because it’s through these tangibles that the great mysteries of life are observed, and understood, and guarded.
And whether it is tropical or temperate, a garden, for many is paradise.
We can trace the word ‘paradise’ back to the original Persian word ‘pairidaeza’, meaning an enclosure, or a park. Over time as it travelled through the Greek and the Latin, and the French, it came to be synonymous with the Garden in Eden’ – an idyllic heaven-like abode of verdant abundance that was set-apart and protected. A holy place. A sacred sanctuary to relax, unwind, to be embraced by an abundance of earthly delights.
I think the term ‘sanctuary’ to describe a garden is fitting.
“A garden should make you feel like you’ve entered privileged space – a place not just set apart but reverberant – and it seems to me that, to achieve this, the gardener must put some kind of twist on the existing landscape, turn its prose into something nearer poetry.” (Michael Pollan)
As a history buff, and perhaps because the memories are entwined in my soul, I am fascinated with the phenomena of the Physic Garden. Although I suspect that the healing temples of Egypt and Greece & Rome and even the sacred groves of the Druids, the rainforest gardens of shamans, and many other traditional or ‘primitive’ societies all had their own versions, the concept of the Physic Garden grew with the monastic (& later university) subculture of medieval Europe. Most of the monasteries were isolated and remote, and so they needed to be self-sufficient. Vegetable gardens and orchards flourished within the confines of the monastic compound, but there was another garden that grew there meticulously and reverently tended – the physic garden. This Physic Garden met the healing needs of the monastery inhabitants, as well as the folk from the surrounding area. Some of these gardens have been preserved and maintained and people can visit them to this day. Chelsea Physic Garden is renown, and although not monastic in origin, was established in 1673 by the ‘Worshipful Society of Apothecaries’ as a teaching garden. (That is, back when the physicians and apothecaries used plant medicine). These gardens (monastic and university) are more of a European tradition, but worldwide there is a grassroots movement to bring the tradition alive again for all to enjoy.
“Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died” – Erma Bombeck
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve gypsied around with an ever-growing entourage of plants in pots – their own little mobile homes. One day, I keep promising them, we’ll have a real home where they can snuggle into good soil, stretch out their roots and lift up their arms and rejoice. In the meantime, however, they still provide the medicine that I and my family need, even if sometimes it’s just a balm for my soul. I currently have: Aloe, Calendula, Yarrow, Tulsi (Holy Basil), Violets, Black Currant, English daisies, Solomon’s Seal, self-seeded Chickweed, Dandelions, Houseleek, and Acerola Cherry, and I’m attempting to strike a cutting from a Persian Silk Tree. I’ve lost some along the way, including chamomile, nettles, passionflower, apothecary rose, and an elder that bonsai’d itself. Now that we are in a less bipolar climate zone, I will endeavour to bring these and other species back into the traveling roadshow again, although to be perfectly honest, as much as I think that one can have a perfectly decent physic garden in pots, I am aware of a nagging feeling in the recesses of my heart that keeping plants in pots is akin to keeping birds in cages. But I’ll tuck that away for now and keep promising my green companions that one day perhaps a garden home will manifest itself for them. (Maybe if I sell enough of my soon-to-be released eBook. Hint hint 😉 )
Building a physic garden for oneself or one’s family, or a community if you are fortunate enough, is fairly simple. You’ll need to figure out your particular climate zone, but most of the medicinal plants discussed below are fairly hardy and will grow in a range of climates, if their needs are met. Invite species that have multiple uses and meet a broad range of needs. The easiest way to do figure this out, in my pattern-way of thinking, is to match plants with the six tissue states that you will encounter. As a brief review, the ‘six tissue states’ model of illness refers to heat/excitation, cold/depression, damp/relaxation, damp/stagnation, dry/atrophy, wind/tension. These energetic patterns refer to the moisture, the tone, and the temperature of the tissue state in disease and its development and manifestation. For example, we would match the energetics in plants the following way;
Heat/excitation = plants that are cooling & sedating
Cold/depression = plants that are warming & stimulating
Damp/relaxation = plants that are drying and tonifying (astringent)
Damp/stagnation = plants that are drying and relaxing/stimulating
Dry/atrophy = plants that are moistening & nourishing
Wind/Tension = plants that are relaxing & bring balance.
Of course, some of these tissue states can overlap or lead to the development of others, for example a hot/irritated condition can lead to dry/atrophy because all the fluids are being burned up. Or tension in the body can lead to damp/stagnation, which can lead to dry/atrophy because there isn’t any movement of fluids. In much the same way, plants can also overlap in their energetics and therefore be useful for several different conditions. For example, marshmallow is cooling, moistening, & nourishing, so we could use it as a cold infusion for an irritating cough, a burning urinary tract infection, a dry stomach & to enhance hydration, or topically for a dry, itchy rash. Getting to know which plants exhibit which energetic patterns does require some personal knowledge of the plant, and this can be gained from books and herbal teachers but is more deeply internalised by sitting with the plant itself and letting it teach you. This may be achieved through growing it, observing where it likes to grow best, its seasonal patterns, and drinking it as a tea, and tasting it. Experiencing the plant with all of your senses is called Organolepsis and is one of the best ways to determine its energetic patterns.
Back to the garden…
Below is a list of herbs that you would find (and might want to consider when planning your own physic garden) to match each energetic pattern;
Heat/excitation – plants that are cooling and sedating are needed here, and the biggest collection is found in the Rose family. Rose (flowers & hips), Hawthorn, Crampbark, Peach, & Cherry. These plants are indicated when there is redness, a rapid pulse, a red pointed tongue, and heat. Other plants that cool and calm heat & irritation include Chamomile, Lemon Balm, and the berries. Elder flower and berries are cooling, the flowers cool fever by way of relaxing the pores of the skin & inducing perspiration. The dark coloured berries are particularly high in anti-oxidants which give a cooling and sedating effect. The bitter herbs such as the artemesias (Wormwood, Sweet Annie), Gentian, or the berberine containing plants such as Oregon grape and Golden Seal are also cooling, sedating, and drain fluids such as we might see in swelling & inflammation. Aloe and Marshmallow & cranberry highbush Hibiscus are also cooling (and moistening).
Cold/Depression – plants that are warming and stimulating are needed to balance this tissue state. Plants such as Cayenne (chilli peppers), Nasturtiums, Ginger, Cinnamon, Rosemary, Basil (culinary and Holy basil).
Damp/relaxation – plants needed here are drying & tonifying, these include the geraniums such as Herb Robert, Agrimony, Yarrow*,
Damp/Stagnation – plants needed for this tissue state need to move fluid & relax the tissues (if there is underlying tension). Herbs such as these we refer to as the ‘alteratives’ or ‘blood cleansers’ such as Burdock, Dandelion root, Cleavers, Nettles, Yellow Dock, Calendula, & Echinacea. Yarrow also has a place here, as it disperses heat & blood stagnation and stimulates circulation.
Dry/Atrophy – atrophy refers to a wasting away of tissue. Plants needed here are those that impart a nourishing and moistening quality such as Marshmallow (or mallows in general), Aloe, Liquorice, Burdock, Shatavari, Withania, Solomon’s Seal, Plantain (major and ribwort), Comfrey, and Calendula.
Wind/Tension – wind in this sense refers to a changeability of symptoms. Eg: constipation alternating with diarrhoea. Plants needed here are relaxing, or spasmolytic, and often they will also be tonifying. These include plants such as Agrimony, Wood Betony, Crampbark, Raspberry leaf, Wild Yam, Lobelia, Lavender, Peppermint, Chamomile, Lemon balm, and the warming ‘carminatives’ that we find in the kitchen spice rack – Cardamom, Cinnamon, Ginger, Cloves, & Fennel. California Poppy & Catnip along with the aforementioned chamomile are lovely calming & relaxing herbs for children. Passionflower, Hops, Valerian, Kava Kava, Mimosa (Persian Silk Tree), Skullcap, & St John’s Wort are all useful for this state as well.
If we apply these to the more common conditions that most of us encounter, we might begin to build our physic garden like this:
Seasonal Allergies & Hayfever: Usually typified by a hot/irritated, damp/relaxation tissue state. Useful plants to have growing here include: Nettles, Elder flowers, Eyebright, Liquorice.
Bruising: This is typically a damp/stagnation state, so Yarrow is particularly indicated. Or English daisies.
Burns: Aloe is your go-to companion here. Burdock is a close second (use the leaves). Lavender (to make a cooled lavender infusion to bathe the burn in) is also useful.
Colds, flu, & fever: For runny noses & watery eyes (damp/relaxation): chamomile, golden seal, elderflowers, eyebright, yarrow. Yarrow, elder & peppermint are a classic combination to make as a hot infusion and drink to help bring the cold or flu or fever to a peak, and thus providing relief. The elder berries, rosehips, and black currants are also good additions to helping boost vitamin C and anti-oxidants. Sage is also particularly helpful here.
Coughs: For dry, irritated coughs marshmallow, ribwort plantain, violets, or licorice are your friends. For damp, congested coughs, thyme, ginger, sage or rosemary. For spasmodic coughs, grow licorice, or once again thyme is useful (and also possesses anti-microbial properties). Peach leaf, or cherry bark are helpful for sedating a hot, dry, irritated cough -the type that keeps children awake at night.
Cuts, scrapes, grazes: For fresh cuts that are bleeding (damp/relaxation), yarrow is your friend. If the cut looks a bit red and puffy around the edges (damp/stagnation), use calendula and yarrow. Ribwort plantain is also useful here.
Fractures & broken bones: You’ll want comfrey in your garden for these situations. Obviously, the bones will need to be set first, but you can safely apply comfrey (or take as a tea for a very short time internally) to help the bones knit back together and speed recovery. If bruising and bleeding occurred along with the break, use yarrow and calendula, or ribwort plantain first.
Insect bites & stings: Like burns this usually results in a heat/irritation tissue state. Here we apply cooling, soothing plants like ribwort plantain, or lavender.
Insomnia: If the nervous system is too stimulated (either wind/tension or heat/excitation), we need calming, sedating plants. Here we might think of Lavender, Chamomile, Passionflower, California Poppy, Skullcap.
Upset stomach: This can be due to a myriad of reasons to do with the digestion. It could occur from something recently eaten. For example, allergies, intolerances or food poisoning. These would result in the damp/stagnation, hot/irritation tissue states, or in food poisoning – damp/relaxation, wind/tension. It may be due to nervous tension (wind/tension). It may be due to deficient secretions of digestive fluids (dry/atrophy), or too much (damp/relaxation). It may be due to liver function issues (damp/stagnation or heat/irritation).
Generally speaking, most of our kitchen spices are carminatives and digestives (that is, they dispel wind, enhance digestive fluids, and are antispasmodic, eg: cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, fennel. Etc.
Aloe soothes inflamed, irritated tissue internally as well externally and is useful when the upset stomach is due to chronic inflammatory conditions such as diverticulitis, Crohn’s disease, food allergies and intolerances, leaky gut.
Calendula also soothes inflamed tissue but also works to decongest the lymphatics in the gut, making it useful for food allergies and intolerances, and for repairing a leaky gut.
Chamomile is wonderful for stomach upsets caused by nervous tension, as in Irritable Bowel Syndrome. It’s also great for kids.
Dandelion comes in to assist the liver, and as a bitter it also helps increase digestive fluids.
Ginger is for people with ‘cold’ digestion. It helps to stoke the digestive ‘fire’, to increase digestive fluids and optimise absorption. It is also anti-inflammatory and carminative.
Nausea & Vomiting: Ginger – warming, antispasmodic; Peppermint – warming; Peach leaf or twig – cooling, useful for morning sickness in pregnancy.
Rashes: If hot and inflamed, we might use a cooled Chamomile tea as a wash, the inner gel from an Aloe leaf, or if related to an allergy, Calendula and Nettle will help.
Sore throat: This is usually due to a damp/stagnation tissue state as the lymph nodes (including the tonsils) in the throat begin to proliferate immune cells to sort and filter out any potential threat (& it’s metabolic debris) from the internal and external environment. Useful plants here include Sage and Liquorice, Ribwort Plantain, and Calendula.
Urinary Tract Infections: Typically, a heat/excitation/irritation tissue state. May also present with damp/stagnation, or damp/relaxation. We want cooling, soothing, and diuretic plants here as well as plants that are soothing to the nerves, and anti-microbial. Here we think of marshmallow, ribwort plantain, yarrow, dandelion leaves, burdock, and corn silk (the silky tufts at the top of a cob of corn). Nettles and cucumbers are also useful here. Again, we can use the berries to enhance our immunity. Nasturtiums are a particularly useful plant here with strong anti-microbial properties.
Pain: Like all of the previously listed conditions, this is a symptom that communicates an underlying problem and an underlying tissue state, so pain is best treated accordingly. Having said that, we do have some effective pain-relieving herbs that we can grow in our own physic gardens, and can be used in conjunction with other appropriate herbs.
Crampbark (Viburnum opulus or Guelder Rose) – for spasmodic pain, muscular pain.
Chamomile – soothing to the nerves, digestive tonic, also for spasmodic pain. Good for kids, particularly for teething pain.
California Poppy – calming to the nerves. Good for kids.
Cayenne pepper – believe it or not, cayenne is often quite useful in pain because it increases circulation and dilates the blood vessels, bringing a fresh supply of oxygen which helps to relax the tissues. For this reason, a heart attack can be warded off in the initial stages. Use 1tsp of cayenne pepper powder to 1 cup of water and get the patient to drink it whilst waiting for the ambulance.
Raspberry leaf – useful for period pain.
For special times such as pregnancy & breastfeeding: raspberry leaf, nettles, chamomile, fennel (increases milk supply and calms colic), cabbage (cools and soothes engorged breasts and mastitis).
This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of conditions, or plants that you could grow, but I hope that it is enough to whet your appetite. A beginning Physic Garden may then look something like this;
Aloe, Calendula, Chamomile, Yarrow, Peppermint, Sage, Rosemary, Thyme, Ginger, Liquorice, Nettles, Elder, Nasturtiums, Comfrey, Chilli.
As you begin to grow your own medicine and start to use it, you may find your interest growing as well, and soon you’ll find yourself on the lookout for more healing plants – either to grow yourself, or to harvest in your particular area (such as dandelions, violets, chickweed, and other medicinal weeds or natives). Your kitchen also holds a lot of useful (and powerful) remedies and before you know it, you’ll have your own full working apothecary. But that’s another article for another time 😉
*Yarrow pretty much does everything.