Hi Sandra, I'm a keen gardener and want to start growing and using medicinal plants as medicine. What are the most useful medicinal plants that can be found growing in the backyard and what's the best way to use them? Thanks, Joy.

Hi Joy, this is one of my favourite topics. Your backyard can be a fantastic medicinal treasure chest as long as you know what you're looking for. Here are some of the easiest medicinal plants to begin growing and easy ways to incorporate them into daily life.

Firstly, it is important to correctly identify each plant. If you are new to growing plants as medicine, the best idea is to purchase the plants from a garden center and plant them yourself so you can be sure of what is planted where, and ensure your plants are free from any chemicals, pesticides or car fumes before harvesting.

It is also important that you harvest the right part of the plant and that you collect them at the right time of the season so that you get the maximum benefit.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is a great herb for chest complaints. Many people are familiar with it as a culinary herb but fewer are aware of its powerful medicinal properties.

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It has a profound relaxing effect on the respiratory system, helping to alleviate coughs and spasms. Its expectorant action helps to expel phlegm and it is classed as a natural antibiotic due to the antibacterial and antiviral properties of its essential oil.

Wild thyme growing in the special climate of Central Otago, South Island, yields the most potent remedies. However, there are several mild varieties of thyme available in garden centres that grow easily in a backyard.

Such fresh thyme can be added to home cooking or a children's bath water as the resulting aromatic essential oils help to open and relax the airways. It can also be used as a medicinal tea, where a small handful of the herb can be steeped in boiling water for 10 minutes, and then consumed.

Thyme is best when in flower and when harvested on a hot, sunny day.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) - This common garden ''weed'' is probably cursed by lawn owners worldwide, but it is highly regarded everywhere where herbs are used as medicine.

Dandelion is one of the oldest healing herbs and is both a powerful kidney stimulant (diuretic) and liver tonic. It helps to increase the flow of digestive juices, enhances the appetite and helps to break down food for better absorption.

This is an ideal supportive herb for problems associated with a sluggish liver, such as tiredness and irritability, skin problems and headaches.

The entire plant can be used, both the root and the leaves. Easy ways to incorporate dandelion into daily life are to forage for the fresh young leaves in spring, adding them raw to smoothies or salads, or lightly sauteed as you would spinach.

The root can also be dug up and made into a decoction, a medicinal preparation that involves simmering plant material in water for about 20 minutes, then consuming. The root is best harvested either in early spring or autumn.

Note that dandelion can be easily confused with a few lookalikes such as Catsear and Hawksbeard. Thankfully these plants are edible bitters too, so no harm will come from mistakenly substituting one with another, but do make sure you always properly identify a plant before using it.

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis): This wonderful herb grows so easily and its mild taste makes it an excellent medicine for young and old alike.

Lemon balm is an excellent herb for soothing the nerves and lifting the spirits. It helps to relieve depression, calm the heart and relax muscle spasms, and is helpful for those who suffer with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

It's particularly good to consume as a medicinal tea before bed as it can aid sleep; antique herbal texts suggest using it to calm nightmares. Add a small handful of the fresh leaves to a cup of boiling water, cover and steep for 10 minutes before consuming.

Lemon balm is also a favourite of the bees and incidentally, the tea tastes delicious with a teaspoon of honey.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis): Sometimes referred to as Marigold, it is a bright yellow-gold flowering herb whose blossoms are collected for medicinal use. It blooms for several months each year, making it a great medicinal plant for the amateur gardener or herbalist.

It is clinically proven for promoting the healing of open skin, cuts and grazes, with beneficial anti-inflammatory and soothing actions in eczema, psoriasis and wounds. These actions make it a perfect addition to homemade creams and balms.

Mix harvested calendula flowers with good quality vegetable oil (organic olive oil is a good choice) and heat gently in a bain-marie for 2-4 hours. The resulting infused oil can be added to a moisturising cream or mixed with beeswax to make a healing ointment.

I hope your foray into plant medicine is a great success.

References

Nabavi et al. (2015). Plants belonging to the genus Thymus as antibacterial agents: From farm to pharmacy. Food Chemistry 173, 339-347. doi: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2014.10.042
Panahi, Y., Sharif, M. R., Sharif, A., Beiraghdar, F., Zahiri, Z., Amirchoopani, G., . . . Sahebkar, A. (2012). A randomized comparative trial on the therapeutic efficacy of topical aloe vera and Calendula officinalis on diaper dermatitis in children. Scientific World Journal, 2012, 810234. doi: 10.1100/2012/810234