This article is an updated/revised version of a guest blog post originally published in now-defunct DIY urban gardening website, City Plantz, in February of 2018. Enjoy!
I didn’t stumble upon the health properties of plants—and growing them yourself— in the most obvious way you would think.
At first, my interest in growing plants was all about food: our crumbling food system, our need for more farmers and food growers, and—ultimately—our need to protect our food, health, nutrition, and autonomy by growing food ourselves to ensure that it’s healthy (yes, even in the city). All of this started in college in rural Minnesota, and led me down the path of organic agriculture that I still tread today: in my daily life, in my career, and everything I do on my farm of three years now, Jupiter Ridge LLC. It’s all culminated into a both rigorous and healing lifestyle.
It definitely isn’t news these days that the healthiest food comes in the form of fresh homegrown fruits and vegetables—and specifically vegetables you can grow yourself.
But as it turns out, there’s a lot more to ensuring your health from the plant world than just growing your own food, especially when growing herbs comes into the picture.
This article is going to be a combination of informative and updating, so let me get the updates out of the way.
For those who have followed my writings and this blog (new and old), you can probably see I haven’t written much over the years about anything, let alone herbalism (To you newcomers: welcome).
This mostly coincides with getting my farm Jupiter Ridge up and running here in Driftless Iowa (Northeast Iowa), an endeavor that has demanded an immense amount of time, money, labor, blood, sweat, tears, sacrifice, pain, healing, beauty, and transformation – so naturally, herbalist projects and everything else have been placed on the back burner.
On that note, too, I felt like I needed a separation period from the world of herbalism: its major figures, celebrities, and influencers; the culture around it and the narrow definitions of what herbalism is in these circles; the increasing patriarchal/cultural appropriation problems in herbalist scenes; and even other herbalists in general.
I won’t get into it too much (and in fact I’ve been mostly silent on the subject), but I stepped into the (for lack of a better word) “cult” following of herbalism and its little extended network in America in 2012, expecting to find “my” people only to find a network that had very little to do with healing and helping others. Instead I found a lot of ego, power, competition, and people claiming they could heal others when they seemed to be in desperate need of healing themselves.
The lesson I learned from this: I think healers in general, not just herbalists, are meant to walk solitary paths to do their work. Identity and purpose get lost in these echo chambers.
So I closed the door on herbalism and instead got my hands dirty with farming, and growing nutritious, diverse vegetables, mushrooms, and herbs for people for the past few years. A different sort of herbalism and work as an herbalist, all the while badly wishing I could redefine these words (herbalism, herbalist) that I feel sort of stuck with, but love the possibilities of what they could mean nonetheless, so I’ll continue using them.
Now that the farm is up, running, and established (selling healthy, sustainably grown, and nutritious vegetables, mushrooms, and culinary herbs to hundreds of people in the Dubuque area every Saturday – plus delivering diverse CSA shares with these same contents every Tuesday to members in Cedar Rapids and to a dozen eastern and northeastern Iowa restaurants, too!), life has been doing that funny thing of poking and prodding at me to get me back in touch with my roots and the true, foundational reasons I decided to do this whole thing in the first place.
Owing to a combination of both circumstance and some intention, what we are making off of the land and what we grow for eastern and northeastern Iowa is steadily representing a larger and larger (and more reliable) portion of our income, as other sources of income/side hustles loom less large.
Upon reading this article again, too, I’ve taken it upon myself that the best I can do is redefine what it means to be an herbalist with my current work – and this article puts it real nicely.
So as for the updates: I’m still an herbalist. I still write. I still use plants to help people as a farmer. I may come back around to using those wilder and more esoteric plants (like echinacea, goldenrod, or sumac) again as part of my daily work (and it does seem like life is pushing me in that direction again – and this may spring up in the form of truly awesome, effective, and unique herbal products!), but we shall see.
This article marks the beginning of the confluence of farming and herbalism in my life. The future looks interesting.
Don’t Just Grow Your Own Food: Grow Your Own Medicine
Homegrown foods have a higher likelihood of being more nutritious than any other type of food in the long run (I wrote a piece about this for Rodale’s Organic Life, which has since shut down. If you’d like to read the article I’d be happy to send you a copy, which outlines the science of why this is true, too). These vegetables and plants are at the very foundation of our health; when you think about it, they really are our best source of preventive medicine, in a way.
I learned all about this over a decade ago, which spurred me to become a farmer and establish a farm. Then I learned about growing herbs—for both culinary use and for healing—in addition to vegetables, and I felt like I blew a whole new story wide open.
Amid my post-college travels learning how to farm, I made the strange and unlikely jump: from farmer to herbalist. Today, I’ve managed to fashion myself into both.
Even now, I’m experiencing a renaissance of realization and coming back full-circle to my herbalist roots after throwing my all into the farming path head-on for the past three years. The most important realization of all: that by growing healthy vegetables, culinary herbs, and even medicinal mushrooms (like shiitake and lion’s mane), I haven’t strayed all that far from being an herbalist at all. Instead, I’m seeing the multitude of connections that can take place in the world of plant-based health in a whole new light.
The ability to grow your own plants for both healthy food and medicine—or both food and medicine in one, if you really think about it—is empowering.
It saves money, doctor’s visits, and could even shape the way we view healthcare in the future. I’ve used certain herbs to successfully combat strep throat without any help from mainstream antibiotics. I’ve suggested herbs to others that have eliminated their lifelong acne issues, and I even use herbs today to holistically support my anxiety disorder and PTSD. Sure, these are anecdotal. But they’ve literally worked and I see them work even now on an almost daily basis (and for you more science-herbalist nerds, there’s a very scientific explanation for how all of these herbs work for these separate issues).
But most importantly: just because you live in a house or small apartment with very little money doesn’t mean this is something out of reach to you.
The truth is: it is in reach, more than you know.
If you can grow food in your domicile, you can certainly grow herbs. Together, these form the most preventive health medicine cabinet you could possibly have at your disposal.
Seeing the Connection: Plants as Healers, Whether Vegetables or Herbs
Why should you grow your own medicinal or culinary—or both medicinal and culinary—herbs in the first place?
Isn’t this something reserved for New Age hippies, lifestyle bloggers, witchy mamas, or your grandma?
My answer is best put as a story. I was in Ecuador during my organic agricultural internship when I was first struck by the world of herbalism.
I had an injured and infected foot. It was hard for me to walk.
I was also in a foreign tropical country where a non-native’s susceptibility to infections was astronomically dangerous. To continue growing the healthy, nutritious food I was so hell-bent on learning about, I was told by locals I must rely on a completely different kind of plant.
They pointed just a few steps away from where I helped cultivate rows of healthy vegetables like kale to a tall, uncultivated plant with broad leaves—a plant called matico.
Vegetables and Medicinal Herbs: Different Plants, Similar Purposes
Two very different plants, kale and matico.
But they both have a couple things in common: they can strengthen health and, as I would learn soon, matico could save your life (and kale too, though how it might do that for you deserves its very own article in and of itself).
I was instructed to use a medicinal preparation of matico’s leaves by the locals to fight this infection and still be able to walk between planted rows to get work done and continue my education—maybe even to keep my foot altogether..
The nearest hospital wasn’t for miles. There was no local pharmacy, no local clinic, no antibiotics: only plants and the native knowledge of the locals at my disposal.
Years later, I still have my foot—and all because of (well, mostly because of) a plant (a trip to the Ecuadorian beaches swimming and soaking in the salty ocean helped, too). I also found out later, to my shock, that matico isn’t as exotic as I thought. In fact, it’s very closely related to both black pepper (a culinary seasoning I wrote about in depth for Primal Herb here) and kava kava (a widely popular sedative herb from the Pacific), domesticated cultivated relatives that are—you guessed it—grown and produced by farmers.
It was in making these types of connections between nutritious and medicinal plants—and plants of all kinds, for that matter—that I decided to be an herbalist, and not just a farmer. I also realized how deeply interlinked these roles could be.
Growing Medicinal Herbs: Why Do It? Is it Really Worth it?
So, why grow medicinal plants, you might again ask?
Of course, my story above is extreme. If you think you might lose a foot, definitely wise up and go to a hospital if you can—take advantage of the fact that you’re not in the middle of a South American rainforest. And yet, living in the city— relying only on your apartment or home— can sure feel like surviving in a jungle these days.
So here’s my short answer: you should grow medicinal plants to be smart, self-sufficient, and frugal. But also because it’s a no-brainer.
I’ll risk sounding blunt here: especially in an urban setting and with little money, you’d be dumb not to. Ultimately, growing plants saves you money and possibly your health in the long run. Sure, you can also purchase medicinal in supplement form. But these extracts and capsules can be costly also—and, in some cases, less reliable.
If you’re not worried about losing a foot perse, there’s a lot more beyond foot-saving that herbs do. Some examples are:
- Improving digestion
- Soothing sunburns
- Alleviating stress (or even anxiety and depression)
- Protecting infected cuts
- Pain relief
A lot of them make your food taste better as a bonus, too (here’s looking at you, culinary herbs, of which the majority of you are also secretly medicinal).
By the way, if you’re already growing vegetables or even fruits in your house or apartment: congratulations!
You’ve already got your own preventive medicine cabinet. Growing herbs will just expand it even more. In the process, you might save yourself money on doctor’s visits and depending on those costly over-the-counter drugs.
You may also pick up an enjoyable hobby in the meantime that beautifies your home or apartment in the process, too. So why wouldn’t it hurt?
Culinary and Medicinal Herbs: What Can I Grow? What’s Possible?
Of course, the theory of anything becomes a lot more complicated when put into practice. Newcomers to growing herbs (or even growing in general) might ask: is growing medicinal and culinary herbs indoors difficult?
In truth, some herbs with healing potential are not any different—or more difficult— to grow than anything else indoors.
If you’re wanting to break new ground and give growing medicinal herbs a try, here are the best to get your feet wet with (and your hands dirty with) for starters.
- Aloe Vera. May need more sun than most others on this list, but otherwise requires very little water or much else. Leaves from aloe plants can be removed and the gel used for cuts, burns, sunburns, rashes, and wounds. The juice can be consumed for digestive issues and even certain disorders (I wrote for Healthline about aloe vera juice for IBS here).
- Ginger. Ginger root is incredibly easy to grow indoors from a living rhizome. It also doesn’t need a lot of light as a canopy plant. It’s great for cramps, stomachaches, nausea, and boosting the immune system when dealing with colds. It also tastes great (Oh yeah – I also wrote about ginger for Healthline here and how it’s great for sore throats).
- Lemon Balm. Great for culinary and medicinal uses. It also doesn’t need a lot of sunlight or water. Harvest sprigs to flavor meals that call for mint or lemon verbena. Or, make a tea from it for stomachaches or bouts of stress, anxiety, or depression.
- Mint. Spearmint and peppermint are easy to grow indoors with low light in containers. They’re great for bellyaches and can also calm nerves a bit. Mint’s flavors are a must-have for teas and various dishes. A fresh leaf on a cut reduces risk of infection, and the essential oil is amazing pain relief (I use it for my TMJ). (Article on how to grow this herb specifically is coming up soon).
- Parsley. Take a bite or a sprig of this culinary herb to freshen breath or when you have a stomachache. It is also known to help with seasonal allergies. It’s easy to grow in low light and doesn’t ask much of you and is also a delicious seasoning.
- Thyme. This squat little mint-like plant doesn’t demand much space, or even too much light or water for that matter. It makes for an adorable ornament on a kitchen window. Thyme is also an excellent herb for immunity and the symptoms of colds and flu.
Keep in mind that the cultivation and use of herbs for health shouldn’t replace common-sense mainstream health care or prescription medications. Talk to your doctor about using herbs, or if using herbs for health would be right for you.
If you’re truly intrigued by growing herbs, don’t feel like you need to stop at this list.
There’s plenty of others you can grow indoors, and which may also be enjoyably tackled by the more advanced or expert indoor grower.
Happy growing—and, ultimately happy, affordable health.