In my previous blog ‘Living with Nature’ from November 2021, I talked about buildings incorporating plants and the outdoors to create therapeutic spaces that foster wellbeing through direct contact with nature. Overlooking, walking through and sitting amongst plants and green spaces can help us feel happy and well – it’s good for both our mental and physical wellbeing. Aside from this immediate sensual benefit, plants also provide us with the basis for many medicines and remedies with their healing properties.
From arnica, known to ease bruising, right through to valerian used as a sedative, there are many plants that have properties coveted for their healing abilities, but which ones can we grow in our gardens here in the UK, and what are their benefits?
Here are a few examples, but as a precaution, please ensure advice from a healthcare professional is sought before using plants as treatments, unless it is a food you consume safely already or a plant you are already used to handling.
Some plants can be applied topically, directly on to the skin. Aloe Vera grown in abundance outside in warmer mediterranean climates, makes a good, low maintenance houseplant in the UK. The leaves grow long and are pointed, with prickly edges. The clear gel inside the thick leaves is known for cooling and healing minor burns on the skin, like sunburn. Long, wide and pointed dock leaves can be placed over skin that has been stung with nettles, and the two plants often grow side by side. Dock can also cool insect bites and sprains. Dock is also apparently edible, rich in vitamins C and A, both essential for keeping the immune system healthy. Nettles themselves contain iron and vitamins and can be used in recipes – I have enjoyed fresh nettle leaves brewed as tea on a camp stove outside, and also foraged for use in a flavourful soup cooked together with wild garlic and potatoes.
Eating herbs, vegetables and fruits either fresh or preserved, or pressed into oils, is probably the most obvious way of consuming the health giving properties of plants.
Many plants can be steeped in hot water to create nutritious teas. Mint for example, is widely available and grows well in shady spots in the garden, or in pots. It puts out runners, so can spread very quickly and should be contained unless you are happy for it to pop up in unexpected places. It is a beautiful, vibrant green and aromatic. Mint leaves made into tea is an age old remedy for soothing stomach aches and indigestion but the leaves are also delicious in salads.
For the foragers among you, Marsh Samphire has firm short stalks and can be picked in coastal areas in the summer. Bursting with vitamins A, B and C and minerals like magnesium and potassium, it has a salty flavour and can be cooked like asparagus according to the BBC
Goodfood website (https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/collection/samphire-recipes). I forage mine in Devon, and enjoy it simply stir fried with garlic and olive oil.
Most of you will have heard the adage ‘an apple a day will keep the doctor away’, and for good reason. Apples are packed full of fibre and vitamin C, and can be a sweet and delicious way to add goodness to your diet.
Cleavers have long stems with sprays of long, pointed leaves all along them. They grow in abundance in the countryside. When picked, they can be stuck on to the backs of unsuspecting parents and siblings by children (like mine!). I was recently introduced to cleaver tea, which is deliciously refreshing. An excellent cleansing aid, it is also cited as good for kidney and urinary disorders and skin conditions like eczema.
The elder tree offers up both aromatic elderflowers and elder berries, which are full of vitamin C to keep cells, skin, blood vessels and cartilage healthy (https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/vitamin-c/). Both grow in abundance in the UK and elderflower features in beauty products with both flowers and berries being used in food and drink products, especially cordials. Rosehips from the dog rose has similar properties and can be made into rosehip tea.
Sloes, or blackthorn berries, are fun to forage from hedgerows in the autumn and are used to make sloe gin or jam. They are rich in nutrients like potassium, good for supporting healthy blood pressure, and magnesium, which helps keep bones and muscles strong. (https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/health-benefits-of-magnesium)
Oils derived from plants are either eaten or rubbed into skin for healing purposes. Castor oil, sweet almond oil and hempseed oils are examples. Mediterranean diets are heavily reliant on olive oil, used not just for food but also to massage or warm the skin for a host of ailments ranging from muscle pains and earache to dry skin. My Turkish Cypriot grandmother still massages any new baby of the family with warm olive oil to soothe them to sleep. The British Heart Foundation has looked into the link between olive oil and the reduced risk of heart disease, and the positive effects of olive oil on blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Read more here:
The Natural History Museum talks about how around 11% of the drugs that the World Health organisation considers ‘basic’ and ‘essential’, stem from flowering plants. (https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/essential-medicines-powered-by-plants.html) To experience the healing power of plants, however, they don’t have to be processed or consumed. NHS Forest is a website dedicated to the provision of green spaces for health. It has some lovely examples of sensory gardens, and gives tips to include coloured, scented, tactile and edible plants, particularly to trigger memories, especially important in dementia care. However big or small your outside space is, your gardener can work through ideas on how to create a perfect sensory haven.
Scented plants that smell good enough to eat include the spicy scented curry plant, oregano with its little pale flowers, and chocolate cosmos – a sweet vanilla scented black dahlia. Those celebrated for their calming aromas include rose, lavender, honeysuckle, rosemary and chamomile, each with pretty colourful flowers that pollinators love too. Sunflowers can add colour, height and almost certainly, joy, in a garden. Lemon balm, mint and lemon verbena planted next to paths will release their delicate scents as they are brushed past and provide luscious green foliage ready for herbal teas. More tactile plants are sage with velvet soft leaves and the cleaver is curiously sticky. Both also make tasty tea and burning dried sage (or ‘smudging’) is an ancient ritual used to cleanse and purify a space in some traditions. Its scientific name is ‘salvia officinalis’ – salvia deriving from the latin word ‘salvere’ meaning to be saved or healed and officinalis referring to the historic official use of the herb for medicinal use. Rosemary also has this. More facts like these can be found at the Royal Horticultural Society: https://www.rhs.org.uk/education-learning/libraries-at-rhs/articles/history-healing-plants.
Finally, a quality that should not be forgotten is the ability of plants to provide us with clean, purified air – absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen in the process of photosynthesis. Plants like the trusty aloe vera also filter toxins like formaldehyde and benzene. There are more air purifying indoor plants listed in the Architectural Digest: https://www.architecturaldigest.com/gallery/best-air-purifying-plants.
Outdoors ivy, ferns and trees such as beech, spruce and maple are all good at releasing abundant oxygen, primarily due to the large surface area of their leaves. Your gardener can advise on the best locations for these in your garden, and help you design in flowers and herbs to create a wonderful all round healing garden.
To revisit our blog on herbs in your garden find it here
Natural History Museum
Royal Horticultural Society
British Heart Foundation
BBC Good Food
‘Rewild Yourself: 23 spellbinding ways to make nature more visible’ by Simon Barnes, published by Simon & Schuster
‘Witch’s Garden: Plants in folklore, magic and traditional medicine’ by Sandra Lawrence, published by Welbeck
Photographs and Text by Funda Kemal