Healing herbs

Jane Garton

What herbs can do for your health - and how to use them

Herbs have been used medicinally for centuries as cure- alls for a host of illnesses as well as to add flavour to many dishes. These days herbal remedies are usually sold in pharmacies and health stores, but there is no reason why you shouldn’t turn an area of your garden into a healing herb corner. Herbs are easy to grow as long as they are given the right conditions and once established you can start to make your own herbal infusions and decoctions.

‘A good place to start,’ says medical herbalist Luzia Barclay, who is busy setting up a medicinal herb garden in Dorset,’ is to divide your corner or plot into sections corresponding with individual body systems, eg digestive, nervous, circulatory, respiratory endocrine and skin.’

The next step is to fill in the sections with the herbs that could help to keep each body system in optimum working order. Read on for some ideas to set you on the right path.

Digestive system

Milk thistle

This striking plant with distinctive white veined leaves grows best in well-drained soil in a sunny position.


The seeds of milk thistle contain chemical compounds known collectively as silymarin, which are thought to help boost liver health.

How to use

By the end of the summer, the purple flowers will have matured into seed heads. Place in a warm dry place and after a few days tap the heads to release the seeds. Prepare as a decoction or grind the seeds and add them to your food.


There are more than 20 different species of mint, but peppermint is the variety most widely used in herbal medicine. It grows best in a rich moist soil in a sunny or partially shaded spot.


Menthol, the active ingredient in mint, stimulates the production of bile as well as relaxing the stomach muscles both of which help to improve digestion.

How to use

The leaves can be picked at any time during the growing season and used fresh or dry to make an infusion.

Nervous system


This pretty plant, which produces large clusters of vanilla-scented white or pink flowers in the summer, thrives in a moist or well-watered soil in a sunny or partially shaded position.


Sometimes described as nature’s tranquiliser, valerian contains valerenic acid and substances known as iridoids which are thought to help calm the nerves and promote sleep.

How to use

After the plant has died back in the autumn the roots can be dried and prepared as an infusion.

Lemon balm

Instantly recognisable by its fragrant leaves, lemon balm thrives in any well-drained soil in a sunny spot.


Volatile oils, such as citral and citronella, give lemon balm anti-spasmodic properties which can have a calming effect on the central nervous system.

How to use

The leaves can be used dried or fresh to make an infusion.

Respiratory system


With its colourful and fragrant foliage, thyme likes a sunny spot and a well-drained, slightly stony soil.


Rich in the volatile oil thymol, thyme has powerful antiseptic, antibiotic and anti fungal properties. It is a popular remedy for coughs, throat and chest infections.

How to use

Thyme should be harvested in summer before it starts to flower. It can be used dried or fresh as an infusion.

Endocrine system


With its pretty small green leaves, sage likes a well-drained, sandy soil and plenty of sun.


Traditionally associated with longevity, sage is rich in plant oestrogens. It may help to combat hot flushes and night sweats and can also be used as a gargle and mouthwash for sore throats.

How to use

Harvest just before the plant starts to flower. Can be used dried or fresh to make an infusion.



Traditionally associated with remembrance (sprigs were exchanged by lovers and scattered on coffins), rosemary likes a lot of sun and a well-drained soil.


Rosemary has strong antioxidant properties and is often used to stimulate the circulation. It may also help soothe digestive problems as well aches and pains.

How to use

The leaves should be harvested in summer before the plant starts to flower and can be used fresh or dry as an infusion.


Aloe vera

Although native to Africa, the aloe plant will grow in temperate climates, but needs to be brought inside in the winter. It is therefore best planted in a well-drained container in a sunny position.


The juice of the aloe leaf is rich in the complex carbohydrate glucomannan which gives it an emollient effect, making it a soothing remedy for minor cuts and burns, dry or chapped skin, sunburn and insect bites.

How to use

Simply cut off a leaf and squeeze out the healing gel. Use immediately for maximum effect.


A pot or bush of lavender is a must in any herbal corner. It thrives in a well-drained, sunny spot.


Lavender contains chemical compounds that are thought to help relieve pain and reduce irritability. It can be used to soothe burns, bites and stings as well as to ease insomnia, tension and depression.

How to use

Lavender should be harvested in summer just as the petals start to open. The flowers can be made into oil by infusing fresh blooms in virgin olive oil. Alternatively use dry or fresh as an infusion. A sprig of lavender under your pillow may also help you to sleep at night.

How to dry herbs

Although fresh is best, herbs can also be dried to provide you with a ready supply all the year round.

  • Hang aerial parts (leaves, stems, flowers and seed heads) upside down in bunches and lay cut roots flat on newspaper in a warm ventilated room or airing cupboard until dry. This usually takes around two weeks.
  • Store in paper bags or jars out of direct sunlight.
  • Dried herbs will keep for up to a year.

To make an infusion

A herbal infusion is simply a tea, which is made by steeping the herb in just boiled water for around 10 - 15 minutes. Delicate plant parts such as flowers and leaves are usually prepared in this way. As a general rule use one heaped teaspoon of dried herb or two heaped teaspoons of fresh herb per cup of tea.

  • Steep the plant material in just boiled water for 10 -15 minutes.
  • Strain and drink.

  • A decoction is similar to a tea but is made by simmering the plant material for around 15 to 20 minutes. This method is usually used for woody plant parts such as roots and bark. Use 25g of herb to 750 ml water.

    • Simmer plant material on a low heat in a covered, non-aluminium saucepan for up to 20 minutes.
    • Strain and drink.

    This article is not intended as a medicinal reference but as a source of information. Before trying any herbal remedies the reader is recommended to sample a small quantity first to establish whether there is any adverse or allergic reactions. Please remember when you are using herbs for their medicinal properties, they are just that ‘medicinal’, so do not mix them with medicines prescribed by your GP.

    Treat them with respect. When in doubt please check with your GP or a trained herbalist. Neither the author nor the publisher can be held responsible for any adverse reactions to the recommendations and instructions contained in this article.

    The use of any herb or derivative is entirely at the reader’s own risk.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.