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G - 63 : Planting your own Natural Pharmacy

Updated: May 16, 2023

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about Herbes de Provence. Unexpectedly, it led me to several research pieces and YouTube clips on medical properties of Mediterranean herbs. The pharmacy we are used to and where we buy drugs made by pharmaceutical companies is a relatively new addition to health care. There were always pharmacies though but they offered extracts from plants. Modern chemistry came into existence only 200 years ago.

Many Herbs in my Garden in the Cevennes have also Medical Properties

Now people are re-discovering the healing properties of herbs and use them instead of over-the-counter drugs. Farmers also rediscover old methods for keeping their livestock healthy. Recently, a farmer in Central Switzerland added plants with healing properties to his meadows. He went to Turkey and Persia, where cattle is from, to research how wild cattle self-medicate, then brought these plants to Switzerland. Now his cows do the same – they still know which herbs are helpful when they have a digestive problems or an infection – even though they are hundreds of generations separated from their ancestors. The farmer’s cattle are now healthier than ever before.

Pirmin Adler, a farmer from Zug, plants Medical Herbs to keep his Cows healthy

Was really puzzled that many of the herbs in my little herb garden in the Cevennes have medical properties. The list below is incomplete and needs to be updated once I know more. But for this blog it is a good start. During Roman times or the Middle Ages ordinary people did not have access to doctors. 80% lived in the country side and worked on farms. They had to use the medical plants that were around them. Luckily there are many!

Fabien Gordon, a Herbalists, professionally grows Medical Plants; here in a Field of Hyssop

The best clip I found on YouTube was “Planter Sa Pharmacie Naturelle”. It gives a quick overview over the most prominent medical plants. There are thousands and every year more are discovered. Will only cover herbs which grow in the Mediterranean. Most of them are all year plants and can easily be dried for preservation and later use.

The Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum Nobilis) is not only a decorative flower, it also stimulates our digestive system. When prepared as an infusion, it is a light sedative and pain killer. The Chamomile also calms stress symptoms. For many people it helps with headaches and migraines. It is easy to plant, asks for no maintenance and spreads quickly over your gardens. We know that the ancient Egyptians already used chamomile. It spread to Europe in the 16th century.

Wild Fennel (Foeniculum Vulgare) is my next plant. Fennel we find in supermarkets is called Florence Fennel. It has a bigger bulb from centuries of crossbreeding. Here we talk about Wild Fennel. Its stems and leaves are edible as well. They actually taste better - I'd say. The anise tasting flowers make a wonderful topping on any green salad. For medical use, the grains, however, are most important. They are excellent in improving digestion, specifically after a rich meal. They also are very effective against spasms and ease menstrual pains. Wild Fennel was widely used in ancient Greece and Rome. Not only as food and medicine but also as insect repellent – wonder how this worked. Fennel is one of the three herbs used to make Absinth – the popular alcoholic drink in France.

The next plant to talk about is the Marshmallow (Althaea Officials). Most people believe it is candy. Which is actually true. The candy takes its name from the plant though and was already made by Egyptians 2’000 BC. They boiled the Marshmallow roots to extract sugar & medical properties. Then mixed it with honey, strained, cooled and cut for consumption. It was a small scale production for medical use. Marshmallow softens coughs, dissolves mucus and soothes sore throat. The paste can also be applied externally to heal wounds. As cough medicine it is still very effective. Best way for preparing is to dry the roots and grind them to powder. Put one or two tea spoons of the powder into a tea cup and add hot water. Et voilà! Marshmallow found its way to France in the 18th century and was sold in candy stores. The Pâte de Guimauve was made by whipping root powder with sugar, a bit of water and lots of egg white. From France the candy made its way to the US where starch was added. Now mass production could commence. Starch made the candy durable. The Marshmallow herb is easy to plant and requires no work at all. Just harvest.

Next on my list is the Hyssop (Hyssopus), a plant that most people have seen without knowing what it is. It grows wild everywhere around the Mediterranean basin and does very well on rocky grounds. Hyssop is also excellent for coughs and has good anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties. The plant needs no attention, grows by itself and makes beautiful little blue flowers. It also has a very sublime flavor. Some people love the taste so much they make sirop with it or use it to season BBQ meats. The reason it may be less well known may be its similarity to lavender. The plant originates from the Mediterranean shores of the Levant and Turkey.

Peppermint (Mentha x Piperita) is an indigenous plant from the Middle East and the Mediterranean which spread over the entire globe. We all know it from peppermint tea. Peppermint has a cooling effect and was traditionally used to ease muscle pain, nerve pain and itching. It is also an effective remedy for nausea and digestive issues. Peppermint is the perfect drink for the evening. It calms down and induces sleep. The peppermint plant grows like weed. You always have to cut back. It is more difficult to dry than Verbena. The dried leaves become quite brittle. But in a glass jar it is easy to keep. Apparently, peppermint oil is a natural pesticide and keeps unwanted “visitors” away from your garden. Maybe this is the reason my herb garden does so well!

Rosemary (Salvia Rosmarinus) is another remarkable plant that we are familiar with from cooking and grilling meats. It was first mentioned in 5’000 BC in Mesopotamia and liked by Greeks and Romans. As herbal tea, Rosemary is a perfect stimulant in the morning. It wakes you up and gives you an energy boost. It helps your liver and your digestive system. Funny enough, it also makes your hungry – it stimulates your appetite! In the south of France it is sold in little bags like lavender. Most parasites dislike rosemary flavor. It is thus perfect for putting into drawers to keep them clear of any infestation. Since Rosemary is draught and pest resistant, it is often used as decorative plant in gardens and public places.

Sage (Salvia Officinalis) is next. Everybody knows and uses it in the kitchen. It has wider use though. Its Latin name is Salvia, the plant that saves. In ancient pharmacies, it held an important place due to its anti-septic and anti-fungal nature. Sage was used internally as externally. Disinfecting a cut by using sage still works. It is also said that sage is very good in mitigating the effects of menopause because it balances the estrogen production. It grows without any attention. A little plant quickly becomes a big bush – as mine did.

Thyme (Thymus Vularis) is another well know herb which has medical properties. Greeks and Romans loved it and used for baths and burnt it as incense. Due to its antimicrobial properties, it is a first-class anti-septic. It helps getting rid of bacterial and viral infections and has a wide specter of application. Who would have thought that it is still used in mouth wash products to this day? Best used by putting into hot water, it is like an infusion. There are many people who swear that this is the best way to get rid of an infection.

Last but not least, we shall have a quick look at Verbena Citronelle. Probably the plant with the lowest medical capacity. It helps digestion and makes you feel well. Having one plant in my herb garden I can confirm. It is so easy to drink. Consuming it during a full day of meetings puts causes no side effects like coffee or black tea does. It is simply pleasant to drink.

Will have to pay more attention to the medical properties of my herbs going forward. First I am going to try is the Marshmallow for coughs. And I will bring some dried herbs with me on the boat. Digestive problems are always an issue when sailing.

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