The old saying, “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” attributed to Hippocrates is never as true as when food plants grown in the garden are also valued for their therapeutic properties. In fact, the many herbs, fruits, and vegetables we use for flavoring dishes probably entered our food traditions because of their health benefits.
Here are some vegetables, culinary herbs, edible flowers and fruits that can double up as medicines for common ailments. You can grow them in the garden or even in pots on the kitchen sill for easy access.
If you have a few basil plants in the garden, you can do more than just use the leaves for making pesto or adding to pasta or pizza. The therapeutic use of this herb includes helping with indigestion and relieving bloating. When you have a cough, you can chew a few leaves or drink a warm tea of the leaves with honey. You can mix the juice of a few basil leaves with a teaspoon of honey and take in small doses to relieve a sore throat and cough.
If you have a headache due to sinus congestion, steam inhalation with water boiled with basil leaves can bring relief. Press a few crushed leaves to insect bites immediately to draw out the venom. Drink basil tea regularly to reduce blood sugar and relieve stress
Parsley is easy to grow from seeds and comes in flat leaf and curly leaved versions. This Mediterranean herb with its distinctive flavor makes a great garnish and adds a bit of Vitamins B12, C, A and K to the diet. But parsley’s medicinal benefits far exceed its nutritional benefits.
Parsley is anti-inflammatory and liver-protective and has a relaxing effect on the muscles. It is beneficial for people with digestive tract problems, including irritable bowel syndrome. Using parsley regularly may help regulate high blood pressure. Parsley improves kidney function, acting as a mild diuretic and helping flush out toxins from the body, but should be used in moderation on account of its high oxalic acid content.
Rosemary deserves to be in every garden. It is a delightful herb and can support your health in many ways. The bioactive substances in this aromatic herb have antiseptic, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties. Rosemary is called the herb of remembrance, and it is a happy coincidence that it can boost memory and protect against dementia and Alzheimer’s. It is now found to be cancer protective too.
Use rosemary from your garden to make a soothing foot bath. You can also use it as an antiseptic solution to wash minor cuts and scrapes.
4. Globe Artichoke
The large, bizarre-looking flower buds of globe artichoke are popular as a vegetable, but other parts of the plant such as the leaves and roots have medicinal uses. If you have a large yard, you can probably accommodate a perennial patch of this useful vegetable.
Use a tea of the leaves or root to improve digestion. It stimulates the liver and the gallbladder and increases digestive juice production. If you have high cholesterol or atherosclerosis, artichoke leaf tea can help.
5. Chinese Yam
Chinese yam (Dioscorea polystachya) is easily grown in temperate areas and produces long cylindrical root tubers that can be eaten raw or cooked. The tubers are nutritious, but its medicinal properties are even more relevant. Its Chinese name means ‘mountain medicine.’ The tubers can be used to combat poor appetite and poor digestion, and also gastrointestinal tract disorders like Crohn’s disease. It is considered a remedy for asthma and for uncontrolled urination.
If you have the Chinese root at hand, you can apply grated root to ulcers and boils on the skin. The leaf can be applied to the skin to soothe insect bites and take the poison and pain out of scorpion stings.
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is a lesser known herb that deserves to be grown more often in home gardens for its medicinal value, if not for cooking. The seeds and slightly bitter leaves are popularly used in Mediterranean and Asian countries. Fenugreek is a legume that easily comes from seeds planted directly in beds or pots.
Use a handful of leaves to make a flavorful, nourishing tea to improve digestion, and combat bad breath. It can relieve stomach cramps and pain associated with menstruation and labor. Regular use of the tea and infusion of the seeds can help lower blood cholesterol and blood sugar.
The pungent flavor garlic provides to any dish is inimitable. So are the medicinal properties of this onion family member. It is pretty easy to grow from individual garlic cloves. Plant them in spring or even earlier. Fall planting ensures a good summer harvest the following year.
While you wait for the bulbs to develop, you can snip off a few leaves to add flavor to soups and stir-fries.
The strong antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties of garlic need no introduction. Rub the cut end of a garlic clove on ringworm and athlete’s foot. Eat 2-3 garlic cloves a day to lower cholesterol and get rid of respiratory infections, although garlic breath might be a problem.
Ginger is an exotic herb with flavorful underground rhizomes. Use it freshly sliced or grated for making ginger tea and in curries. Dried ginger root powder has a flavor distinct from the fresh herb, but it is mainly used for medicinal purposes.
Ginger is a tropical plant that can be grown outdoors in USDA zones 10 and above. You can also grow it indoors in pots and tubs anywhere.
Make a soothing ginger tea with a piece of fresh ginger root to help with digestion. If you have motion sickness, carry a piece with you and sniff on it or take tiny nibbles to keep nausea at bay. Pregnant women can use it to get relief from morning sickness.
Large bulbs of fennel are used as a vegetable, the thin, hair-like leaves as an herb and the plant itself produces aromatic fruit that can be used as a spice. A few clumps of fennel in the garden can attract beneficial insects.
You can do a lot more with this useful plant. A tea of fennel seeds can relieve gas and colic. It is an appetite suppressant that can help with weight loss.
Calendula with its sunny yellow and orange flowers is a beautiful ornamental and a useful medicinal plant rolled into one. Its common name pot marigold points to its culinary use as a pot herb.
Start your calendula seedlings indoors for spring planting. The flowers are edible and make a nice addition to salads. They can add color and flavor to gravies and soups too.
To treat minor cuts, wounds, and insect bites, you can just crush the flower petals and apply to the affected part. It reduces inflammation and promotes fast healing. A tea made with fresh or dried flowers can relieve eczema and psoriasis or can be used as a face wash to prevent scarring from acne and razor nicks. Use it as a gargle to get rid of gum diseases and throat infections. Taken internally, it relieves menstrual problems in women.
Blackcurrant bushes will give you plenty of berries for making jams and jellies, but the leaves can also be used to treat a number of medical conditions. Blackcurrants are rich in gamma linolenic acid (GLA), an omega-6 fatty acid known to reduce inflammation.
Drink a tea made with blackcurrant leaves to reduce high blood pressure and relieve the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. After heavy workouts, the tea helps relieve muscle fatigue and stiffness. It is good for premenstrual syndrome too. Use the tea, or a paste of the leaves, topically to bring relief to chronic skin problems like eczema.
In USDA zones 8-10, fig trees will grow unprotected in sunny locations and yield heavy crops in summer. In cooler areas, you may have to grow it in a large pot and shift it to a protected spot in winter. Choose self-fertile fig varieties. Eat the fleshy fruit fresh or use in desserts, or dry them and store. Figs act as a gentle laxative and relieve stomach cramping and constipation.
Drink a tea made with fig leaves regularly to control diabetes and high cholesterol. Use it topically to get relief from psoriasis and eczema. Try applying the milky secretion from the fig tree to warts on the skin to get rid of them.
We don’t usually grow dandelions as a vegetable, but nature seems to take care of that task. The young leaves are great as salad greens and for cooking. The flowers can be batter fried or their petals can be added to dishes. You get a dose of Vitamins A, B, C and D and minerals calcium and potassium.
To take advantage of the healing properties of this herb, use a tea of dandelion roots, leaves or flowers as a liver cleanse. It acts as a mild diuretic and helps reduce hypertension and relieve skin problems like acne.
You might be using celery stalks occasionally as finger foods or in stir-fries and soups, but if you have a regular supply from the garden, use it to treat arthritis and gout. Celery is a good diuretic and has excellent anti-inflammatory properties.
Plant celery in fertile soil and ensure good moisture levels throughout to keep the stalks tender and juicy. You can drink celery tea to help relieve anxiety and to get good sleep.
Watercress is so easy to grow indoors or outdoors and is rich in almost all vitamins and several essential minerals. The peppery taste of the crisp leaves is a great addition to soups and salads. If all the above attributes of this ancient vegetable aren’t convincing enough, grow it for its medicinal value.
It is rich in the cancer-protective substances phenethyl isothiocyanate and sulforaphane. Eat watercress regularly for your eye and skin health and to get relief from arthritis.
These are just a few of the many plants that you can enjoy in your home garden while benefiting from their therapeutic properties.