Green apothecary

Perennial herb garden

Thyme

For people who love flowers a perennial herb garden doesn't hold much excitement, because, as far as visual impact is concerned, they don't do much. Sure some of them bloom, eventually, after they take a few years to mature, but if you're lucky and they thrive, during the first year they're just another patch of greenery among other perennials that can't be bothered to bloom.

Sage

Sage

Did you know old wives tales say that sage is a magnet for wealth and prosperity? It gives one reasons to contemplate turkey stuffing in a whole different light.

The herb garden has a sedate, wiser quality, fitting for the embodiments of pharmacopeia and aromatherapy, and a sophistication that is not immediately apparent to the casual gaze.

You have to spend time with it to start noticing the slight variations in coloring, the blue-gray hues of the lavender, the apple green texture of the chamomile, the dark, evergreen quality of the rosemary.

The real charm of the herbs is not visual, but olfactory. You can walk among them with your eyes closed, and, as you brush against their foliage, recognize their unmistakable fragrances ranging from spicy, to sappy, to pungent.

You try to learn more about them and find out how old they are, how much they traveled around the globe from their point of origin, brought along by enthusiastic or sentimental gardeners, how knowledge about their properties evolved over time, moving them from the realm of folklore to that of pharmacology.

They are still green right now, after a lot of rain and temperatures that went back into the seventies, but their fragrance mellowed out a little, it is autumn after all.

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What to do with herbs

Lavender

Getting from the aromatic plant in the garden to the home made health or beauty product involves a couple of preliminary steps - preserving the herbs for long term storage and transferring their active ingredients into a medium easy to work with, usually oil.

Drying is the most common way to preserve herbs and spices. Herbs are gathered in bunches and hung in a warm place with good air movement, like an attic. When dealing with medicinal plants for which only the flowers are used, the blossoms are laid out in a thin layer on clean paper towels over a mesh screen.

Plants should be dried until there is no moisture left, then ground or stored whole in clean cloth or paper bags. These dried plants will be the basic materials for infused oils, salves, decocts and scented sachets. Some herbalists prefer to use fresh plants to preserve their medicinal qualities, but even then the plants need to be wilted to remove as much of the moisture as possible. Some plants' properties get altered too much by drying, and must be used fresh; a couple of examples are lemon balm and Saint John's Wort.

The next step is infusing the oil. This can be done by filling a jar well packed with the dried plant material of choice and adding enough oil to cover it, then placing the jar in a sunny window for a month and mixing it up regularly. Another way is to simmer the oil and plant slurry in a double boiler over very low heat for four to six hours; this is the better method if you want to use fresh plants, since it ensures no moisture will remain to alter the product. The finished oil is then strained through a cheese cloth or a strainer covered with a coffee filter, and becomes the base for all home made health and beauty products.

Dried plant material, finely ground, can be used as is for face masks or as an additive in soaps, scrubs and bath salts.

A delicious way to enjoy the fragrance of edible aromatic herbs is infused honey. The method is similar to the one for oil and works great for lavender, mint, linden flowers, rose petals, acacia flowers, or any flavor of your choosing.

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