Author, healer and massage therapist Anna Parkinson explains how to grow your own herb teas...
A garden of any size can add a delightful dimension to your cooking for most of the year. But many people don't appreciate the benefits you can get from making the plants in your garden a regular feature of your diet. It pays to understand what an astonishingly wide variety of plants you can use and how effective they can be. Best of all, using fresh herbs is delightfully easy. Let's start with the perennials which will endure ice and snow to be freshly available for you all through the year. The health giving benefits of sage, thyme and rosemary have been well known for generations, so they've persisted as the major ingredient of stuffing and bouquets garnis. But their modern use is a pale shadow of the degree to which they were once appreciated. People once used great handfuls of the herbs to stuff meat and fowl with, and for very good reason. They're part of a group known as 'hot herbs' to a 17th century herbalist like John Parkinson who was herbalist to Charles I. In 1629 he set great store by their use in his wonderful book about plants, the Paradisus Terrestris, complaining that even his generation failed to understand how good they were for both taste and health:
'The former age of our great Grandfathers, had all these hot herbes in much and familiar use, both for their meates and medicines, and therewith preserved themselves in long life and much health: but this delicate age of ours, which is not please with anything almost, be it meat or medicine, that is not pleasant to the palate, doth wholly refuse these almost, and therefore cannot be partaker of the benefit of them.' Paradisus p. 477
In our age of instant painkillers we've forgotten what a good remedy for colds these three can be. Modern chemical analysis shows that all the 'hot herbs' John Parkinson was talking about: sage, thyme, rosemary and pennyroyal (mentha pulegium), are antibiotic, antiseptic, and kill harmful bacteria. This means that they have the power to clear phlegm from the body in a way that Lemsip or Night Nurse can't touch. The best way to use them to tackle incipient or long-lasting colds is to brew a tea from the leaves and sip it three times a day. Making herb teas couldn't be simpler. The rules are always the same. Use fresh herbs if possible. They taste better and there's no chance for the active ingredients to alter in the drying process. Wash a handful of leaves under the tap and put them into a mug. The quantity can be adjusted to taste but to get the most benefit you want to use around five sage leaves, for example. Don't worry about using too much. None of these plants are toxic. On the contrary, you will be surprised at the long-term benefits that acquiring a taste for them can give you. Fill the mug with hot water from the kettle and cover it with a saucer. Leave it to stand for 10-15 minutes, add honey if you want to, and drink. You can safely continue this for 3 or 4 days until your symptoms clear, although you may feel the benefit much sooner.
These are a few of my top favourites: Thyme for a cold in the chest and respiratory problems; Sage for a sore throat; Rosemary for a 'thick head' or a headache; Feverfew for a migraine type headache brings instant relief in my experience; Marigold (calendula), Yarrow (achillea) and Nettle in combination for any kind of digestive disorder or diseases of the digestive tract and skin problems; Yarrow and Lady's Mantle (alchemilla) for menstrual disorders and weak internal muscles such as prolapse or hernia. All of these can look wonderful in your garden, with the possible exception of stinging nettle which you will want to find a corner for, nevertheless, because it tastes so good and indicates the fertility of your soil. So feel free to experiment safely and enjoy the health benefits that growing your own herb teas can bring.
Anna Parkinson writes and gives talks about traditional uses of herbs. She can be contacted on 0781 806 1605 www.hunahealing.co.uk. Her book about her ancestor, Nature's Alchemist, John Parkinson, herbalist to Charles I is published by Frances Lincoln.