Review: The Gardener’s Companion to Medicinal Plants

medicinal plants

As a child, I was always given swede and brown sugar at the first sign of a cough. An old recipe passed down by my gran, it tasted not unpleasant but I was never sure it did any good. Yet, like most of these old country remedies, there was possibly more to it than just a sweet, soothing syrup.

The Gardener’s Companion to Medicinal Plants aims to give some scientific backing to the use of healing plants and shows that many of these traditional remedies have some substance. Lavender, for example, has long been used for aiding sleep and now studies have shown it “reduces alertness and memory, while improving general contentment”.

medicinal plants
Rosemary can boost mental performance

Often the clue to a medicinal plant’s uses lies in the name: lemon balm is a traditional remedy for stress; self-heal was made into a poultice to help wounds heal; feverfew was used to combat fevers and pain.

Running through the plants in alphabetical order, the authors give the scientific and common names, traditional uses, often quoting herbalists such as Culpepper and Gerard, and a brief overview of modern research results, some of which validate the old remedies, while others just give the compounds discovered that might suggest a possible health use.

With 35,000 plants worldwide having a medicinal use, there has naturally been some selection. The list has been limited to those with a long history of use to treat a range of complaints and, where possible, to have been subjected to some scientific research. Those that are well-known to pharmaceutical companies – such as foxglove and yew – have been left out.

medicinal plants
The book includes recipes such as rosemary-infused oil

And there are some surprises: who would have known that the diminutive wood anemone, Anemone nemorosa, has antibacterial properties, or that the teasel, Dipsacus inermis, is being studied for possible use in treating cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease.

In fact, the range is wide from trees, shrubs and perennials to those that we usually consider weeds, such as nettles, couch grass and cleavers or goosegrass. Unfortunately, there is little scientific proof that the traditional use of horsetail, Equisetum arvense, for a range of medicinal uses is valid so I won’t be able to make millions from the plants infesting my garden.

The book has been produced by the world famous Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, and written by Jason Irving, a forager and qualified herbalist, Dr Melanie-Jayne Howes, a registered pharmacist and chartered chemist, and Professor Monique Simmonds, Deputy Director of Science at Kew.

medicinal plants
The book is illustrated with botanical drawings

Yet this is far more than just an encyclopaedia of scientific fact. Beautifully illustrated with botanical drawings it is an easy read with occasional tips on cultivation, and more in-depth sections including the history of herbals, traditional medicine – records date back almost 5,000 years in China – and the importance of plant conservation.

For those interested in producing their own ointments and syrups, there are recipes for making remedies, including fennel tincture, marshmallow lozenges and passionflower sleep tea.

They are, we are assured, easy so long as you have “basic cooking skills” while the equipment required is “the same as those used in jam making”.

medicinal plants
St John’s Wort oil

Remedies should be used in small amounts and their effects assessed before another dose to ensure there is no allergic reaction. Labelling is essential. As we are warned: “it is very easy to forget what that strange smelling liquid is at the back of your cupboard!”

The Gardener’s Companion to Medicinal Plants, An A-Z of Healing Plants and Home Remedies by Monique Simmonds, Melanie-Jayne Howes and Jason Irving, is priced at £14.99 RRP and published by Frances Lincoln. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

For more book reviews, see here

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Growing medicinal herbs

There must be a gardening gene, I muse as I gaze at Davina Wynne Jones’ Cotswold garden. As the daughter of Rosemary and David Verey it must have been preordained that she should make a garden. In fact, it was never her intention and she ended up creating a garden of medicinal herbs almost by accident.

medicinal herbs
Medicinal herbs fill the borders

Davina’s original plan was to have a herb nursery but she quickly decided it would not produce much of an income. However, it had sparked an interest in medicinal herbs and before long Herbs for Healing was born.

The company, run from a field behind her parents’ former home, Barnsley House, sells ointments, face creams and oils made using herbs and flowers, many of them grown by Davina.

medicinal herbs
St John’s Wort

And so the gardening gene kicked in as she found herself almost instinctively putting together a garden.

“Because they are indigenous plants, not hybrids or cultivars, they have wonderful soft colours and so the colours look good together,” she explains. “It began to get more like a garden but it was not my intention in the first place.”

On the surface, her garden is very different from the world famous and listed Barnsley House. It has a softer, less designed feel without the clipped topiary that has made features like the potager and herb garden so well known.

medicinal herbs
Toadflax

Also, because of the plants she grows, the display tends to peak at this time of year rather than being the year-round show her mother created; Davina has added some non-medicinal planting to give colour during May when she opens for the annual Barnsley Village Festival.

Scratch the surface though and the design influence of Rosemary Verey is clear. The garden has a strong axis running through, from a rustic gate past overflowing borders to an end focal point.

medicinal herbs
The main axis leads to the ‘magic circle’

Adding a vista at Barnsley from the temple to the frog fountain to run at right angles to an existing axis was one of her parents’ first projects, says Davina.

“I’ve not got a double vista yet but I’m working on it.”

medicinal herbs
Californian poppies

Indeed, having what she describes as ‘good bones’ underpins her garden: the borders are laid out to the proportions of the golden sequence, which is often found in nature; there may not be clipped topiary but there are strong verticals, including a willow tree that partial hides the garden beyond, creating a sense of discovery.

“I learned about texture from my mother and I have lot of different leaves and textures,” says Davina, adding with a laugh “Not because I ever listened to her particularly.”

It seems some things are just passed on subliminally.

medicinal herbs
Yarrow is pretty and useful

It had been a few years since I last visited and the then planned finale to the garden is now in place. This is what Davina describes as her magic circle, an area enclosed by a beautiful structure fashioned from hawthorn that was being cleared from a 6,000-year-old long barrow in the area.

“Hawthorn is traditionally protective,” explains Davina. “It has been sacred from Anglo Saxon times.”

medicinal herbs
The garden has a relaxing atmosphere

Within the circle are plants long associated with magic, fairies and folk lore, including evening primrose, mandrake, henbane and Artemesia vulagaris, or mugwort.

Paths laid out in concentric circles lead you towards a water feature made by sculptor Tom Verity, whose father, Simon, made pieces for Barnsley House. Its reflective water gives another dimension to the space.

medicinal herbs
Tom Verity’s water feature sits in the magic circle

In the borders are medicinal herbs that will aid every ailment, including St John’s Wort, used for treating wounds, aching joints and mild anxiety, Leonurus cardiaca, or motherwort, which has calming properties, Verbena officinalis (vervain) that Davina uses to help against glaucoma, and Galega officinalis (goat’s rue), which is good for balancing sugar levels. Chicory aids digestion, yarrow is an anti-inflammatory and Californian poppies have, says Davina, the same effect as opium without being addictive.

Some things, such as rose petals for making essential oils, are brought in as she cannot grow enough and others are gathered in the neighbouring countryside.

“I have a larder in my head of where things grow.”

medicinal herbs
Some of the dried herbs

Just three years after starting the garden, she was accepted into the National Gardens Scheme and has opened regularly for them ever since.

“In a way I wonder if part of it was pleasing my parents, although they had both been dead for some years,” she says. “The fact that Davina could have created an NGS garden in three years would have surprised them.”

Herbs for Healing, Barnsley, Gloucestershire, is open for the National Gardens Scheme from 10.30-4.30pm on Wednesday July 27. Admission is £3, children enter free.

For details about other opening times, products and workshops, visit Herbs for Healing

Read about my visit to Barnsley House here

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