Five Useful Herbal Allies to Tuck into your Spring Garden
Viola odorata, or sweet violet, is a vibrant low-growing ground cover which will happily add its heart-shaped glossy leaves and cheerful purple flowers to nearly any spot, from full sun to full shade. I love to use it to ring the base of trees and as an edging plant along the borders of garden beds. It stays between 6 and 12 inches tall and brings some of spring’s earliest blooms to your yard.
Violet can be used topically as a demulcent (moistening) astringent (tightening and tonifying) agent, or taken internally as a tea. With internal use, it helps maintain the strength of capillary walls within your blood and lymphatic vessels and so may assist in reducing spider veins and other varicosities. By helping to tone and tighten the vasculature, thereby improving lymph and blood flow and consequently moving wastes out of local tissues it earned an historical reputation as an alterative or “blood cleanser”. This may also be why it’s an old popular remedy for bruises. Violet flowers are edible and can be enjoyed as a tea, made into a syrup, or used to decorate sweets, added to salads or cocktails, or frozen into ice cube trays or popsicles.
Comfrey, Symphytum officinalis, is a gorgeous, stately plant with a number of beneficial uses for your body and your garden alike, and its adds beautiful greenery and prolific purple flowers to your garden palette. This perennial happily grows in most soils and will improve them. Its leaves make a spectacular natural nutritive mulch. Interplant it in your garden beds or use it to make compost tea to provide nourishment to plant roots. It will re-propagate readily from even small root cuttings. It grows to at least 3-feet tall, so place where it won’t shade out shorter plants.
It acts as a soothing, moistening, vulnerary agent when applied topically to the skin or taken internally as a tea. Comfrey promotes tissue repair for cuts, scrapes, abrasions, burns, sprains, and breaks. It’s so effective in this arena that you don’t want to apply it directly over deep or puncture wounds because it can close the top skin so quickly that it would seal in an infection.
Comfrey leaf’s high nutritional content includes vitamins and minerals helpful to both humans and other plants. And, while it’s nutritive, excessive internal use or use by folks with compromised liver function is not advised.
Plantain might already be a part of your landscape. Encompassing a number of native species, commonly Plantago lanceolata and P. major, this groundcover is very likely already underfoot. It grows in full sun, yet it is also tolerant to shade and foot traffic. Mostly staying under 6 to 12 inches, plantain makes a good choice for borders and edges of existing garden beds. This native requires essentially no maintenance or watering.
It’s a wonderful summertime ally to have around because it can help take the zing out of bites and stings. Plantain possesses soothing, anti-inflammatory, and drawing actions in addition to being anti-itch and anti-bacterial. Add in the fact that it’s also a vulnerary, and you see how it can help you get safely on the other side of an insect assault. Kids can be taught to reach for this one. Once they can safely identify it, they just chew a leaf and apply their newly minted mouth poultice to the affected area. Always make sure to harvest from an area that hasn’t been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides and which doesn’t receive vehicle traffic.
Spearmint is versatile and will tolerate full sun to part shade, and its strength is in its roots. Watch out because it will spread rapidly by underground runners. Make sure to tuck it into a deeply bordered section or pot to avoid it overtaking your other plantings. This plant typically grows to 2 feet, though I’ve seen it reach 3.5 feet in my beds. The pulegone and other essential oils it contains mean that planting this one near your home can help deter mosquitoes, flies, ants, and other unwanted insects. You can even rub a fistful of leaves onto exposed skin for added repellent benefit.
Spearmint, Mentha spicatea, is the original mint from whence come many varieties (peppermint, chocolate mint, etc.). It makes a lovely soothing leaf tea to aid digestion, especially for the stomach, a little less so for the lower bowels. Spearmint is calming, carminative (reductive to gas and bloating), anti-spasmodic, and a mild anti-nauseant. Because it doesn’t contain menthol, its flavor is gentler and less cooling/ less intense to most palates than peppermint. This makes it less likely to cause exacerbation of GERD-like symptoms in the gut, while still maintaining beneficial effects on the digestive apparatus. Where peppermint is stimulating, spearmint is calming; its strength is in its gentleness. Because of this, it’s a favorite tea with kids.
Passionflower, Passiflora incarnata, is perhaps one of the most striking flowers on the planet. It’s a climber, so trellising is a must. It likes sun and is great for arbors, pergolas and porch columns. This one will spread like crazy so be sure you’re tucking it in somewhere its roots can be contained (like a pot or a deeply bordered zone).
I enjoy just being around passionflower. Its uniquely shaped leaves, exotically beautiful flowers, and vining tendrils spark joy, deep breaths, and peace. Its flowers may be added to water for a lovely presentation but the best use is probably a warm leaf tea infusion. In this preparation, you can most fully receive its many benefits. Passionflower leaf is a hypnotic sedative nervine skilled at reducing spasm, nervous tension, and pain due to spasm, as well as promoting restful sleep. This means it can help calm circuitous thoughts, quiet your mind, calm your nerves and gut, and ease you into slumber. The maypop fruits it produces each summer and fall can be made into a tasty jelly or just eaten right off the vine.