My top 10 Must Have Herbs at Home
Every herbalist has their favorite plant friends that they keep around the house and office at all times, both because they use them so often and because they offer relief, comfort, joy and versatility. It is hand to keep tinctures of a few favorites around at all time, because they are so quick and easy to use, especially in a stressful situation, but some herbs I like to keep on hand as dried too, because there are times when a cup of tea is the best kind of medicine. These are my top 10 herbs that I wouldn’t be without personally, in my home, on a day to day basis. There are more herbs which I use almost as frequently in the apothecary with clients, but these are my 10 personal favorites.
Rosa spp, is probably one of my top herbs, that I use, almost every day. Its one of my favorite nervines, which calms me down when I am sad, crying, hurt, scared or lonely. Simple rose flower and leaf elixir, a cup of rose tea, or a drop of rose attar on my heart or head, all work beautifully to calm down my nervous system in the face of emotional stress and angst. Rose Elixir has stopped many an emotional meltdown in my home. But rose also doubles as a cooling remedy for burns, or in the heat of summer, calms and pacifies hot and bothered pitta (fire element) in the body. Roses help me stay cool, calm and happy almost every day. I put roses into my morning tea almost every day, mixing it with black smoked lapsang souchoung, or with sage or mint.
Salvia spp, my favorites are garden sage, salvia officinalis, and black sage, S. mellifera, but white sage, clary sage and other wild, bitter sage spp from the southwest make their rounds here too. I love sage for so many reasons, I cook with it all the time, adding black or garden sage to my soups, meats, vegetable stirfry, sauces, and salad dressings. My favorite salad dressing is made up of a couple of tablespoons of yogurt, olive oil, lemon juice, a crushed clove of garlic, salt and pepper, and some crumbled black or garden sage.
Sage is also a great calming and strengthening nervine, and I combine it with rose often for emotional stress and freak outs, but also for clearing heavy emotional energy at the end of the day. It stimulates circulation throughout the body, including the head, and can help with feeling a bit more clear and centered. It also is one of my favorite go to belly ache remedies- when the stomach feels sour, unsettled, or that food isn’t digesting well, or when stools are loose. Its a good astringent and also helps relieve burns, sore throats, weepy rashes
Achillea Millefolium is one of the first plants I ever learned and used as a young girl for a nasty sore throat that threatened my late fall family ski vacation. This versatile herb is an amazing first aid remedy that I keep on hand, both as a tincture and as dried herb for bleeding cuts, cleaning the wound, and then packing with the powdered leaves or applying the tincture as a compress on the bleeding area. It works reliably to slow or stop the bleeding, even when a wound may need to be stitched. Yarrow is also a remarkable good remedy for heavy menstrual/menopausal flooding, or cramping from stagnation with scanty flow. Tincture (15-30 drops) taken every 10-15 min until the flow eases. Yarrow tea, brewed hot, is my go to herb for fevers and flu, and many bacterial infections. It is a disinfectant, and anodyne (great for sore throats!) and will help stimulate a healthy fever response and support the body in overcoming illnesses. Yarrow is also a great healing skin remedy for bites, stings, and itchy rashes. A compress of the tea is my favorite way to use this, or a tincture in a pinch.
Alnus spp, a tree of riparian areas in the southwest, and all over the country, is the answer for infections on the skin, internally, gut health, bee stings, ant bites, poison ivy rashes, strep throat, teen acne. It is a complex and versatile herbal medicine, and I usually keep the bark tincture on hand as the most useful form. Applied topically to the skin it can help address weepy wounds, and weepy poison ivy rashes, it takes the sting right out of insect bites, it helps to fight off bacterial infections in the gut, throat, urinary tract, and improves digestion and absorption of nutrients. Its not a tasty herb, but I find it really reliable when I need a fluid and damp moving antimicrobial and pain reliever. Its very astringent and drying, and moves lymphatic fluids as well as cleaning the blood as an alterative.
I’m never without my Elderberry, because inevitably, there is always someone around who is coming down with something who needs it. This the family safe immune ally. Great for kids, elders and everyone in between. I usually make an elixir of the dried or fresh berries in alcohol and honey, rather than a sugar laden syrup, but elderberries work well as a tea too! ANYTIME I feel something coming on, I start taking the elderberry elixir, hourly, in rather large doses (2 droppers) , children and elders can take smaller doses, but I think taking it hourly or so (more frequently) is the most effective way to use it. Elderberry is specifically helpful for viral kinds of things, colds, flus, cold sores, pox, measles, shingles etc. It absolutely can be useful when dealing with bacterial infections as an immune helper, but I usually go with Alder for bacterial things. Elderberry can be used everyday to keep the immune system strong during flu season, and is the one thing I wouldn’t do without when dealing with the actual influenza virus, which is a serious infection not to be taken lightly. 1 -3 tsp a day as a preventative, and in acute illness taken hourly. I have even given babies under a year elderberry paste in glycerin (not honey). Good stuff!
Larrea tridentata is known by creosote bush in arizona, and if you live elsewhere, its known as chaparral. Whatever you call it, its another one of those incredibly useful and versatile medicines I learned when I lived in the Sonoran desert, and will never be without. I most often use the infused oil or salve on any and all skin inflammations, cuts, scrapes, rashes, sores, burns, bites, stings, or fungus. Its a super antinflammatory, very cooling, antiviral, antiseptic and antifungal. Itchy insect bites literally melt into a cooling sensation when applied, strange rashes fade and stop itching, cold sores shrink and the pain eases, it takes the heat and inflammation out of sunburns and pimples. Eczema and psoraisis calm down and itch less, and sometimes clear up (though that often best responds to dietary and internal herbal protocols). I do keep the tincture around for use on foot and toenail fungus, or weepy and damp rashes that salve may aggravate. In my years of making this medicine, only 2-3 people had an allergic reaction to it, or found it made the symptoms worse, and please use caution when applying any oil/salve to an infection, as it CAN spread the infection around topically. I also do use the tea internally for stubborn infections, candida, or long term viral illness, but do not use it internally for more than a few weeks generally. There is some concern with its effects on the liver/kidney, so I err on the side of caution with internal use on this plant, and only use the water based tea for this purpose.
Vervain (verbena spp, or glandularia spp in the SW) is my best friend. Vervain is my personal favorite nervine for body tension, stress, crabbiness, frustration, pms moodiness, type A overwork, and insomnia from tension and stress. This isn’t what I reach for when I have grief or heartache, but when I’m feeling cranky, weepy and stressed out by too much life and too many hormones. A lot of folks carry tension in their shoulders and neck and this plant helps to relax that sort of tension, especially if sitting at a computer or behind the wheel of a car is a common part of your day to day. Vervain is a fairly strong bitter, so must be blended with aromatics like mint or lemongrass in tea for most folks to find it palatable, but as a tincture or elixir it goes down alright, and works fast. Dose is variable, I personally need to take 2-3 droppersfull when I’m stressed out and crabby, some folks find two drops lays them up on the couch from the relaxation. Its also a great night cap/sleep aid, and I often use it before bed just to aid with the relaxation of the body. I also like vervain before meditation or journey work, to cultivate relaxation and to stimulate the creative/visionary mind. Its a good digestive bitter as well and can be taken before meals to improve digestive function, especially if its deficient due to stress or emotional upheaval at meal time.
California poppy, or mexican poppy (Escholtzia spp) is super easy to grow in your garden and grows wild in much of the west in the spring and summer, (though I believe it is protected in California in the wild, so you may want to grow it at home). This strong medicine is one of the safest of the poppy family nervines, and is my go to herb for pain, especially of the musculoskeletal variety, or pain that keeps you awake at night. It also works rather well for intense emotional upset or anxiety. It is non- addictive, and not likely to have side effects, unlike other poppies. It is even safe for relief of teething pain in young ones (tincture applied to the gums.), I always tincture this fresh, rather than make tea, as the taste is ghastly, and use the tincture in large or small doses (10-90 drops) rather freely, depending on the situation. Many people will respond well to this for general insomnia as well.
Sunny, golden, bright calendula officinalis, is a great skin remedy, like many of these other plants, but my reasons for keeping around the house in quantity, and growing it in abundance is for internal skin. Its super healing to any sort of internal mucous membrane inflammation and irritation, I will drink a strong brew of calendula tea, usually with peppermint to address stomach pain and inflammation from eating something I should not have ( accidental gluten) as it helps to reduce lymphatic swelling and calms the inflammed tissues. Any time I feel my digestion is a bit cold, damp and blah, a few cups of warm and rejuvenating calendula will improve it. Its a strong bitter as well and stimulates healthy digestion. It strengthens the third chakra and balances stagnation by warming like the sun.
Good old peppermint, seemingly simple, but amazingly useful. Peppermint is my favorite herb for covering up the bitter taste of other less pleasant medicines, in tea form. Even bitter creosote bush can be somewhat curtailed by the minty fresh taste of peppermint. But peppermint by itself, brewed as a strong tea, or as a tincture, can calm down late night stomach upsets, nausea, heartburn (though some folks find it worsens with mint, careful!), a mid afternoon lift/pick me up. Peppermint tea or a little peppermint essential oil in a mister spritzed on the skin or in the room can cool you off when feeling hot and bothered, and a little oil rubbed on the temples can often give relief for an oncoming headache. Strong peppermint tea can also soothe irritated throats, gurgling cramping GI tract (from food that was a little off). I cannot tell you how often I’ve reached for that handy bottle of peppermint elixir in the middle of night for a little stomach thing….it is instantly soothing.
Ginger (so what, its 11!)
Trusty Zingiber is a favorite home remedy in my cabinet for all sorts of belly woes- including nausea, gas, cramps and indigestion. Its a perfect before meal digestive aid as well! I always keep fresh ginger root on hand for a quick tea, grated and steeped in hot water, covered, for 10 min. But it can also be prepared with dried root pieces, steeped (not boiled because that boils off the volatile oils) for 10 min. Its also perfect mixed with honey and lemon for colds & sore throats. (Try it with a pinch of cayenne too!) Ginger is also a wonderful warming stimulant to the circulatory system, and I often use it to warm up on a cold day, or infused in oil for a warming massage agent for sore muscles or joints. Hot ginger tea is also a great and simple antinflammatory and antispasmodic, so I often use it for menstrual cramps, back aches, and general achiness. I most often use ginger as a tea, but a ginger root tincture or elixir is the easiest way to carry ginger with you for motion sickness or digestive discomfort on the go.
Obviously, this list could go on, as the herbs I love and use are many, for certain, but these offer so much in their simplicity and versatility. Many have been allies to me for as long as I’ve known plants, and others more so in recent years. And, its important to note that most of these plants grow around me, either in the wild or in the garden, for both ease of access, sustainability, and because its valuable to me to have a close relationship with the land I’m on.