Several years ago, I got interested in trying to be more self-sufficient when it came to both staying healthy when possible and treating sickness when necessary. One thing that working in the health profession has taught me in the last few decades is that your best health insurance is to stay healthy! So I looked to herbs and natural, traditional, “grandma” medicine approaches that were not only useful and effective, but also inexpensive, easy to use, and great to keep on hand!
We all realize that our sleepy society can, at any time, be on the brink of disaster, whether it be natural or human-caused. History proves it, and Americans are not immune, no matter how much they wish to deny it. We may not be able to run into the corner drugstore or grocery store to keep supplies on hand, so it’s best to have things immediately available to us, or at least to have the ability to “drum something up” to help our health challenges or use in a first-aid situation until other medical approaches can be used.
I will say here, it is of UTMOST IMPORTANCE that you research the herb and its properties, and consult with your own physician or primary caregiver to see if it in any way contraindicates something with your own health. I am not a physician and am not in charge of your health care. That is something between you and your own physician, at least as long as the government can keep their big noses out of it!
So what did I do? Here are some of the things I did not only to prepare, but also to learn about and use. I use these things on a regular basis; some are seasonal, some are used year-round. But what I do have, I can also grow in my backyard (with the exception of the vodka I use for medicinal tinctures . . . that takes some advance planning and storage.) I believe the best part about preparing your own medicine is that YOU know what it contains, and it’s not some artificially added item that can be harmful to your health.
- Read up. Get your hands on as much reading material as is out there. There are some excellent herbalists and gardeners/farmers out there (nod to Marjory) who offer easy, affordable, and practical advice. Learn about soil; research how and what to grow that you know you WILL use; keep it simple (start with a few different herbs and work your way up depending on your needs); and have a blast learning!
- Pick your practical plot. Depending on the herb/food you’re growing, it won’t take a lot of space, and a little will go a long way. When I relandscaped my desert backyard a couple of years ago, everything I planted could be used in a medicinal or edible way, and nothing was for strictly ornamental purposes. Hence the “read-up” suggestion: Plant in areas that are conducive to what you are growing (sun vs. shade). You don’t have to get discouraged if certain medicinal herbs won’t grow outdoors because of your local climate. The nice thing is, you can grow them indoors, too! That’s the cool thing; you can literally manipulate microclimates indoors to meet your desired plant’s needs.
- Pick your pharmacy. This includes herbs that you can grow, but since not all herbs grow together or are found in all places, have a source where you can obtain dried herbs for later preparation into salves, tinctures, and other uses. (Herbal medicines can be unbelievably easy to make!) I chose to grow garlic, onion, yarrow, echinacea, and St. John’s Wort. I also planted some desert shrubs that are used for medicine (creosote, turpentine, and jojoba), but I’ll keep it simple for this article.
- Now what? So now that you have some of your favorite herbs at your disposal, here are some useful things you can do with them in order to keep your own medicine cabinet stocked.
Garlic: The Herb That Scares Every Germ Away
Garlic is the best antibacterial, antimicrobial, anti-fungal and anti-GERM plant we have at our disposal. This is the ultimate “grandma’s remedy” when you feel that cold or sore throat coming on. There’s a reason vampires don’t like garlic! 😉
What do I do?
- Chop up one clove of garlic into fine pieces. Place the pieces into a 1 oz. shot glass.
- Cover the garlic pieces with olive oil; fill to the top.
- Leave on the counter for at least 4-6 hours. You can place the glass on a “warmer” (not too hot) to decrease the amount of time the garlic needs to continue soaking in the oil. The longer the better, as you want as much garlic fused into the oil as possible.
- Now take that oil, rub enough on BOTH feet, put your socks on, and go to bed. The garlic will absorb through your feet, and through your bloodstream, fighting off those nasty cooties you contracted. Do this for the next several nights until your symptoms are gone. IT. WORKS. Grandma says so. And yes, I do it, too!
(By the way, your feet won’t smell like a pizza later. I promise.)
Onion: The Quicker Germ Picker-Upper and Catcher
I have to thank Rosemary Gladstar for this totally simple but effective remedy! Onions are great for when you feel a cold or flu coming on, and they will help boost your immune system. This recipe is for Honey-Onion Syrup, which you can take to soothe a sore throat or cough. All you need is 1 large onion and about 2 cups of raw local honey.
What do I do?
- Cut onion in half, then cut into very thin discs (should look like thin moons). You may also add a few cloves of garlic (roughly chopped) or some freshly grated ginger to enhance the taste, if you like—but plain ol’ onion works just fine.
- Put in a medium saucepan (or cast iron skillet), and add enough honey to lightly cover up the cut onions.
- Cover on low heat for 30 minutes, until the onions get soft and juicy.
- Place in a glass jar, cover with lid, and label. (There is no need to strain). This will store in the refrigerator for several weeks.
- Take by teaspoons when you feel a cold or flu coming on. Soothes coughs and boosts the immune system. You may also eat the onions in the syrup. They should be very soft.
Yarrow: Nature’s Wound Care
The cool thing about yarrow is not only that it grows in so many places in the northern hemisphere, but also that it’s a nontoxic plant. It’s one of the best disinfecting herbs/antibiotics you can easily grow in your backyard. By that, I mean anti-fungal, anti-protozoa, anti-bacterial, and anti-viral. In addition, it is a “cousin” to chamomile, so it also has some mild anti-inflammatory properties to it. So, if you have a minor wound, scrape, or cut, you can apply the plant (usually the young leaves) directly on you. The plant will get right to work.
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What do I do?
There are several easy ways to prepare yarrow to clean up a wound, scrape, or cut.
- Prepare a “wash.” The simplest preparation is to boil water in a clean coffee can (1/2 to 1 gallon or so); take several handfuls of yarrow; and let it soak. Essentially, you are making a tea. Let it simmer and soak for about an hour. If the injury is on an area of your body that you can soak in the coffee can, then place the injured area directly into the hot wash for about 20 minutes and clean the wound. If the wound is on an area that can’t really be soaked in the coffee can, you can make a warm compress and clean the wound with that.
- Another option is to make a poultice. Chop or break up some young leaves into tiny bits; mix them with a little hot water; and place the mixture directly onto the wound. Leave it on for at least 20 minutes, then clean it off. If you find yourself in a situation where you don’t have water, you can actually make a “spit poultice” . . . yes, you can chew up some leaves and place the mixture directly on the wound. Sounds gross, but it’s very effective.
- Third, you can create a liniment. Take yarrow leaves and place them in a small jar (fill it up loosely with the leaves if you can). Then, pour rubbing alcohol over the leaves and let them soak for 4-6 weeks. You may use this as a topical liniment for scrapes, cuts, and wounds for disinfection.
Echinacea: Nature’s Cold Medicine
I usually will prepare tinctures (made with 80 proof vodka) for the cold season using echinacea, and start taking it daily in late September or early October to boost my immunity during the cold and flu season. All it takes is “just a few squirts” in your tea, coffee, or beverage of choice, and you’re good to go.
What do I do?
- Fill a jar about 2/3 full with dried echinacea leaves. (Because of our dry desert climate here in the Southwest, it’s easy for us to dry leaves in the sun; if you don’t have that nice “amenity,” you can dry them in other ways, such as on the dashboard of your car or in a dehydrator. Alternately, you can stock up on dried echinacea leaves from your local herb shop.)
- Fill the jar with 80 proof (or better) vodka, covering all of the leaves, and seal the jar.
- Place the jar on a cool shelf, and let it sit for 6 weeks. Once a week, shake the jar and check to be sure all the leaves are covered. After the first week, you might need to “top off” the jar, since the leaves will soak up the vodka.
- After 6 weeks, strain the leaves from the mixture, and voila! You have instant medicinal tincture that will help fight off colds and the flu by helping your immune system.
Elderberry: Europe’s Favorite Cold Fighter
Elderberry is another cold-season favorite that has been used for centuries in Europe, and it is one of the most well-documented herbal remedies for colds and the flu. I will use dried elderberries in a tincture (prepared the same way as the echinacea was, above), or even better, in a syrup. Now to be honest, I haven’t tried to grow this in my yard yet, but I am making an attempt to grow it indoors. Still, I decided to include elderberries in this article because using them to make a simple tincture is an easy and effective way to boost your immune system.
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What do I do?
This is a quick and easy way to make the syrup:
- Take 1 cup of elderberries (or 1/2 cup of dried berries), and place the berries in a saucepan. Cover them with 3 cups of water. Then, bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for a half hour.
- Smash up the berries. Then, strain the mixture through a mesh strainer.
- Add 1 cup of raw, organic honey.
- If you’d like, you can also add cloves, a cinnamon stick, and/or ginger to taste, for extra medicine. Grandma says: IT’S ALL GOOD FOR YOU.
St. John’s Wort (Used With Dried Arnica): For Muscle Soreness and Inflammation
This is one of those nice, easy massage oils to use after all that digging and gardening you do while growing your pharmacy. As a physical therapist, I have done some personal research into effective, nontoxic pain remedies for some of my patients who simply can’t reach for the NSAID bottle without blowing out their intestines. There are many natural pain remedies out there that you can try, but here is a nice, quick way to use two wonderful herbs—St. John’s Wort and arnica—in an easy-to-make muscle rub. St. John’s Wort is a natural nervine, meaning that it will help calm down nerves that might be setting off a pain response. Arnica helps to increase blood flow and circulation to an area, which makes it great for bruises and muscle soreness. (It also is wonderful for scars—see below for more on that.)
What do I do?
Making this oil is just like making a tincture, although you use olive oil instead of vodka for the “6-week soak.” It’s a bit messier, but the end result is well worth it.
- Add equal parts of dried arnica and St. John’s Wort to a jar until it is about 3/4 full.
- Fill the jar completely with olive oil, covering all of the leaves. Close securely using an air-tight lid. (Note: Make sure your seal is good and tight, or else the oil will go rancid.)
- Store in a cool, dry place for 6 weeks.
- Strain after 6 weeks. Place in dark glass bottle (I use brown glass), and use as a topical rub for muscle soreness as needed.
I mentioned using arnica on scars. It works wonderfully not only for helping them soften, but also for fading them. I recommend using arnica GEL, not the cream (there are several types at your local health food store) over scars—especially post-operative scars. It’s very important not to get this stuff in an open wound, so make sure your scar is completely healed first. Also, *a very few* of you might be sensitive to it, so test it out on a small part of your skin before committing to it, in case those little red spots on your previous boo boo appear because the arnica gel made your skin break out!
So there you have it—simple, backyard medicine. (Well, I might have cheated on some suggestions, but you get the idea.) The main point is that it is easy to create and use, even if you only grow a few of the herbs I suggested here. The possibilities are endless, and there are many, many ways of preparing herbal medicines for your personal health that go beyond the scope of this article.
I will leave you with a quote from one of my patients, and it pretty much applies to everything I have learned (including making my own herbal medicines):
“An inch is a pinch, but a mile is a trial.”
Take small steps, and grow from there. You just might surprise yourself with what you concoct. I know I did. And you know, if it was good enough for grandma, it’s good enough for you!
What Do You Think?
What’s your favorite way to use the herbs mentioned in this article? What are your favorite go-to herbal medicines? Let us know in the comments below!
(This is an updated version of an article that was originally published on August 19, 2014. The author may not currently be available to respond to comments, however we encourage our Community members to chime in to share their experiences and answer questions!)
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