Photo Credit: Photo Emily Bulmer
Medicinal flower power: More than just a pretty face
Flowers are widely viewed as something decorative to put in the front yard or to help improve pollination for squash by attracting bees. Some serious vegetable gardeners see space given up to flowers as wasted, because they cannot be eaten.
As recently as one or two generations ago, flowers were grown specifically to be harvested and used in the family medicine cabinet to treat everything from diaper rash to insomnia. Cultivating an appreciation for flowers is a fantastic way to round out the garden, provide some visual interest and try out some remedies your great-grandmother could have taught you.
Flowers have a multitude of uses, and many medicinal flowers can be grown in the North. The six flowers below are a brief introduction to useful blooms. These plants are easy to grow and common to many gardens; you may already be growing some of them.
The cheery orange and yellow blooms of calendula brighten up the garden throughout the entire season, as it is an early bloomer with significant frost tolerance. A prolific self-seeder, it will appear year after year without much encouragement. Calendula officinalis is the variety used for medicinal purposes. Calendula is excellent for healing burns, cuts, rashes, insect bites and bruises, and for treating strains and sprains. A compress of freshly crushed petals can be directly applied onto the area of concern. To make calendula salve, soak one-quarter-cup dried (or one cup fresh) calendula petals in a half-cup of extra virgin olive oil on low heat in a crockpot for three hours. Strain through cheesecloth and discard the petals. Transfer to an old pot, add one-eighth-cup grated beeswax and stir until melted. Add a few drops of lavender oil if desired.
This distinctive flower cone is spiky and round with purple or white petals and can be recognized on the labels of many products found in health food stores. A native plant to North America, it has been used for centuries to relive sore throats, cough and fever. Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea pallida and Echinacea purpurea are the varieties used medicinally. Echinacea is a perennial herb and flowers late in the summer and into the fall. Its flowers and leaves can be used topically as a cream or in a tincture to be taken internally. The root is also used. To make echinacea tincture, fill a canning jar with dried flowers and cover with vodka, leaving air space at the top. Leave four to six weeks, shaking every few days. Strain through cheesecloth when finished and store in a glass container. Use an eyedropper to administer orally.
The bright orange blooms and feathery foliage of the California poppy are distinctive and easy to identify. These poppies are hardy and easily grown in the North. Another enthusiastic self-seeder, the plant will return year after year in otherwise-inhospitable corners of the garden. The long, thin taproot allows the plant to take advantage of dry, poor soil conditions. This flower can be used as a remedy to reduce stress and insomnia. The whole plant can be harvested and dried and made into a tincture. Not to be confused with the opium poppy, it has a milder effect than its relative.
The sky-blue flowers and fuzzy leaves of the borage plant have been used in a wide range of applications from soothing fever, stimulating milk production for nursing mothers, and as a pick-me-up for people who are exhausted and burned out. The oil contained in the seeds is rich in gamma-linoleic and linoleic acid, which is effective in treating inflammatory problems such as eczema and rheumatoid arthritis. The flowers and leaves have a cucumber flavour and can also be used in drinks or jellies. Borage is extremely prolific to the point of invasive—fortunately, it is also used as an eating herb and the leaves are good for making soups. Pull young plants you do not want to mature before the flowers set.
Achillea millefolium, or yarrow, was named after Achilles, the Greek war hero. Achilles painted himself with yarrow to become invincible to the enemy—unfortunately, missing one famous spot. Traditionally, yarrow was applied to the skin for wounds and minor bleeding, and taken internally to reduce inflammation and to relieve anxiety or insomnia. Yarrow blooms from mid-summer into the fall and has white or light-pink flowers. The flowers, leaves and stems are used and collected while in bloom. To help stop a wound from bleeding, use fresh yarrow in a poultice form by chopping up the plant and applying directly onto the affected area.
This plant is more green than flowery with rounded leaves, earning itself the name bear paw or lion’s paw in Europe. The flowers are small and yellowish green. It was well known to relieve menstrual cramps and other uterine problems such as endometriosis. The leaves are harvested when the flowers are in bloom and used dried to make tea.
Tips for use
Always make sure that the flowers and herbs you are collecting have not been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. Collect flowers and leaves when they are in their prime and either use them immediately or dry on a rack or on low in a food dehydrator. Ensuring the plants are fully dry is important to prevent mould. Store the finished product in glass sealer jars and check them every now and then to make sure they are still fresh.
It is important to remember that using plants as medicine is not necessarily a weaker form of drug. Just like modern pharmaceuticals, the compounds in plants have the ability to strongly affect the body and can interact with other medications or cause allergic reactions in some people. Fully researching the properties, dosages and interactions of any plant before using it is critical, and talking to a practising herbalist or knowledgeable medical practitioner is good common sense.
There are also many non-clinical benefits of flowers: they can reduce stress and lift the spirit, which is an important element of overall wellbeing. First, there is the pure joy they can provide for anyone who receives them. Growing flowers simply to give away is a very easy way to connect with your neighbours and cultivate the practice of generosity. Secondly, spending a few minutes picking flowers from the garden can ease the tension of a stressful day. “Stop and smell the roses” feels like clichéd advice, but spending time each day appreciating beauty is an actual skill that builds resilient spirit and calms the mind.
A productive, well-rounded garden that includes flowers can help soothe both physical bruises and mental cramps. Learning about the medicinal properties of flowers is another opportunity for self-sufficiency in the garden that goes beyond food security.
In the poem “To the Virgins, to make much of Time,” Robert Herrick wrote:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will by dying.
While he may not have meant this literally, it is excellent advice for the modern herbalist.