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Medicinal Plants

By exploring the remarkable legacy of herbal medicine and traditional medicine throughout the world and over the ages, we can begin to recognize the bounty of the natural world. As confirmed by both modern science and traditional wisdom, we can see how certain plants help us heal both body and mind.

Medicinal plants are valuable additions to the permaculture landscape. Not only can they benefit the soil and surrounding plants, but they also provide support for ailments we experience in everyday life. In this way, medicinal plants contribute to one of the core ethics of permaculture: care for humanity. Through caring for humanity with healing plants, one also meets the other two core ethics of permaculture: care for the planet and fair share to all (reciprocity).

However, working with medicinal plants isn’t as straightforward as working with edible or functional plants. They require a deeper understanding of how to properly use them, which includes learning how medicinal plants work, the importance of learning about each individual plant, and how medicinal plants benefit the garden.

Why Grow Medicinal Plants?

One principle of permaculture design is “each component performs multiple functions.” Several medicinal plants fit this principle perfectly, as they offer medicine to the people and offer services to the garden. These “services” include herbs that are nitrogen fixers, dynamic accumulators, cover crops, and plants that attract pollinators and beneficial predatory insects. They can also provide shelter for predatory insects and creatures. Most medicinal plants have more than one of these qualities. Here are a few examples:

  1. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): This versatile medicinal herb also serves as a dynamic accumulator and attracts pollinators and predatory insects. It also dissuades pests with its aromatic compounds, protecting itself and the plants around it.
  2. Nettles (Urtica dioica): Highly nutritious food/herb that is a dynamic accumulator. As a dynamic accumulator, it mines nutrients in the soil and stores them in its leaves. Then, it releases those nutrients back into the ground when it dies or sheds its leaves. Some herbs, such as nettles, can concentrate high amounts of nutrients, including nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, and calcium. In this way, nettles can be used as food, medicine, a compost tea, or added straight to the compost for a nutritional boost. Horsetail and comfrey also serve this purpose with their unique medicinal benefits.
  3. Red Clover (Trifolium pratense): Easy to grow medicinal with a host of benefits. Also serves as a cover crop, dynamic accumulator, nitrogen fixer, and attracts pollinators.
  4. Burdock (Arctium lappa): A lovely food herb that is a dynamic accumulator; its specialty is breaking up hard, compact, clayey soils. Plant it in a future site you wish to garden, and it will help loosen the soil! Plus, its large leaves provide much-needed shade and shelter for beneficial insects and creatures, such as frogs and lizards.

Medicinal plants also have the advantage of beauty as many possess showy flowers that attract visitors - human and insect-like. Beauty isn’t typically seen as a functional aspect, but in a garden, I believe it is. Beauty, in the form of swaying flowers and vibrant plant growth, invites serenity. In this, the plant’s beauty gifts the viewer and invites them to reciprocate that gift by offering their awareness, gratitude, and presence to the natural world. If everyone had heart-centered awareness, gratitude, and presence toward the natural world, we would see incredible change and a united effort to protect the beautiful land we call home.

Harvest Your Own Medicine

Another reason to grow medicinal plants is that it allows you to harvest your own medicine. By harvesting from the plants you grow in your garden, you don’t have to worry about where the herbs are sourced or if the plants grew in a clean environment.

One of the problems with modern herb retailers is that low-quality sellers offer low-quality herbs, and there’s a potential for contamination or adulteration. Plus, even high-quality bulk herb retailers have to source some of their herbs from overseas. I find that homegrown or wild-harvested medicinal herbs are almost always better in quality and taste than purchased herbs.

However, if wildcrafting, there’s always the dilemma of making sure you’re harvesting from a clean environment. It’s also important to not overharvest and to take only what you need. While some plants should be wild-harvested rather than cultivated, such as noxious invasive species, growing your own medicine eliminates the concern about where or how much you can harvest. Planting your own medicinal plants ensures the plants grow in a clean environment, and you can harvest the exact amount you need for yourself and your community.

Lastly, harvesting and making your own medicine is a truly empowering experience that allows you to connect to the plants, your ancestors, and the earth as a whole in a much deeper way.

How Do Medicinal Plants Work?

Learning how medicinal plants work is a fascinating experience and an ongoing discovery process. We understand the medicinal benefits of plants and how they work through two major avenues: scientific study and traditional knowledge.


With modern scientific advances, we are now able to understand how plants work on a biochemical level. In laboratory studies, scientists can break down and isolate plant constituents: the many compounds that make up a plant's chemical profile. As complex molecular structures, constituents are further organized into broad categories containing several plant constituents.

Scientific studies have revealed how some constituents affect the body. Plants typically have a prominent constituent, or a few prominent constituents, that describe what the plant does to the body (in part). These prominent constituents are called active constituents and are listed when describing a plant's “mechanism of action.”

Medicinal plants have a list of “actions,” such as bitter, antimicrobial, astringent, and demulcent. Herbal pharmacology further explains why those plants have those actions. For example, the astringent action of a plant is due to the presence of tannins, while the demulcents action is due to heteropolysaccharide, a complex carbohydrate.

The most well-known medicinal plant constituents are volatile oils: the aromatic compounds that form essential oils. These volatile oils are the mechanism of action behind herbal actions such as antimicrobial, antiseptic, carminative, and more.

Understanding plants on a biochemical level was an important step for modern medicine, as the breakdown and isolation of active plant constituents lead to the creation of pharmaceuticals. Many pharmaceuticals are synthetic versions of isolated plant constituents, while others are simply high concentrations of an isolated plant constituent.

While many pharmaceuticals are miraculous medical breakthroughs that have saved many lives, it’s important for the herbalist to not view plants based on their active constituents alone. These active constituents can help one understand how the medicinal plant works, but they do not provide the whole picture. This is because the effects of medicinal plants in the body are due to how the whole plant’s chemical structure interacts with the body. In other words, the chemical structures of a plant work in synergy to aid the healing of the body. Isolated constituents do not behave the same when separated from the whole. As many great herbalists say, “The whole is more than the sum of the parts.”

Understanding complex phytochemistry is not essential to growing or working with medicinal plants. It is simply a piece of the puzzle to understanding how medicinal plants work and their therapeutic potential. If you’re interested in learning more about phytochemistry, I recommend the book, “Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine” by David Hoffman.

Traditional Knowledge

To feel the living spirit and intelligence of Nature is the true foundation for developing knowledge of herbal medicine. - Matthew Wood, The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines

What we are discovering in scientific studies on medicinal plants, for the most part, is only proving the traditional knowledge already in place for a pant’s therapeutic benefits. Traditional knowledge about medicinal plants has been passed down over the centuries. For some plants, there aren’t any scientific studies to “prove” their therapeutic benefit. In these cases, herbalists rely on traditional knowledge and person experience for understanding that plant’s medicine.

Our ancient ancestors did not have the laboratories or tools to understand how a plant works in the body, so how were they able to know a plant’s healing benefits and pass that knowledge down? How did they know which parts of the plant to harvest or how to use the plant? While there’s no denying the stark results of trial and error, there has to be more to the story of their knowledge of medicinal plants.

With these questions, we enter a world of mystery where the answers may never be fully known. Many cultures across the world had a solid understanding of local medicinal plants and how to use them. This includes ancient healing traditions such as India’s Ayurvedic Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine, ancient Egyptian medical scrolls such as the papyrus, Greek medicine, and more.

However, what we see across all of those traditional medical systems, is an understanding of patterns. These systems were able to perceive patterns of the human body and patterns of plants through direct observation. These patterns are described differently depending on the traditional system in question, such as the Doshas in Ayurvedic Medicine or the five elements of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Moreover, spoken knowledge passed down through indigenous cultures shines a light of understanding on how ancient people came to know medicinal plants, and the answer is quite mystical. For the indigenous peoples of North America, it largely came through “Dreamtime.” Dreamtime not only refers to actual dreaming but also altered states of consciousness where the seeker was able to receive wisdom from the “other world.” These vision quests or dreams would reveal the use of certain plants for a specific need. Often, these visions would come through animal wisdom, which was confirmed in physical reality by the native peoples watching those animals with the plant in question.

These cultures also had something that is largely lost in this modern society: the ability to communicate with nature through heart perception. By letting go of the rational, linear mind, one can start to understand a language not spoken solely with words, but a language spoken through feeling, vision, and innate knowing.

One of the most profound ways to learn about medicinal plants is not from any book or human teacher but from the plants themselves. This skill is not easy for our modern mode of perception, which has been reduced to solely what we can see and what the mind can comprehend. To learn from the plants themselves, one must let go of their mind and all that they think they know. They must be curious and open, like a child seeing a plant for the very first time, before they are hardened by society’s lack of belief in the mystical and seemingly “imagined.”

When studying traditional knowledge and ancient systems built on patterns, we see there are several possibilities for how ancient cultures knew how to use medicinal plants. These possibilities could be direct observation, trial and error, and or spiritual wisdom. But in some ways, it will always remain a mystery. For me, there is no denying the presence of spirit in the story, that there was more at play than what the human mind alone can understand.

The Importance of Learning About Individual Medicinal Plants

If you decided you would like to grow medicinal plants in your permaculture landscape - awesome! Growing medicinal plants is a truly rewarding and empowering experience. That said, there are some important things to know about growing and using medicinal plants.

First, it’s imperative to research and learn about the medicinal plants you wish to grow. Not only the plant’s medicinal benefits but also these key factors:

  • Know which part of the plant is used for medicine. There are specific parts of plants used for medicine, such as the leaves, flowers, seeds, roots, berries, and or bark. Understanding which part of the plant to harvest will ensure you receive the most medicinal part of the plant. For some plants, it’s imperative to harvest the right part as another part of the plant may be toxic. For example, Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) flowers are used for medicine, but the berries are poisonous.
  • Know when to harvest your medicinal plant. Just as every plant has specific parts used for medicine, they also have specific times of year (and even times of day) when they are the most medicinally potent. Plus, many plants that are harvested for their roots require a year or more of growth before they can be harvested.
  • Know what species are traditionally used for medicine. Some species within a genus can all be used interchangeably, such as hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) or rose (Rosa spp.). Other genera contain specific species that are used for medicine and are not medicinally interchangeable with other species.
  • Know the preparation/storing methods for your medicinal plant. Preparation methods include drying for tea or making an infused oil, tincture, vinegar, or more. It’s important to learn which preparation method(s) is best for your plant, as some methods aren’t recommended for certain plants. For example, marshmallow (Althea officinalis) is best dried and shouldn’t be made into a tincture (unless you want a thick, sludgy tincture!).
  • Know how your medicinal plant benefits the garden. By learning how your medicinal plant benefits your garden or permaculture landscape, you can strategically place it where its benefits will best impact your space.
  • Know the contraindications and dosing for your medicinal plant. Otherwise known as herbal safety, it’s extremely important to know the contraindications for your medicinal plant, which explains when a plant shouldn’t be used. Along those lines, it’s also important to know the dosing suggestion for your plant. Some medicinal plants straddle the divide between food and herb, so they can be taken in large amounts. Others, on the other hand, can cause negative side effects in large doses, such as lobelia (Lobelia inflata), which can cause intense vomiting even in moderate doses.

What Medicinal Plants Should You Grow?

If you don’t know the medicinals you wish to grow, it’s helpful to think about what medicinal plants will benefit you and your garden the most. For example, you could ask yourself, “What are the most common needs/ailments I have or that my family has?” “What herbs am I most drawn to?”

By learning your common needs/ailments, you can pick plants that will directly support those needs. For example, if you have frequent anxiety or insomnia, you can grow a variety of nervines that will help calm your nervous system and promote deeper rest. Some of my favorite herbal nervines include skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), holy basil (Ocimum sanctum), motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), and mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). Or, you can grow respiratory and immune-stimulating herbs for seasonal colds and flu, such as echinacea (Echinacea purpurea), spilanthes (Acmella oleracea), elecampane (Inula helenium), and marshmallow (Althea officinalis).

When deciding what medicinal plants you wish to grow, it’s important to understand each plant’s growing requirements and see if they would do well in your climate. If you would like to learn more about growing medicinal herbs, check out the blog, Growing a Medicinal Herb Garden.

Herbal Resources

All of the resources provided below are resources I use/books I’ve read. There are many more herbal resources, but these are a great starting point for beginning your herbal path.

Herbal Books

General Herbal Books:

    • Holistic Herbal: A Safe and Practical Guide to Making and Using Herbal Remedies by David Hoffmann
  • Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine by David Hoffmann
  • Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine by Andrew Chevallier
  • The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicine by Matthew Wood
  • The Earthwise Herbal Volume 1: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants by Matthew Wood
  • The New Healing Herbs by Michael Castleman

Medicine Making:

  • The Herbal Medicine-Makers Handbook: A Home Manual by James Green
  • The Herbal Bath & Body Book by Heather Lee Houdek

Plant-Spirit Connection and Traditional Knowledge:

  • Evolutionary Herbalism: Science, Spirituality, and Medicine from the Heart of Nature by Sajah Popham
  • The Secret Teachings of Plants: In The Direct Perception of Nature by Stephen Harrod Buhner
  • Sacred Plant Medicine: The Wisdom in Native American Herbalism by Stephen Harrod Buhner

Online Herbal Courses

Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine

I am in the Herbal Immersion Program through the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine. If you are excited about growing, using, and making your own medicine, this is a great course to enroll in.

The School of Evolutionary Herbalism

I’m subscribed to the Materia Medica program, which features in-depth monographs on individual plants. I highly recommend this resource, as I have learned so much about herbs through this program.

Other Resources/Websites:

The School of Evolutionary Herbalism Blog - has many informative posts about herbs and specific conditions/ailments.