Eat Your Medicine: Five common herbs that pack medicinal clout


Although I grow an array of vegetables every season, sometimes I still look across our fields and imagine lush medicinal gardens boasting fantastically named choices like feverfew, juniperus, damiana, or blackwort. Maybe, I think, I could even pull off some false unicorn? 


Then I realize that with the amount of wild plants bordering the farm — stinging nettle, evening primrose, lambs quarters, and plantain in abundance — along with culinary herbs, I really do have the medicinal garden of my dreams.


Many herb books make a distinction between culinary and medicinal herbs, but the truth is that there are numerous plants that overlap those categories. That means it's possible you're already getting a nice dose of medicinal power just by throwing some fresh herbs into your dinner. Here are five of my favorite picks, with a few ideas on how to use them.



Often used in both Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, basil is considered stellar for treating the digestive system. Studies show that it reduces inflammation, contains numerous antioxidants, and even has anti-aging properties. 


Medicinal use: for lowering fevers, gently boil fresh leaves for about 5 minutes, then strain and drink when cooler. This is especially good when combined with cardamom. (Also, delicious.)



When it comes to symbolism, thyme has quite the history. In the Middle Ages, people tucked sprigs under pillows to ward off nightmares, and burned bundles in homes to purify the space of evil spirits. Think about that next time you're making pasta. The herb has been used for everything from hangover remedies to acne, but it's a standout for skin treatments and respiratory problems.


Medicinal use: put fresh thyme in the bottom of a jar and pour honey over it; stir herbs into the honey and wait for a week for a proper infusion. You can use the honey to add to cough remedy teas.



Brides used to weave rosemary into their bouquets, and churches in Great Britain would sprinkle rosemary on floors at Christmas to remember those who'd passed during the year. Which means there used to be a lot of great-smelling churches, apparently. The herb has tons of medicinal actions, combatting depression, providing blood sugar control, and even showing promise for preventing tumor growth.


Medicinal use: to stimulate the appetite, create an infusion by pouring a cup of boiling water over a few teaspoons of the dried herb. Leave in a covered container for about 15 minutes. Drink up to three times a day, but don't take for more than a couple days consecutively.



Hippocrates himself used oregano for stomach problems and respiratory issues, and the herb is still widely used in Greece as a sore throat remedy. Studies have shown that it may even protect against drug-resistant bacteria. And of course, it's also hellaciously tasty dried or fresh.


Medicinal use: Dry the leaves (or buy dried, but make sure you check expiration dates on the container) and make them into a tea. This can help with fatigue and irritable bowel syndrome.


Bay Leaf

For most of my life, bay leaf was that dried, usually old, brittle leaf that I threw into soups and stews because a recipe directed me to add it. But after researching the herb — which actually comes from a tree, the bay laurel — I'm humbled by the bay leaf's long history. Greeks and Romans believed the herb symbolized peace, and wove the leaves into wreaths to crown athletes. Pretty heady stuff. These days, the herb is being studied as a treatment for diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.


Medicinal use: For a headache, lightly steam a few bay leaves by using the steam setting on your iron, then rest with the warm leaves on your forehead for at least half an hour. 


Best of all with any of these herbs, you can buy or grow them in abundance and use part of your harvest for medicinal use and part for recipes. Who says medicine can't be delicious?


Elizabeth Millard is the editor of Simple, Good and Tasty and has worked as a freelance journalist in the Twin Cities for 15 years. She's also co-owner of local CSA farm Bossy Acres. Reach her at