Melita Morrow, Naturopath
Practising herbalists rarely have the necessary time these days to grow all the medicinal herbs they will use. This was not so in pre-industrial times when life was more leisurely, and many medicinal plants were growing in the herbalist’s garden or collected from the wild. Of course it is ideal if you can grow the herbs you intend to use.
There is a great need for the expansion of commercial herb growing not just for medicinal purposes, but the cosmetic Industry requires essential oils for toiletries and cosmetics, and of course there is an ever-increasing demand for culinary herbs. The supply of imported medicinal herbs and essential oils is subject to many factors beyond the herbalist’s control, such as crop failures due to unseasonal weather or insects, and political upheavals as experienced in Poland, one of our main suppliers of valerian root. This can mean you have to substitute the one herb for another or look for a local alternative.
We must also be aware of the possibility of being isolated from the European and American sources of pharmaceutical products in the tragic advent of a nuclear war. This could be a reality in our lifetime and to be able to provide our own medicines and related pharmaceuticals would be essential.
There is also the added advantage that you are using plants from the local environment. Hippocrates, known as the “Father of Medicines”, was a great believer in using the herbs that were available in his immediate surroundings, and many herbalists believe this to be true. It is a similar ideal to the naturopathic philosophy which encourages eating only local foods that are in season. After all, we are also a product of our environment.
All our requirements for food and medicines are growing within our reach, if only we could make use of them. The famous French herbalist, Maurice Messegue, clarifies this when he states “....People ascribe the greatest healing power to drugs that have come from farthest away, drugs that cost the most. In my long experience, I have come to believe that people go to the ends of the earth to look for something they could find right on their doorstep. If only we could learn to trust nature....”
The N.Z. Department of Scientific & Industrial Research has a medicinal herb-growing programme underway. They are currently exploring the possibilities of growing Digitalis Lantana, a species of foxglove from which Digoxin, and important heart glycoside, is synthesized; marshmallow, chamomile, lemon balm, Plantain species (Plant-age ovato and Psyllium for their mucilage content); and Chrysanthemum cineraraefolium, the source of the insecticide pyrethrum.
Growing medicinal plants on a commercial scale is of course a more involved undertaking than growing a range of medicinal and culinary plants for your own use, and it is not within the scope of this course to cover the necessary details of such a commercial venture. I would suggest than anyone who is wanting to follow on in this area contact the D.S.I.R. Crop Research Division and gather all the available information beforehand.
Herbs for your immediate use are best grown near the kitchen where you can reach them easily, particularly when it is raining.
It is preferable to grow all plants in well-drained, not too heavy soils. Herbs prefer light, warm soils and a warm atmosphere. They do not need direct sunshine unless fruit or seed has to ripen, as with spices. It is preferable to use organic fertilisers, compost, wood ashes, seaweed, to not only benefit the whole ecosystem in which the herb is growing, but organically grown herbs do appear to keep their freshness longer, and even when dried will retain their aroma, scent and colour for longer period.
Organically grown herbs are also richer in vital nutrients, minerals and vitamins which they absorb from the soil, and pass on to us when we eat or drink them. However, herbs do not require soil that is too rich in organic fertilizers. This can cause plants to grow leggy and spindly, and diminish their volatile properties, particularly the essential oil content and the nutritive value.
Once the herbs are growing happily they need only watering and weeding. Both these tasks can be reduced by mulching – old hay, seaweed, old grass clippings are all good mulch material. Some of the hardier herbs need extra attention; comfrey and borage for example should not be left to flower and seed unless and you have a large area, and the mints can quickly spread and take over a small garden. It is a good idea to grow mint in some container sunk into the ground – an old flower pot is good.