Welcome to day 36 of the 40 Day Herbalist Challenge! This week we are going to focus on some of the herbs that are easiest to grow at home. Most herbs are very hardy and not very picky about where they grow- although there are exceptions that need special care. To start, let’s look at 5 herbs that are easy even for herbs. So easy, in fact, that most people call them weeds!
I always reserve a small corner of my garden for “weeds”. Not just any weeds, of course, but there are quite a few that I am always happy to see - things like violets, cleavers, plantain, dandelion, and nettles. Most of these will grow anywhere in the United States, and often in other countries, too - you might be surprised to find out just how many useful weeds grow in your area.
According to the USDA plants map, nettles is either absent or unreported in Arkansas. Knowing what I do about nettles, my guess is that it’s probably unreported. Otherwise, nettles grows just about everywhere. It likes moist, rich soil when it can find it, but will usually be amenable to whatever garden conditions you have to offer. It grows well in large, barrel planters- and growing it in a planter can be a good tactic to keep it under control since it stings like the dickens and will spread happily all over your garden. You could also give it it’s very own raised bed or a big patch behind an out building. Besides many herbal and culinary uses, nettle has some other interesting talents. Like flax, nettle stems can be made into yarn and you can make the leaves into fertilizer for your other garden plants. This article has some tips for growing nettles at home.
Another herb that grows wild in all 50 states, there are several plantain species. Plantago major and Plantago lanceolata are used interchangeably. Some of the other species have a record of ethnobotanical use, as well, but you shouldn’t have any difficulty finding P. major or P. lanceolata. The thing to remember when looking for plantain is to look for packed, hard soil - like old paddocks or in the yard around homes where heavy equipment compacted the soil at some point. Plantain has no difficulty growing in compacted soil and even seems to favor it. I’ve had it volunteer in my gardens, too, so it’s also perfectly happy with disturbed soil. It’s edible, plus has a myriad of lung, eye, digestive, and skin uses just to name a few. It was one of the Nine Sacred Herbs mentioned in Anglo Saxon lore (P. major originally came from Europe) and after working with this plant even a little it’s easy to see why it was so important! Plantain is a perennial. This is a great article with all of the details on how to grow it (hint: you probably couldn’t kill it even if you tried).
Everybody knows and loves dandelion, but it is good to mention here because as a garden plant it will be quite prolific and give you plenty of leaves and roots from a small space. Do be courteous and snip the flowers before they set seed - otherwise your neighbors might be upset with you when they have dandelions growing where they don’t want them! This herb is a perennial that can be found growing in all 50 states. Get the specs on growing dandelions over at Gardening Know How.
Cleavers, aka stickywilly, is listed as a noxious weed in some states but it can be found in every state except Hawaii. It will usually move into a garden without much coaxing because it appreciates disturbed soil, and it’s an annual that self-sows freely. Cleavers is very seasonal and makes a brief appearance in early spring - so hop on it if you find it in your garden. It won’t stick around for long! Traditionally cleavers is associated with lymph glands, and the bladder and kidneys- it was often used as a diuretic, for bladder infections and cystitis, and urethritis. Also used traditionally as an antilithic to help break up stones and gravel. Specific indications for cleavers include hardened knots in the muscle, fibrous tissue, and hardened lymph nodes. You can read more about cleavers at Eat the Weeds and in 3 Ways to Use Cleavers for Spring Cleansing. More gardening info and habitat preferences can be found here.
The only plant on this list that doesn’t grow wild in every state, violets are still a good weed to consider adding to your garden. Violets are traditionally considered safe for children and were used as an expectorant, alterative, and diuretic for adults and children alike. You can read about the lore of violets in this entry from A Modern Herbal and learn more about growing them in A Celebration of Sweet Violets.
Take some time to look up what each of today’s herbs look like. A good field guide or two would be ideal resources, but sometimes you can find good information online. Good places to look online include botanical garden websites, horticultural colleges, and the County Extension office websites. Even with field guides - and especially with online resources - it’s important to compare photos and read through the written botanical descriptions. Here are a few for dandelion to help you get started!
Dandelion Profile at Kew Gardens
Dandelion Profile at Go Botany