Almost everyone has a story about a home-grown family remedy — be it Mom’s ginger tea for digestion, Grandma’s spicy soup for colds or Dad’s garlic cure for ear infections. Belief in the healing powers of herbs and spices goes back thousands of years, and lots of families still turn to the kitchen shelf before the medicine cabinet.
The idea of using plants for wellness has become even more appealing in recent years as many people, fed up with health care bureaucracy and wary of over-processed products, seek more natural alternatives, said Candis Cantin, an integrative herbalist who has been studying medicinal plants for 30 years.
“It’s huge now,” she said. “People can buy herbs in grocery stores; there are all sorts of online articles and courses. Almost everybody knows something about it.”
Herbal wisdom dates back to ancient Egypt, when healers kept lists of natural remedies on medical papyri. Modern-day herbalists draw from those traditions, as well as Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic herbology and other global knowledge bases.
The basic idea is that the body has a “digestive fire” that affects metabolism, cell performance, immune health and brain function. Gurus say that certain herbs can soothe the fire, while others can stimulate it.
Cantin grows about 190 herbs at her EverGreen Herb Garden and School of Integrative Herbology near Placerville, Calif. This March, she'll be bringing her teachings to the Soil Born Farms Urban Agriculture and Education Project in Rancho Cordova, Calif., where she'll host a six-month beginner course for the aspiring family herbalist.
“Often these little health things happen, and people just don’t know what to do,” Cantin said. “This makes people feel more empowered, more able to do something about the situation at hand. It’s a whole process of opening up to one’s environment and the seasons and the smells of these plants. It’s something people have done for thousands of years.”
Whether you’re looking for a cure for motion sickness or relief from a nasty cough, here’s Cantin’s list of staples that might prove helpful. She warns, though, that herbs are not a replacement for pharmaceuticals, and people with serious conditions should seek professional medical help.
The roots of this versatile plant can be used to make fresh ginger tea as a relief from nausea, Cantin said. Ginger can also be added to bath water or a foot soak to soothe sore, stiff muscles. When traveling, bring capsules of dry ginger to settle the stomach. Pregnant women may use ginger as a mild tea for morning sickness but should avoid strong doses, she said.
Though it’s used commonly in cooking, rosemary can also be sipped in tea to ease muscular pain and relieve gas. It can also be made into a hair rinse, to stimulate hair follicles and circulation in the scalp, Cantin said.
Sage is a classic remedy for problems in the mouth because of the strength of its volatile oils, Cantin said. It can be used as a mouthwash or chewed as needed to relieve pain in the mouth, throat, gums and tonsils.
Skin problems? Try this flower, which is said to progress the healing of cuts, scrapes and bruises, as well as minor burns and scalds. It can be used in a lotion or as a compress.
These tear-inducing plants don’t only belong in foods, Cantin said. Onions are a natural antibiotic and can help with bronchial inflammation. Cantin suggests making an “onion plaster” by steaming sliced onions in water until soft and then wrapping them in a cheesecloth to be applied to the chest with pressure and heat for several hours.
Legend has it that this fragrant plant was used in medieval times to stop gastric rumblings during long church sermons. Its seeds help stop abdominal pains and spasms, and should be a go-to for gas, bloating or burping, Cantin said.