Start getting healthy right outside your door
Plant medicine is no longer just for hippies, and Santa Cruz is a backyard-medicinal-herb-growing heaven. People from every class, culture, political affiliation and neighborhood are seeking out traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, Western Herbalism and other traditions.
Plant medicines can be effective yet gentle, and address all aspects of the human body from developing hair and skin to resolving kidney problems to uplifting the soul.
I came to herbs by a long and winding road—basically, at the end of the day, a lifestyle choice.
I was raised in Beverly Hills and Sherman Oaks. I was a wild child from the start. At 16, I loved zipping around in my Ford Pinto (yikes, they later turned out to explode, and were discontinued) all over L.A., from downtown to the beach—Santa Monica, Malibu, Leo Carrillo and Venice felt like home.
But I got out of L.A. as soon as I could. Although I wore makeup and blow-dried my hair every morning (does anyone remember feathers?), I always felt like beauty came from within. That if you are healthy and vital, you will also be beautiful.
When you garden obsessively, you start bringing things inside. Maybe it’s flowers. I had the instinct to garden ecologically from the outset. If you stick with it, many of us start growing edibles. Then mixing pollinators in with edibles.
At that time I made green juices every day, so I started a juicing garden, growing lots of cucumbers and greens. And always, there was parsley and cilantro around—both are very healthful and medicinal. Calendula was pretty in the garden, and so was chamomile. Then I got into edible weeds. And soon I was into native plants, and ethnobotanical uses of them. And the sage family plants really turned me on. Soon I was bringing in leaves, learning to eat flowers and the rest is history.
Plants give you grace, and people who like plants tend to be awesome. Ethical, kind and connected to nature. I encourage anyone who has an inkling that they’d like to work outside, but were raised to have a desk job, to go for it!
Herbal topics are endless and fascinating. There are drought tolerant native plants for health like white sage and yarrow; common culinary herbs that are also medicinal like rosemary, oregano and thyme; Chinese herbs that grow here such as burdock and plantain; and you can forage (ethically) for local wild herbs for an all-star like nettles.
There are medicinal herbs and herb flowers you can eat fresh in salad mixes, like lemon balm leaves and calendula petals. And there are flowers to add to your cocktail—like violets.
There are also invasive plants we weed out as invasives like the powerhouse, cleavers and plantain. (Put them in a basket, not your green bin!)
You can even design an herbal hedgerow with flowering shrubs like elderberry, vitex and ceanothus. (Enjoy these plants as you walk to the front door.)
Culturally, there are herbs you can plant that are cited in the Bible, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Bhagavad Gita, the Torah and the Koran. Not to mention herbs from Celtic, Yoruban and Andean traditions. And so on. And certainly, the ethnobotany of the First Peoples, who tended the wild.
Ecologically, most of these plants are beneficial for garden pollinators, including a tremendous variety of bees and butterflies.
Some herbs don’t even need cultivation, or even regular water. Maybe that’s the place to start. Some are even ready for harvesting in the greater Santa Cruz area, now.
There’s a lot you can say about the herbs that we can grow in our Medicineshed—our part of the Central Coast. But the “low hanging fruit” of our herb world, that takes the least work, are self-seeding herbs and flowers that don’t grow too aggressively and need little to no tending, like chamomile, calendula, lemon balm and catnip. They also have the benefit of adding color and aroma to your garden.
YES, WE CAN—DEVELOPING A HEALTHY HABIT
The easiest way to use your herbs is to clip a handful in the morning, or whenever you have the time, and use them fresh that day. This can be habit forming—and it’s a good habit. It’s also a practice, like Qi Gong or Yoga. It’s effortless to toss a few sprigs of freshly picked lemon balm and put them in your water bottle before running out the door. This will keep you hydrated. Or make an infusion—a fancy word for tea—with fresh or dried lemon balm, calendula, chamomile and a little catnip—and maybe some lavender for color and to round out the aroma.
Besides the health benefits of getting up and outdoors, pulling yourself away from a screen and the physical benefits of the herbs themselves, some people get a feeling of abundance—of being rich or wealthy—when they harvest from the garden and bring it inside. You know it if you feel it. And, feeling a sense of abundance and gratitude is definitely good for you.
CHAMOMILE (Matricaria chamomilla)
Chamomile is a go-to herb for everyone, with a unique aroma. It is often sipped as tea at night, before bed. Blondes can also use it as a hair rinse. For the crafter, witch or budding herbalist, you might have the wherewithal to step it up. For example, one exuberant chamomile plant can produce enough flowers to dry and fill a pint size mason jar. Where there is one chamomile plant, there are more; they are gentle(ish) re-seeders. That means there’s enough for a bigger harvest—enough to share. You can dry them, put them in jars and add them to your home apothecary or give them as gifts. Not to mention that chamomile is lovely and long-lasting in a bouquet.
LEMON BALM (Melissa officinalis)
Lemon Balm is well-loved and for good reason. Its beautiful lemon scent is relaxing yet uplifting. It’s a good herb every day. It’s the kind of herb you can keep dry in a jar on the counter if you can’t use it fresh, and drink it to gently raise your spirits. Leave it on the counter for a couple days on a towel, and there’s your dried tea. As a tea, it is soothing and anti-inflammatory. It cools the thyroid, they say. As a garden plant, it requires no care. It will choose its own spot to grow, popping up where it wants. In the ground, it may never need watering. Harvest the stems any time of year but definitely before they flower.
CALENDULA (Calendula officinalis)
Calendula fights inflammation. You can brew tea with it and drink it; remove the soaked petals, squeeze out the liquid (but save it) and put it as an unblended poultice under tired eyes while you have a short rest. You can use the same preparation on skin afflictions like dermatitis or eczema, sunburn or a tick or mosquito bite. Place a small handful of soaked petals on the inflamed area. It will cool the heat of an infection. It is said to fight against bacteria. This gentle and soothing herb is added to skin care products, such as salves and under eye creams.
Calendula is very easy to harvest. All you do is clip off a few gorgeous flowerheads in all their glory, and pull (yank) off the petals all at once. Toss them fresh over a salad, or add them to a salad mix. Or dry them and make tea—put them in a pretty tea blend with lavender, chamomile, lemon balm and lavender in a glass jar. (Not surprisingly, Calendula—a beautiful and radiant flower—is also used in natural dyes.)
CATNIP (Nepeta cataria)
Other beings benefit from medicinal herbs, too. Your cats will love fresh catnip, of course—but the dried seed heads of the flowers will really drive them crazy. You’ll see their wild animal side. (Kitty psychedelia.) You may get videos of them doing hilarious and entertaining things. So, if there’s catnip in your garden, there is no need to buy dried catnip or toys. It is also one of the topmost bee magnets. And little garden birds will eat the dried seeds in winter, while standing on a flower. It is profuse in the garden and self-seeds, but is easy to pull if it travels too much. Like the other herbs here, it is good to add to your tea mix. It is calming and cheering. It is also in the mint family, and has a fresh, strong, minty aroma that will put a smile on your face. Hang a bouquet upside down in the kitchen to freshen the air and chase away moths.
As the world is increasingly paved over, plants seem more and more precious, and their value stands out in relief. This awareness has spread beyond an inner circle such that now—in the 2020s—echinacea and elderberry are no longer remedies for people on the “fringe,” they’re for everybody.
Power to the plants! Perhaps they will culture us, as we culture them.
Look for local companies Renee’s Garden Seeds and Green Planet Organics seedlings at local nurseries and natural food grocery stores, especially Staff of Life. The best selection of starts and seeds is at San Lorenzo Garden Center. Other places you’ll find them are Mountain Farm & Feed, The Garden Company, Far West Nursery and Dig Gardens. Also peruse our local farmers markets, where local growers offer fresh and beautiful starts.
A Medicineshed is a place-based concept. It is an area of land, or a bioregion, where useful herbs grow that are suited to that region. Every area on earth has a Medicineshed—except places with no plants, like vast sand dunes! Even the beach has medicinal plants. These plants may be native to the area, or brought in from other lands around the world. They can be found in natural areas, or in home gardens, or in the cracks of sidewalks!
MEDICINAL HERBS THAT ARE REALLY EASY TO GROW & VERY SAFE TO USE:
COMPOST YOUR HERBS
After using your tea herbs, don’t throw them out! Your garden soil will love them. Just put them anywhere, anywhere at all, and they will break quickly down rapidly and add their benefits to the soil.
FOR HOMESPUN CRAFTING
Include any of the plants here as aromatherapeutic wreaths, or upside-down bouquets tied with twine and hung on the wall or from the ceiling.
FOR THE SKIN
After your fresh chamomile or calendula tea has cooled, splash your face with it over the sink for a refreshing pick-me-up. Or make a hydrosol to spray on your face to freshen, soothe and moisten the skin when it feels dry. Keep that in your purse.
Jillian Steinberger-Foster co-owns Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping. She has been landscaping and gardening since 2004. She has three rescue dogs—a Schipperke mix, a Catahoula mix and a Chow Chow mix, and loves Its Beach. She enjoys going on botanical field trips to see plants in their natural landscapes, and she lives and gardens on the Westside of Santa Cruz.