How to Make Herbal Ointment

Ointments contain oils or fats heated with herbs and, unlike creams, contain no water. As a result, ointments form a separate layer on the surface of the skin. They protect against injury or inflammation of damaged skin and carry active medicinal constituents, such as essential oils, to the affected area. Ointments are useful in conditions such as hemorrhoids or where protection is needed from moisture, as in chapped lips and diaper rash.

Ointments can be made with dozens of bases and they vary in consistency, depending on the constituents and proportions used. The simplest way to make a soft, all-purpose ointment is to use petroleum jelly or soft paraffin wax (other methods are explained below). Petroleum jelly is impermeable to water and provides a protective barrier for the skin. Single herbs or mixtures of herbs may be used as required, provided they are finely cut, and essential oil can be stirred into the ointment just before straining.

Different Consistencies

A solid and relatively grease-free ointment will spread easily and is useful for preparations such as lip balms. This may be made by using alternatives to mineral oils. Melt 140 g of coconut oil with 120 g of beeswax and 100 g of powdered herb. Simmer gently for 90 minutes in a glass bowl set in a pan of boiling water or a double boiler, then strain and pour into jars.

A less solid ointment, for conditions such as skin rashes, may be made by combining olive oil and beeswax. Melt 60 g of beeswax with 2 cups (500 ml) of olive oil and 120 g of dried or 300 g of fresh herb in a glass bowl. Cover and place in a warm oven for 3 hours, then remove, strain, and pour into jars. This ointment can also be made by combining 2 cups (500 ml) of hot infused oil with 60 g of melted beeswax.

Standard Quantity

60 g dried or 150 g fresh herb (or mixture of herbs) to 500 g of petroleum jelly or soft paraffin wax.

Standard Application

Apply a little 3 times a day.


Store in sterilized, dark glass jars with lids for up to 3 months.

How to Prepare

  • Melt the petroleum jelly or wax in a glass bowl set in a pan of boiling water, or use a double boiler. Add the finely cut herb and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring continuously.
  • Pour the herb mixture into a jelly bag secured to the rim of a jug with string, and allow the liquid to filter through.
  • Wearing rubber gloves, squeeze as much of the hot herb mixture as possible through the bag into the jug.
  • Quickly pour the molten ointment into jars before it sets in the jug. Place the lid on each jar without securing it firmly. When cool, tighten the lids and label.

How to Make Herbal Infused Oil

Infusing an herb in oil allows its active, fat-soluble ingredients to be extracted; hot infused oils are simmered, while cold infused oils are heated naturally by the sun. Both types of oil can be used externally as massage oils or added to creams and ointments. Infused oil should not be confused with essential oil, which is an active constituent naturally present in a plant and has specific medicinal properties and a distinct aroma. Essential oil may be added to an infused oil to increase its medicinal efficacy.

Hot Infused Oils

Although hot infused oils can last up to a year, they are most potent when used fresh. If only using infused oils occasionally, make a smaller quantity than the standard amount with the same proportion of herb to oil. The wine press may be replaced with a jug—when cool enough to touch, squeeze the oil through the jelly bag as illustrated in Cold Infused Oils below.

Many herbs make effective hot infused oils, especially spicy herbs such as ginger (Zingiber officinale), cayenne (Capsicum frutescens), and pepper (Piper nigrum). These oils can be rubbed into the skin to relieve rheumatic and arthritic pain, improve local blood flow, and relax muscles. Other hot infused oils from leafy herbs, such as comfrey (Symphytum officinale), speed wound healing. Oil infused with mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is used for earache and ear infections, and chickweed (Stellaria media) ointment may be produced from a hot infused oil.

Standard Quantity (infused oils)

250 g dried or 500 g fresh herb to 3 cups (750 ml) olive, sunflower, or other good-quality vegetable oil


Store in sterilized, airtight, dark glass bottles for up to 1 year; for the best results, use within 6 months.

How to Prepare

  • Stir the chopped herb and oil together in a glass bowl over a saucepan of boiling water. Cover and simmer gently for 2–3 hours.
  • Remove from the heat and allow the mixture to cool, then pour into the wine press (or jug if not available) with a jelly bag in place. Collect the strained oil in a jug, pressing all the liquid out of the herb.
  • Pour the infused oil into clean, dark glass bottles, using a funnel. Seal and label each bottle.

Cold Infused Oils

Making a cold infused oil is a slow process and involves leaving a jar packed with herbs and oil to stand for several weeks. Sunlight encourages the plant to release its active constituents into the oil. It is the most suitable method of oil infusion for fresh plant material, especially the more delicate parts, such as lowers.

St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), calendula (Calendula officinalis), and melilot (Melilotus officinalis) are three of the most commonly produced cold infused oils. St. John’s wort oil is anti-inflammatory and analgesic, and may be applied topically or taken internally (after consulting an herbalist) for peptic ulceration. Olive oil is particularly suitable for cold infusion as it rarely turns rancid. The intensity of sunlight and length of time an herb is infused affects the concentration of its medicinal constituents. For greater strength, add the extracted oil to a fresh supply of herbs and infuse again.

How to Prepare

  • Place the herb in a clear glass jar. Pour in oil until it completely covers the herb, close the jar, and shake well. Place the jar in a sunny spot, such as on a windowsill, and leave for 2–6 weeks.
  • Pour the oil and herb mixture into a jelly bag, secured to the rim of a jug or bowl with string (or use a wine press as pictured above in hot infused oils). Allow the oil to filter through the bag.
  • Squeeze out the remaining oil from the bag. Pour the infused oil into dark glass bottles, label, and store. Alternatively, repeat the whole process with the infused oil and fresh herbs.

How to Make Herbal Syrup

Honey and unrefined sugar are effective preservatives and can be combined with infusions or decoctions to make syrups and cordials. They have the additional benefit of having a soothing action, and therefore make a perfect vehicle for cough mixtures as well as relieving sore throats. With their sweet taste, syrups can disguise the taste of unpalatable herbs and are therefore greatly appreciated by children.

A syrup is made with equal proportions of an herbal infusion or decoction and honey or unrefined sugar. When making an infusion or decoction for a syrup, it needs to be infused or simmered for the maximum time to optimize its medicinal action. Infusions should be infused for 15 minutes and decoctions should be simmered for 30 minutes.

Press the soaked herb through the strainer or sieve to remove as much liquid as possible. Small amounts of neat tincture can be added to the cooled syrup to increase its effectiveness.

Syrups Made with Tinctures

Syrups may also be made with tinctures instead of infusions or decoctions. Combine 500 g of honey or unrefined sugar with 1 cup (250 ml) of water. Gently heat until all the sugar or honey has dissolved and the mixture has thickened. Remove from the heat. Once cool, stir 1 part of the tincture, or mixture of tinctures, into 3 parts of the syrup and bottle as directed opposite.

Standard Quantity

2 cups (500 ml) infusion or decoction, infused or heated for the maximum time (see left); 500 g honey or unrefined sugar

Standard Dosage

Take 1–2 tsp (5–10 ml) 3 times a day.


Store in dark glass bottles with cork tops in a cool place for up to 6 months.

How to Prepare

  • Pour the infusion or decoction into a pan. Add the honey or sugar. Gently heat, stirring constantly until all the honey or sugar has dissolved and the mixture has a syrupy consistency. Remove from the heat and cool.
  • Pour the cooled syrup into sterilized glass jars using a funnel and store in a cool, dark place. Seal the jars with cork stoppers, because syrups are prone to ferment and may explode if kept in screw-topped bottles.

How to Make Herbal Tincture

Tinctures are made by soaking an herb in alcohol. This encourages the active plant constituents to dissolve, giving tinctures a relatively stronger action than infusions or decoctions. They are convenient to use and last up to two years. Tinctures can be made using a jug and a jelly bag, instead of a wine press. Although mainly used in European, American, and Australian herbal medicine, tinctures play a part in most herbal traditions.

Tinctures are strong preparations, and it is essential to check the recommended dosage. Never use industrial alcohol, methylated spirits (methyl alcohol) or rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) in tinctures.

Alcohol-reduced Tinctures

Alcoholic tinctures should sometimes be avoided, for example during pregnancy or a gastric inflammation. Adding 1 tsp (5 ml) of tincture to a small glass of almost boiling water and leaving it for 5 minutes allows the alcohol to evaporate. To make nonalcoholic tinctures, replace the alcohol with vinegar or glycerol.

Tincture Ratios

Tinctures are made in different strengths, expressed as ratios. In this book, a 1:5 ratio (1 part herb to 5 parts alcohol) is used, unless otherwise stated.

Standard Quantity

200 g dried or 300 g fresh herb chopped into small pieces to 1 quart (1 liter) alcohol—vodka of 35–40% alcohol is ideal, although rum hides the taste of bitter or unpalatable herbs

Standard Dosage

Take 1 tsp (5 ml) 2 –3 times a day diluted in 1 tbsp plus 1 tsp (25 ml) of water or fruit juice.


Store in sterilized, dark glass bottles in a cool dark place for up to 2 years.

How to Prepare

  • Place the herb in a large, clean glass jar and pour on the alcohol, ensuring that the herb is covered. Close and label the jar. Shake well for 1–2 minutes and store in a cool dark place for 10–14 days, shaking the jar every 1–2 days.
  • Set up the wine press, placing a muslin or nylon mesh bag securely inside. Pour in the mixture and collect the liquid in the jug.
  • Slowly close the wine press, extracting the remaining liquid from the herbs until no more drips appear. Discard the leftover herbs.
  • Pour the tincture into clean, dark glass bottles using a funnel. When full, stopper with a cork or screw top and label the bottles.

How to Make Herbal Decoction

Roots, bark, twigs, and berries usually require a more forceful treatment than leaves or flowers to extract their medicinal constituents. A decoction involves simmering these tougher parts in boiling water. Fresh or dried plant material may be used and should be cut or broken into small pieces before decocting. Like infusions, decoctions can be taken hot or cold.

Decoctions are generally made using roots, bark, and berries, but sometimes leaves and flowers may be included. Add these more delicate parts of a plant once the heat is turned off and the decoction has finished simmering and is beginning to cool. Then strain and use as required.

Chinese Decoctions

In traditional Chinese medicine, decoctions are the main way in which herbal medicines are prepared. Large quantities of herb are often used to produce a highly concentrated liquid, or the decoction is further reduced so that there is only 3/4 cup (200 ml) of liquid remaining. This increases the preparation’s concentration. This process is useful for astringent barks such as babul (Acacia nilotica) and common oak (Quercus robur), which may be used externally to tighten gums or wash weeping skin rashes. (Do not take internally.)

Standard Quantity

20 g dried or 40 g fresh herb (or mixture of herbs) to 3 cups (750 ml) cold water, reduced to about 2 cups (500 ml) after simmering (this makes 3–4 doses)

Standard Dosage

Take 3–4 doses (2 cups/500 ml) each day.


Store in a covered jug in a refrigerator or cool place for up to 48 hours.

How to Prepare

  • Place the herbs in a saucepan. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 20–30 minutes, until the liquid is reduced by about one-third.
  • Strain the liquid through a sieve into a jug. Pour the required amount into a cup, then cover the jug and store in a cool place.

How to Make Infusions from Medicinal Herbs

An infusion is the simplest way to prepare the more delicate aerial parts of plants, especially leaves and flowers, for use as a medicine or as a revitalizing or relaxing drink. It is made in a similar way to tea, using either a single herb or a combination of herbs, and may be drunk hot or cold.

The medicinal value of many herbs lies chiefly in their volatile oils, which will disperse into the air if a lid is not used. This is especially important in the case of German chamomile (Chamomilla recutita). Use a teapot, or place a lid or saucer over a cup if making a small quantity. Use water that has just boiled.

Popular herbal teas, such as German chamomile, are often taken as much for their refreshing taste as for their medicinal value and can be safely consumed in quantities of up to 5 or 6 cups a day. Some herbs, however, such as yarrow (Achillea millefolium), are significantly stronger and must be taken in less frequent doses.

Other herbs, such as feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), are so strong that they are not suitable for use in infusions. Always check the recommended dosage and quantity of herb to use, as infusions have medicinal actions and can produce unwanted effects at the wrong dosage.

Standard Quantity


1 tsp (2–3 g) dried or 2 tsp (4–6 g) fresh herb (or mixture of herbs) to a cup of water (this makes 1 dose)


20 g dried herb or 30 g fresh herb (or a mixture of different herbs) to 2 cups (500 ml) of water

Standard Dosage

Take 3–4 doses (2 cups/500 ml) each day.


Store in a covered jug in a refrigerator or cool place for up to 24 hours. Warm the pot, then add the herb. Pour in water that has just boiled, replace the lid, and infuse for 10 minutes. Strain some of the infusion into a cup. A teaspoon of honey may be added if desired.

Pot Infusion

Warm the pot, then add the herb. Pour in water that has just boiled, replace the lid, and infuse for 10 minutes. Strain some of the infusion into a cup. A teaspoon of honey may be added if desired.

How to prepare

  • Place the herb in the strainer of the teacup and place a strainer in the cup. Fill the cup with freshly boiled water.
  • Cover the cup with the lid and infuse for 5–10 minutes before removing the tea strainer. Add a teaspoon of honey to sweeten, if desired.

How to Make Herbal Remedies

In the past, medicinal herbs have been made into an extraordinary variety of formulations—not only infusions, decoctions, and tinctures, but also preparations such as oxymels and elixirs. The following pages give simple step-by-step instructions on making common herbal preparations. Making most types of herbal medicine is not difficult, but it can be time-consuming—if you lack time or equipment, buy ready-made remedies from an herbal supplier.


Before using medicinal plants that have been collected from the wild, it is essential that they be correctly identified. If in doubt, do not use the herb. The wrong identification of herbs has led to many cases of poisoning. Foxglove leaves (Digitalis purpurea), for example, are often mistaken for comfrey (Symphytum officinale).


Use glass, enamel, or stainless steel pots and pans, wooden or steel knives and spatulas, and plastic or nylon sieves. A wine press is useful for making tinctures. Do not use aluminium utensils, as this potentially toxic element is easily absorbed by herbs.


All utensils used to make herbal remedies should be sterilized for at least 30 minutes in a well diluted sterilizing solution, such as the type used for a baby’s bottle. After soaking, rinse thoroughly with boiled water and dry in a hot oven or wash in a dishwasher. Proper sterilization maintains hygiene and prevents remedies, especially creams and syrups, from becoming moldy.

Weights & Measures

For most purposes, ordinary kitchen scales are suitable, although electronic scales are more accurate. Metric measurements of grams and liters are generally much easier to use than imperial measures when making remedies. If it is difficult to weigh a small quantity, such as 10 g, on your scales, measure double the weight; i.e., 20 g, then halve the quantity. Liquids can be measured in a kitchen measuring jug, although conical or straight-sided glass measures are more accurate. Very small volumes of liquid can be measured in drops (see Measuring Remedies, below.


Different preparations may be kept for varying periods of time before they begin to lose their medicinal properties. Infusions should be made fresh each day and decoctions must be consumed within 48 hours. Store both in a refrigerator or cool place. Tinctures and other liquid preparations, such as syrups and essential oils, need to be stored in dark glass bottles in a cool environment away from sunlight, but can be kept for a number of months or years. Ointments, creams, and capsules are best kept in dark glass jars, although plastic containers are also acceptable.

Measuring Remedies

1 ml = 20 drops

5 ml = 1 teaspoon

15 ml = 1 tablespoon

150 ml = 1 herbal cup

250 ml = 1 cup

Never exceed the quantity of herbs used or the recommended dosage. Although these measurements are approximate, they are accurate enough for most purposes and are used as standard throughout this book. The number of drops to 1 ml depends on the caliber of the pipette (or size of the dropper tip) being used. This can be checked by counting the number of drops required to fill a 5 ml measuring spoon (this book assumes that 100 drops is equal to 5 ml) and then adjusting the drop dosage as necessary.

Harvesting & Processing of Medicinal Herbs

Although there are some herbs that may be collected year round, most have a particular growing season and must be harvested and either used immediately or preserved for use in the following year. Herbs need to be processed quickly to prevent deterioration and retain their healing action.

Harvesting from the Wild

Wild plants offer a free and natural source of herbal remedies. Furthermore, active constituents are often more highly concentrated in wild plants since the herb is likely to be growing in its preferred habitat.


Proper identification of wild plants is essential. Use a field or wildflower guide to help you. If in doubt, do not pick the plant, as poisoning can result from misidentification.

Ecological & Legal Factors

While common species, such as nettle (Urtica dioica), may be readily harvested from the wild, many rarer species are under great pressure due to the lack of a suitable habitat. In many countries it is illegal to uproot any wild plant, and certain species may be protected. Although gathering medicinal plants such as gentian (Gentiana lutea) may be legal in some countries, it will only reduce their future chances of survival in the wild. Never pick rare or uncommon plants from the wild, even if they are locally plentiful, and do not collect more than you will use. Do not harvest bark from the wild.

Before harvesting, consider where the plant is growing and whether it could be contaminated by pollution. Do not collect from roadsides, close to factories, or in areas where crop spraying has occurred.

Harvesting from Your Garden

Cultivated herbs provide a ready supply of fresh material in a controlled environment. Cut perennials carefully so that plants can quickly regrow. Some plants, such as lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), provide two or more crops per year.

General Advice

Harvesting medicinal herbs requires careful planning to ensure the parts are processed in peak condition and fast enough to retain their active ingredients.


Ideally, use a wooden tray or open basket for collecting herbs. This prevents the plant being crushed. In the wild, a non-nylon rucksack or sack may be more appropriate. Always cut with a sharp knife or scissors to minimize damage to the plant and try to handle plants as little as possible. Wear gloves if gathering prickly or allergenic plants, such as rue (Ruta graveolens).

What to Look For

Collect material from healthy plants, free from insect damage and pollution. It is important to discard damaged plants because they can lead to disease or decay in dried plant material. Do not mix cut plant material to avoid mistakes in identification.

When to Harvest

Gather herbs in dry weather, preferably on a sunny morning after the dew has evaporated. Picking when the plant is at its peak of maturity ensures that it will have a high concentration of active constituents. Usually, leaves are best collected as they open during the spring or summer months, flowers as they start to bloom, fruit and berries just as they become ripe, and roots in the autumn once the plant has drawn its vitality back beneath ground. Bark must be gathered with great care if the shrub or tree is to survive—in most cases, harvest it in spring or autumn.

The Correct Medicinal Part

In many cases, different parts of the same plant, for example the leaves and seeds, can have quite different actions and uses. Make sure that you harvest the correct medicinal part of the plant for your purposes.

Processing Quickly

Only collect plant material that you will be able to use or process immediately after harvesting. This is because fresh plant material deteriorates very quickly and the medicinally active constituents are often the first to be affected. In particular, aromatic herbs can lose their volatile oils within hours. Salad leaves and culinary herbs are best eaten right away to make the most of their nutrients, although they can be stored for a few days in a plastic bag filled with air in a refrigerator.

Storing Herbs

It is vital to store dried herbs properly or they will not last. Leaves, flowers, roots, and other parts should be stored in sterilized, dark glass containers with airtight lids. They may also be stored in new brown paper bags, which must be kept dry and away from light. Metal and plastic containers are inadvisable because they may contaminate the herb. If stored in a cool, dark place, herbs can be kept for about 12 months after harvesting. Herbs frozen in plastic bags can be used for up to 6 months. Label the container with the herb, source, date of harvesting, and strength of preparation if appropriate. Watch out for insect infestation. If this occurs, discard all affected material and sterilize the container.


Herbs can be preserved in a number of ways, the simplest being air or oven drying. A warm, dry place such as an airing cupboard is ideal. Use plain paper for drying herbs, never printed newspaper. Dried herbs can be stored for many months in a dark glass jar or a brown paper bag.

Aerial Parts

These include all the parts of the plant growing above ground—stems, leaves, flowers, berries, and seeds. The stems are normally cut 2–4 in (5 –10 cm) above ground shortly after the plant has begun to flower, when it is putting most effort into growth. Perennials may be cut higher above ground to encourage further crops. Remove and dry large flowers and leaves separately; smaller ones can be dried on the stem.

  • Hang bunches of about 8–10 stems in a warm (but not hot), well-ventilated, dark place. Ensure that the stems and leaves are not too tightly packed together to enable air to circulate freely around them.
  • Once brittle but not bone dry, separate small stems, leaves, flowers, and seeds from the stems by rubbing the bunches over a large sheet of plain paper.
  • Carefully pour the dried material into a dark glass jar or a brown paper bag.

Large Flowers

In most cases, flowers are picked just after they have opened. Sometimes only specific parts of the flower are used, such as the petals of calendula (Calendula officinalis), while other flowers are used whole.

  • Separate large flower heads from stems and remove any insects or dirt. Place the flowers on absorbent paper on a tray in a dry place, allowing sufficient room between them for air to circulate.
  • Once dry, store flower heads in a brown paper bag or dark glass jar. Remove calendula petals from the central part of the flower before storing.

Small Flowers

Small blooms can be picked with the stalk attached and separated later. Hang small flowers, such as lavender (Lavandula officinalis), upside down in a paper bag, or suspended over a tray (see drying seeds below). If the stems are fleshy, dry as for large flowers, above.

Fruit & Berries

Harvest fruit and berries in early autumn when ripe but still firm. If left to become over-ripe, they may not dry properly. They can be picked individually or in bunches.

  • Place berries or fruit on absorbent paper on trays. Put in a warmed oven (turned off) with the door ajar for 3–4 hours. Move to a dry, warm, dark site and turn occasionally. Discard any moldy berries or fruit.

Roots, Rhizomes, Tubers, & Bulbs

The underground parts of the plant are usually gathered in autumn after the aerial parts have withered or become inactive and before the soil is waterlogged or frozen. Many roots may also be collected in early spring before the aerial parts begin to grow. Dig deeply around the root, prying it out of the ground. Some tap roots are difficult to uproot completely. Remove the required amount and replant the remaining root.

  • Shake off any soil and wash thoroughly in warm water, removing any small, unwanted side roots or damaged soft spots. Chop into small slices or pieces with a sharp knife.
  • Spread out the root pieces on absorbent paper on a tray and place in a warmed oven (turned off) with the door ajar for 2–3 hours. Move to a warm place until dry.


Collect ripe seed pods, capsules, or flowering stems in late summer before the seeds have been scattered.

  • For tiny seeds, hang small bunches of seedheads upside down over a paper-lined tray, or place in a paper bag. Allow to dry and gently shake. Remove larger seeds by hand when dry.

Sap & Gel

Only harvest sap from your own garden. Collect sap in the spring as it rises, or as it falls in the autumn. Trees such as silver birch (Betula pendula) produce huge quantities of sap if tapped, although this reduces the tree’s vitality. Bore a deep hole into the trunk—no more than a quarter of its diameter—and place a collecting cup under the hole. In spring, quarts of sap may be produced, and it is essential to stop the hole with resin or wood filler after about a quart (liter) of fluid has been removed. Collect milky juices or latex from plants such as dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) by squeezing the stems over a bowl. Wear gloves, because latex or sap can be corrosive. The gel from aloe vera (Aloe vera) is scraped out after slicing the leaf lengthwise and peeling back the edges.


Only harvest bark from your own shrubs or trees as it carries the risk of losing the whole plant through overstripping or “ringing” (removing a whole band of bark). It is best to collect bark from outlying branches, which can then be pruned back. If stripping bark from a plant, gather it in autumn when the sap is falling. Remove insects, lichen, and moss from the bark, cut it into small pieces, and place it on a tray to dry.

Other Ways to Preserve Herbs

Apart from simply air-drying herbs, there are a number of other ways to preserve their medicinal benefits.


An effective but expensive way to dry herbs is to use a dehumidifier, which literally sucks water out of the plant. The dehumidifier should be placed in a more or less sealed small room in which the herbs are hung in loose bunches or placed on mesh trays.


Freeze-drying retains color and flavor but is more suited to culinary than to medicinal herbs. Whole sprigs of herbs can be frozen in plastic bags. There is no need to defrost before use as the leaves crumble easily when still frozen. Chickweed (Stellaria media) can also be frozen and used topically for itchy and weeping skin conditions. Many plants may be juiced, frozen as ice cubes, and thawed as required.


It is possible to dry herbs in a microwave oven, though this is not recommended. The cut parts should be spread out on kitchen paper and dried in the microwave according to the manufacturer’s guidelines.

How to Grow Medicinal Plants

Growing medicinal plants may be more time-consuming than buying them, but it brings with it the unique pleasure of producing your own herbal remedies. Many medicinal herbs are easy to grow and will flourish indoors, on a windowsill, or in the garden, providing a year-round supply of fresh, sweet-smelling natural medicines.

The Medicinal Herb Garden

Planning an herb garden depends on a range of factors including the space available, exposure, soil, conditions, and climate. As a starting point, details of ten of the most common and useful medicinal plants for growing in temperate climates are given in the chart below. Some of them, such as thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and sage (Salvia officinalis), may be grown indoors. A number of other medicinal herbs, including German chamomile (Chamomilla recutita), lady’s mantle (Alchemilla vulgaris), and lavender (Lavandula officinalis) also grow well in a temperate climate and are well worth cultivating. If in doubt about how to care for plants or what will grow well in your garden, consult a nursery.

Outdoor Gardens

Choose a range of hardy herbs to grow in your garden that will establish themselves easily and produce plenty of foliage that can be harvested. Plant exotic or less hardy herbs in sheltered sunny sites or in containers.

Container Gardens

Many medicinal plants such as peppermint (Mentha x piperita) or bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) can be grown in pots, hanging baskets, or window boxes. Care must be taken to prevent them from drying out or becoming pot-bound (when the plant becomes too large for the container). Less hardy plants should be moved to sheltered sites or indoors during winter.

Growing Plants Under Cover

Sheltered gardening offers the opportunity to grow more unusual plants. Use the greenhouse to cultivate exotic plants, such as lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus), for medicinal and culinary use, as well as for growing seedlings to be planted outdoors. Tender plants, such as holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), thrive indoors, and some indoor plants, such as aloe vera (Aloe vera), have the added advantage of absorbing polluting chemicals from the air.

Buying Medicinal Herbs

Reputable herb nurseries are the best place to buy herbs when particular varieties or species are required. Be clear about what plants you want before visiting the nursery. When buying for medicinal use, purchase the standard medicinal, rather than an improved or ornamental variety.


Bear in mind the following points when planning the garden and choosing herbs. Site The majority of medicinal plants prefer a sunny exposure and moderately well-drained soil. It is possible to improve a site, for example by planting hedges as windbreaks. Choose sheltered, sunny corners for delicate and half-hardy herbs, and avoid planting on land formerly used for industrial purposes, which may be contaminated.


Some plants tolerate only very specific temperature ranges, and many herbs, such as rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), are only half-hardy and will not survive exposure to deep or long periods of frost. Protect tender and halfhardy plants from the wind to avoid the windchill factor. Spring is the best time to plant most herbs. Wintering plants in a greenhouse or cool indoor site is often the only way to keep subtropical plants in cool temperate climates, while other herbs will thrive indoors all year round in a warm, sunny position.


Soils vary greatly depending on the proportions of sand, silt, and clay content. Sandy soils drain easily and need feeding, while clay soils can become waterlogged and require drainage.


Pruning is used to remove dead wood and improve the shape, size, and quality of growth. It is an important garden activity and needs to be done correctly for different woody plants to benefit—check the best time of year for each plant. Deadheading plants, especially shrubs, encourages fresh growth. Pruning and tidying the garden regularly also reduces pests and diseases.


Water well after planting and then, if needed, once a week (rather than a little each day) in the morning or early evening. Do not overwater as many herbs produce medicinally active constituents in dry conditions. Water dry potted plants thoroughly before planting.

Weeding & Fertilizing

Weeding is necessary since weeds compete with other plants for nutrients and water. Keep beds and containers as free from weeds as possible. Most medicinal herbs should not be fed or mulched as this tends to reduce their therapeutic strength. However, sandy soils should be fed with a good-quality fertilizer to maintain the nutrients in the soil.

Pests & Diseases

Use only organic methods to treat pests, diseases, and insect infestation. Aphids can be eradicated using soapy water or water in which garlic skins have been soaked for 2 days. Separate any infected plants to prevent further contamination.

Propagation Methods

There is a wide variety of propagation methods. Choose the one most suited to the plant. When planting, prepare the ground in advance, taking into account the requirements of the individual plant, and the soil, site, and time of year, as well as the anticipated size of the mature plant.


Seeds can be sown either in containers or in prepared soil in open ground. It is important to time the sowing of seeds to enable seedlings to be planted outdoors when weather and soil become sufficiently warm. Annuals and biennials can be grown with ease from seed and will grow vigorously throughout the summer. Check the germination requirements of perennials before buying seeds, as some varieties germinate easily, while others, such as Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), can be far more difficult.


This is one of the most popular methods of propagation. It is suitable for woody perennial herbs. Cuttings are usually taken from the stem, although some plants may also be propagated from roots. Choose young, healthy plants and take the cutting just below a leaf and stem joint using a clean, sharp knife. Strip off the lowest leaves and dip the stem in hormone rooting preparation before inserting it in suitable soil mix. Some plants are very difficult to propagate this way, so check before attempting this method.

Root Division

This is an easy way to propagate plants that form clumps. Divide spring-flowering herbaceous plants in autumn, and autumn-flowering herbaceous plants in spring. Carefully lift a mature plant, divide it into smaller sections, and replant both the new and the mature plant.

Plants from Produce

Purchase pots of culinary herbs from a grocery or supermarket, split the seedlings into 3 to 4 small clumps, and pot them separately. Fresh roots, such as ginger (Zingiber officinale), or bulblets, such as garlic (Allium sativum), can be planted in pots or in prepared ground outside, if temperature allows.


Layering involves encouraging a shoot or stem to form roots by making a small slit in its underside and burying it, with the growing tip above ground. When the layer roots emerge, remove and pot. “Mound layering” is suitable for woody herbs such as sage (Salvia officinalis). Pile free-draining soil over the base of the plant, and when the layered stems form new roots, remove and pot.

Useful Herbs to Grow


Plant When to Plant Cultivation Method Conditions and care Medicinal Use
Aloe vera

(Aloe vera)

spring/autumn offsets


sunny site indoors; pot up as needed; do not overwater fresh plant gel for minor burns and wounds

(Symphytum officinale)

spring/autumn seed/division


warm sunny site; moist soil ointment or poultice for sprains and bruises (use the leaf only)

(Tanacetum parthenium)

spring/autumn seed/cutting/division


well-drained or dry, stony soil in sun


fresh leaf or tincture for headaches and migraines


Lemon balm

(Melissa officinalis)

spring/autumn seed/cutting/division


moist soil in sun; cut back after flowering infusion for anxiety, poor sleep, and nervous indigestion; lotion for cold sores

(Calendula officinalis)

spring/autumn seed


well-drained soil; full sun; remove dead flower heads cream for cuts, scrapes, inflamed skin; infusion for fungal infections

(Mentha x piperita)

spring/autumn cutting/division


sunny but moist site; do not allow to dry out infusion for indigestion and headaches; lotion for itchy skin

(Rosmarinus officinalis)

spring/autumn seed/cutting


sunny sheltered site; protect with burlap in winter infusion as a stimulating nerve tonic and to aid weak digestion

(Salvia officinalis)

spring/autumn seed/cutting/layering


well-drained or dry, sunny, sheltered site infusion for sore throats, mouth ulcers, and diarrhea
St. John’s wort

(Hypericum perforatum)

spring/autumn seed/division


well-drained to dry soil with sun or partial shade tincture for depression and menopause; infused oil is antiseptic and heals wounds

(Thymus vulgaris)

spring/autumn seed/cutting/division well-drained soil, may need a layer of gravel; sunny site infusion for coughs, colds, and chest infections; lotion for fungal infections

Medicinal Use of Jujube, Da Zao (Chinese) – Ziziphus Jujuba (Rhamnaceae)


Spiny deciduous tree growing to approximately 26 ft (8 m). Has oblong, bluntly toothed leaves, clusters of small greenish-yellow flowers, and reddish-brown or black oval fruit.

Habitat & Cultivation

Native to China, Japan and Southeast Asia, the jujube is widely cultivated in tropical and subtropical regions of Asia and the Mediterranean. The fruit is collected in early autumn.

Part Used



Jujube contains saponins, bioflavonoids, polyphenols, polysaccharides, volatile oil, mucilage, vitamins A, B2, and C, in addition to calcium, phosphorus, and iron. It contains 20 times more vitamin C than citrus fruit.

History & Folklore

Used in Chinese herbal medicine for at least 2,500 years, jujube has a pleasant, sweet taste and high nutritional value. It is mentioned in the Classic of Odes, a 6th-century BCE anthology of Chinese poetry.

Medicinal Actions & Uses

Jujube is both a delicious fruit and an effective herbal remedy. It aids weight gain, improves muscular strength, and increases stamina. In Chinese medicine, jujube is prescribed as a qi tonic to strengthen liver function. Mildly sedative and anti-allergenic, it is given to reduce irritability and restlessness. It is also used to improve the taste of unpalatable prescriptions.


In Japan, jujube has been shown to increase immune-system resistance. In China, laboratory animals fed a jujube decoction gained weight and showed improved endurance. In one clinical study, 12 patients with liver ailments were given jujube, peanuts, and brown sugar nightly. In 4 weeks, their liver function had improved.

Related Species

The sedative Z. spinosa is used in Chinese medicine to “nourish the heart and quieten the spirit.”