Last Update: September 30, 2022
On the tiny Japanese island of Okinawa, it’s not uncommon to see 80-year-old women out in the Pacific sun, weeding their gardens on a summer day. In fact, it’s normal; the average life expectancy of men on the island is about 85, while women can look forward to living to a spritely 90.
One of the main reasons that Okinawa has the largest centenarian population in the world? Its residents still rely heavily on the flora in their backyards to treat common ailments instead of pharmaceuticals.
From stomach aches to insomnia, botanical cures used to be the go-to remedy in the days before Advil. But you don’t need a green thumb or even a backyard to grow your own set of healing herbs—all you need is a little space by a window, a pot, and some soil. Get started with these six versatile herbs.
It’s my Italian grandmother’s answer to making everything taste better—even bologna sandwiches—but this herb doesn’t need to be reserved for the dinner table. Basil has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, so it’s good to ingest or rub over small cuts and scrapes. Eat a little too much chicken parm? Chew on a bit of basil to help ease indigestion and bloating.
This well-loved and often hated herb is a mainstay in Mexican and Ayurvedic diets. Although some may think it tastes like soap, cilantro is one of the best herbs to help with digestion. Loaded with thiamin, zinc, dietary fiber and vitamins A, C, E and K, this aromatic green is also excellent for fighting inflammation. Due to its high concentration of zinc and antioxidant properties, cilantro is an excellent plant to keep around if you’re plagued with occasional acne breakouts, as it helps heal and clear pimples.
Renowned for its soothing effect on sunburns, aloe is so easy to grow that it deserves a permanent spot on your kitchen counter. Aloe can be a lifesaver on minor burns, especially for those who tend to be accident prone while cooking. Simply snip off the top of the leaf and squeeze the sticky gel directly on the aggravated skin for immediate relief. Drinking aloe vera gel can also soothe an upset stomach and help with constipation. A little goes a long way, so stick to a shot glass-size serving of the stuff for full benefits.
This herb is common around the holidays—it’s a must for a delightful Thanksgiving turkey—but thyme deserves a place in the home all year long. Easy to grow, the aromatic plant has been used for millennia to treat anything from foot fungus to melancholia. Use it in your everyday life to get a beautiful smile: the antiseptic qualities of thyme make it the perfect addition to a bacteria-killing morning mouthwash. Boil a few sprigs in a cup of water with a dash of sea salt. Let everything cool, then strain the leaves, and you’ve got yourself a natural (and fresh!) mouthwash.
Although most of us are more used to seeing this leaf dried and floating around in marinara sauce, the Mediterranean herb is pretty powerful in its fresh form. Sage tea is used for soothing a sore throat, and swishing with the stuff can help keep gums healthy. Sage could also have an effect on memory. In a study done on adolescents, those who chewed on the leaf tested markedly higher than those who did not on memory tests.
Though this herb makes an ideal sleepy time tea, chamomile merits a little more attention. The weedy-looking plant has also proven beneficial for a whole list of ailments, from hay fever and motion sickness to ADHD and fibromyalgia. It smells sweet, kind of like a combination of straw and apples, and just catching a whiff can have a soothing and calming effect.
All of these plants are relatively easy to find, and if you head to a local nursery you should be able to purchase pre-potted versions of all of these herbs. Simply replant them in your garden or in a larger pot on your windowsill and get growing. Come winter time, you’ll be happy to have some lingering greenery, as well as an entire botanical apothecary, right under your nose.
Photo credit: Matt Montgomery via Unsplash
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