Although it might seem like botanical herbs have just entered the mainstream, they’ve been around for thousands of years—and used by people just as long. Botanicals have seen a recent boom in popularity, as more and more people turn to them for an increasingly wide range of reasons, whether dietary, medicinal or cosmetic. From aloe vera to valerian, there are hundreds of botanicals that serve a wide range of health and wellness purposes, and many of them are available right here in the St. Croix Valley.
Melanie Dunn runs Herb’N Farm and Apothecary in New Richmond, Wis. In her early 20s, she started growing edible flowers and culinary herbs, which led her to do further research on their medicinal uses. “I discovered this incredible wealth of knowledge and history and wisdom, and it just kind of snowballed from there,” she says. At Herb’N Farm, she sells her own tinctures, infused oils, herbal teas, salves and more, and leads garden tours and wild-plant walks, in addition to teaching classes at the River Market Co-op. “Botanicals are generally very safe, and there is a rich history in their use,” she says. “I believe that they can be used as a preventative or an alternative to prescription drugs, in conjunction with modern prescription drugs.”
There is some skepticism about the effectiveness of botanicals, and given that most are not FDA-approved, some caution is not unwarranted. (Dunn notes the FDA disclaimer, which states herbs are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, and that any health concern or condition should be brought to the attention of a physician before modifying diet, and using new product or supplement.) However, as general awareness of these botanicals grows, so does research and in-depth knowledge. Gigi Stafne, a natural-medicine educator, runs the Green Wisdom School of Natural and Botanical Medicine, which offers an array of classes focused on naturopathy and herbalism. She began working with botanicals nearly 30 years ago, and she says that general views of her work have changed drastically since she first began.
“During the early- and mid-1990s in our region of North America, natural medicine was still looked upon as quackery in numerous circles,” she says, noting how much has changed since then. “Current statistics and various studies indicate that 50 percent to 90 percent of all people in the United States and Canada utilize at least one form of natural medicine or CAM [complementary and alternative medicine] modality.” The benefits of many botanicals are now “substantiated clinically and scientifically,” she says, with evidence that suggests botanicals are helpful in treating a range of issues, from the common cold all the way to cancers.
Often botanicals can be used alongside other types of medicine to treat various symptoms. Dr. Bradley Bush of Home Natural Medicine of Stillwater says that botanicals are a vital part of our medical toolbox. “You treat botanicals just like you’d treat any other medicine,” he says. “They have an intended purpose, and you’re able to employ them just like any other tool, in a very strategic fashion.” So whether you’re dealing with the stress of day-to-day life or with the occasional facial blemish, you could find relief with botanicals. Check out the list on the following pages for some of the most popular plants—you might even have some of them growing in your garden already.
Aloe vera’s soothing properties make it a well-known treatment for sunburn. It’s a common ingredient in skin care products, but Stafne says that its healing properties are most powerful when the gel-like substance is taken directly from the leaves. A natural antiseptic, it can be applied topically to treat skin irritations, especially minor burns and bug bites. Some studies suggest that ingesting aloe (typically in juice form) might also reduce cholesterol, lower inflammation and boost the body’s immune system. (Be careful, though—aloe can also be toxic in some circumstances.) Aloe can be grown at home and thrives easily—just find a pot and a sunny window.
Basil is a popular culinary herb, but it boasts many medicinal uses as well, especially thanks to the oil in its leaves. It is often used to treat stress-related symptoms, and it also helps reduce fevers, relieve sore throats and expel kidney stones. When applied topically, it alleviates itching from bug bites. Stafne says that basil’s role in cancer treatment is currently being studied, although true benefits are thus far unknown. Basil can be found in any grocery store and can be grown at home, as well.
Also known as Pot Marigold, this orange and yellow flower is easy on both the eyes and the skin, and it might even be growing in your backyard. “I think a lot of people grow calendula, and they don’t even realize that it’s a medicinal herb,” Dunn says. The flower is edible, and it also can be used to treat skin irritations. “It’s very nourishing for the skin and it’s anti-inflammatory, so that’s a great one for the face,” Dunn says. She uses it with witch hazel to make a facial serum.
Chamomile is among the oldest and best-known botanicals, which makes it easy to find—especially around the St. Croix Valley. Dunn says that given her work’s focus on regional and native plant medicine, chamomile is among the most popular, safe and widely used. Its dried leaves make for a calming tea, but chamomile also can be ingested to aid with PMS symptoms, indigestion and irritation.
Echinacea is a bright perennial native to our region of North America and has long been used as an herbal remedy. Dunn says that it’s also among the best natural adaptogens, which improve the body’s ability to adapt to daily stress, and it’s a great boost for the immune system as well. “You can really dose on it, like if you’re experiencing the start of a flu,” Dunn says.
Joe Pye Weed
Also known as gravel root, it’s the roots of this plant that have the greatest medicinal properties. “Joe Pye has the ability to move stones out of the body and is also used in labor to help the baby come,” Dunn says. Some evidence also suggests that Joe Pye Weed boosts kidney health and prevents inflammation damage from sugar in the bloodstream, making it helpful in managing diabetes as well.
St. John’s Wort
St. John’s wort is a well-known herb and is often used as a natural treatment for depression and anxiety, easing symptoms like excessive tiredness, loss of appetite and difficulty sleeping. Stafne says that when used as an oil, St. John’s wort also “effectively assists in the easing of muscle injuries, facilitates the relief of muscle spasms, cramps and tension, and reduces general swelling.”
Oregano has many medicinal purposes in addition to its culinary use. Its leaves and flowers can be harvested during the early flowering stages, when essential oils are at their highest levels, and these oils can in turn be used to treat colds and upper respiratory infections. Some studies have shown that oregano also has anti-inflammatory and cancer-fighting properties and is helpful in treating bloating, gas and other symptoms of indigestion.
Everyone has trouble drifting off to sleep every now and then, but if you’re finding yourself tossing and turning a lot, you might consider valerian. The roots have sedative properties, making it a common sleep aid. Valerian is sometimes used to treat anxiety-related symptoms, although the jury is still out on its effectiveness. Dunn says that she has seen great success with it, “especially with restless leg syndrome and insomnia.”