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The Medicine Garden: Best Medicinal Herbs to Grow in the Home Garden

Joe Pye Weed

Joe Pye Weed

Joe Pye Weed

Joe Pye Weed

Mullein in flower

Mullein in flower

Mullein leaf rosette

Mullein leaf rosette

Elecampane in flower

Elecampane in flower

Echinacea in flower

Echinacea in flower

Bible leaf flowers

Bible leaf flowers

While many people who garden grow a few herbs for the kitchen, the cultivation of medicinal herbs is less common—and not all medicinal herbs will work to create an attractive flowering border. Here are some that will.

This is a selection of valuable medicinal plants that are real stunners! They are all rugged and adaptable, and would work well together in a “wild garden” for mid to late summer bloom.

Both Joe Pye Weed and Mullein are tall-growing plants that demand quite a bit of space and provide architectural interest. I think these plants, along with the others listed, would go especially well if grouped with ornamental grasses—especially Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis “Gracillimus”)—and filled out with Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta).

Of course, if you go with the ornamental grasses, especially, you are probably talking about a rather large border—but it will be a large border that will probably require less work and care than it would take to mow the area.

I have listed these plants from the tallest to the shortest, since it’s helpful to plan to plant the taller plants at the back of the border. All these plants listed require full sun.

Joe Pye Weed or Boneset(Eupatorium perfoliatum, Eupatorium purpureum)

Joe Pye Weed is also known as Queen of the Meadow and is another tall, architecturally interesting plant that provides lavish late-summer bloom and would mix well—and compete well—with ornamental grasses.

The Eupatoriums are fairly widely available as ornamentals for the garden.

Gorgeous in the late summer garden! It is a statuesque plant, growing in clumps that reach five to eight feet in height

According to Wikipedia, “Eupatorium has at times been held to contain as many as 800 species, but many of these have been moved (at least by some authors) to other genera.”

Some species are poisonous, notably White Snakeroot, or Eupatorium rugosum aka Ageratina altissimawhich is again a reflection of the present confusion as to classification.

There seems to be quite a bit of confusion as to common names and medicinal uses of several species. Wikipedia says, “The common names for the plants are all based on the previous usage of one species, Eupatorium perfoliatum, as an herbal medicine. Boneset alludes to the use of the plant to treat.. .Dengue fever, which was also called breakbone fever because of the pain that it caused.”

Eupatorium purpureum (which is now classified as Eutrochium purpureum) is the species known as Gravel Root, and the roots are used by modern herbalists as a lithotropic—that is, to encourage the passage of kidney stones. It is combined with other herbs, usually including marshmallow root, which acts to soothe the tissues and make the passage of stones painless. (See Eupatorium purpureum grows about five to eight feet tall.

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Eupatorium perfoliatum is the species known as Boneset, which has a long history of use for fevers and influenza, and specifically Dengue fever, also called break-bone fever. The name Joe Pye Weed comes from the use of the plant in Colonial times by a Native American named Joe Pye to cure fevers. The herb was used very successfully in the United States for the treatment of influenza, a disease which killed some 6-8 million people during the first World War. This species grows about five feet tall and prefers a more moist site, and may not be perfectly happy with the other plants in this article, unless you can pamper it with extra water. Or it may just be better off in a wetter location.

A tea of the leaves is used by modern herbalists for flu, bronchitis, fevers, and to relieve fever-induced aches and pains. When used for fevers, it acts by producing profuse sweating, and should be taken warm while in bed, so as to encourage perspiration.

Some other species are sometimes designated as either Joe Pye Weed or Boneset, and apparently may be used in the same way, but there seems to be some confusion about the medicinal use of these other species, so I’m sticking to the above two species which have been specifically identified for their specific uses.

If you are harvesting these plants for medicinal use, be very sure you have positively identified the species, even if purchased from a nursery, as some species are poisonous.

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

The medicinal species of mullein is the common roadside weed, Verbascum thapsus. Grown in good soil, it is actually a beautiful plant. Mullein is a biennial—meaning it does not bloom until the second year, but during the first years it forms a huge rosette of giant fuzzy leaves. The flower stalk is like a giant fuzzy candlestick that can grow six feet tall (or more in good soil). The sulfur-yellow flowers are small and kind of ho-hum. Mullein is more of an architectural plant—like ornamental grasses—and grows well and looks good with them.

The flowering candelabra-like stalks may grow six to eight feet tall and may have multiple branches, depending mainly on the richness of the soil.

The leaves may be made into tea for lung complaints (coughs and colds) and bowel complaints (diarrhea). The flowers are steeped for about a month in olive oil, to make mullein oil, one of the finest of all treatments for ear infections. (See

Elecampane (Inula helenium)

Elecampane has large, rough leaves and produces tall stalks of yellow daisy-like flowers in late summer. The flowers stalks grow three to five feet tall.

Elecampane root is used for pulmonary complaints of all kinds, including colds and bronchitis, and has historically been used for tuberculosis. Modern research has indicated that it could be useful for MRSA, applied externally.

An excellent cough syrup is made by simmering the roots in honey and straining. The root has a pleasant aromatic taste.

Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea, Echincea spp.)

Echinacea, or purple coneflower, is probably the single most valuable medicinal plant you can grow. Purple coneflower grows about three feet tall and gives a long season of bloom in mid to late summer, and the flowers are beautiful: large purple daisy-like flowers with orangey centers. Echinacea requires little care and will reseed itself if given half a chance, yet it will not become invasive.

Dig the root in the second year to make Echinacea tincture, or dry the root for medicinal teas.

Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.)

Black-Eyed Susans are low-maintenance perennials that provide a lavish late-summer display of brilliant yellow flowers and grow about three feet in height. Gloriosa daisies are among the cultivated varieties of Rudbeckia and are truly stunning.

Several Rudbeckia species, it turns out, have unsuspected medicinal uses—unsuspected by me, anyway. A tea of the leaves has been used to treat urinary tract infections, sores, and wounds.

But here’s something even more interesting: Some sources indicate that the roots can be used in the same way as Echinacea. (Echinacea root is wonderfully effective for the treatment of UTIs.)

In one study that compared the immunostimulatory activity of Rudbeckia speciosa with those of Echinacea angustifolia and Echinacea gloriosa, Rudbeckia was found to have a stronger effect than the two Echinacea species.

Echinacea was in fact previously included in the genus Rudbeckia, so the two plants are very closely related. I have not been able to find information about the medicinal activity of particular Rudbeckia species, other than that mentioned above, nor have I personally tried using Rudbeckia roots in the same way as Echinacea roots, as this is new information to me. I believe I will try using them this way—an experiment that will be quite easy for me to carry out, since the vacant lots near me are now bursting with a late-summer bloom of Black-Eyed Susans.

It sounds to me like Rudbeckia has a place in the medicine garden.

Bible Leaf (Tanacetum balsamita, Chrysanthemum balsamita)

Also called Costmary or Alecost, the name Bible Leaf comes from the historic use of the leaves as scented bookmarks.

The plant produces a patch of somewhat long and broad tongue-shaped leaves, from which flowering stems rise two or three feet tall, with loose clusters of small daisy-like flowers.

Maude Grieve, in A Modern Herbal, tells us that the plant “emits a soft balsamic odour—pleasanter and more aromatic than that of Tansy.” This is a wonderful plant, partly for its historic interest. In the 1500s, Lyte tells us that it was then “very common in all gardens,” Gerard says “it groweth everywhere in gardens.” Parkinson mentions it among other sweet herbs in his garden.

The plant is now rarely grown, but is a charmer that I think should be revived. It has a number of historic medicinal uses, and is perhaps best used burns and wounds, because of its somewhat astringent and antiseptic properties. It is also used to scent potpourris.

Frankly, I think it is a bit strong smelling and reminiscent of camphor—but I love it anyway.

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ologsinquito from USA on August 24, 2013:

Great article and very useful too for those of us interested in medicinal herbs. Voted up.

Sharon Vile (author) from Odessa, MO on August 24, 2013:

I was really surprised to learn about Rudbeckia, myself--I just learned about this while researching this article.

I absolutely must try it to see if it works like Echinacea!

Sharon Vile (author) from Odessa, MO on August 24, 2013:

Thanks for your kind words.

Have a look at my hub on curing ear infections for details on making mullein oil.

I want to put together another hub on growing other medicinal herbs. I realized if I put them all in one hub, it would get way too long!

I'm happy to see there is interest in this!

CraftytotheCore on August 24, 2013:

I find your discussion about Mullein to be fascinating! I have this plant growing all over my yard. While some insist it's just a weed, I refuse to pull it because it attracts a glorious amount of bees. I think it is pretty. One neighbor wanted me to give him a couple because he also found them to be pretty. But I do see them growing wildly all over the highway. Never knew that they had medicinal properties! Thank you!

Peggasuse from Indiana, USA on August 24, 2013:

It must be "destiny" that I found your article. For a long while, I've been thinking about putting together a list of medicinal herbs that I could grow, to help with the lesser illnesses. This article will serve as a good place to start collecting that information.

Thanks! :)

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