Written by Mitch McCulloch
Growing medicinal plants is a wonderful activity that generates holistic health and wellbeing. This article shares plants that are great for the elderly to grow, as well as top tips.
Planting flowers in the garden isn’t just a beautiful addition, many easy to grow flowering plants have medicinal properties that can be used to treat a whole host of issues. Today we’re going to be looking at five of my favourite flowers that have holistic powers.
For those of you reading who don’t know me, which will most likely be all of you, I’m Mitch, a former chef with a passion for the natural world, ecology and horticulture. I hung up my chefs apron in 2020 in pursuit of a more wholesome and natural lifestyle. I left my hometown of London for the ancient woodlands of the new forest. I am currently establishing an edible and medicinal showcase garden on previously conventionally farmed land. I grow in no dig beds using pre-industrial farming techniques based on permaculture principles. My garden is a testimony to all plants edible and medicinal, with a keen focus on rare, heritage and heirloom variates.
First up is a true medicinal powerhouse, Calendula (Calendula Officinalis Linn). Calendula is by far one of the easiest herbs to grow, it displays beautiful orange blooms all summer long and the insects go absolutely bonkers for it. For these reasons, calendula will always take centre stage in my herb garden. The vibrant tangerine flowers are jammed packed with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral and anti-fungal compounds. Traditionally calendula flowers abundant in resin are infused with olive oil as a base for a skin soothing which is why calendula is so popular in many cosmetics products today. When infused into oil, it becomes what herbalist call liquid gold that will make your skin glow. A simple way to prepare calendula is to make a tea from the dried flower heads. Calendula tea is said promotes the health of the skin, respiratory, lymphatic and digestive systems.
Gardeners will already know calendula to be a great source of pollen which makes for a very useful companion flower that will attract beneficial insects who assist with pollination and the control of pests. It’s pretty much a magnet for attracting biodiversity to the garden and comes in a whole host of colours. One of my favourite variates is the ‘Art Shades’ mix a popular strain with large blooms in unusual shades including tangerine, peach and apricot, it sounds more like a fruit salad than a flower bloom.
Growing tips: Sow Calendula undercover 2 weeks before the last frost and plant out once all risk from frost has gone. I like to cover young seedlings with horticultural fleece or netting during the plants early stage to prevent attack from slugs and birds. A quick tip to keep the plant in continuous bloom, remove the spent flower heads sometimes called deadheading remembering to keep them aside to dry and store for future use in teas and ointments.
Second on my list of flowers with holistic powers is Cornflower (Centaurea Cyanus). A lightly fragrant annual flower that produces brilliant colourful displays of white, blue, pink, red and purple. These old fashioned wild flowers are super easy to grow, they’re not fussy on soil type and are super drought resistant. One of my favourite things about cornflowers is they grow nice and tall. Some varieties can even reach heights of 2.5ft plus. The long, narrow hairy stems with fringed flowers make cornflower an excellent choice for freshly cut flowers bouquets.
The most popular and famous of the Centaurea Cyanus is the vivid sapphire blue variety. This year I’ve interplanted blue cornflower with a striking orange Indian Prince calendula. The contrast of blue and orange looks visually stunning along my border of the garden and the bees and butterflies can’t keep away.
Cornflowers have a long history of being used in the medical and cosmetic industries. It’s primarily the dried flowerhead that have been used medicinally for its anti-inflammatory properties. I personally use the dried petals to brew herbal tea as I’m a big fan of its lightly floral flavour with a hint of spice. Cornflower tea is thought to aid in soothing stomach ulcers, while using the tea as rinse or wash is used to speed the healing of bleeding gums. Cornflower tea can also be good for improving digestion as the herbs high antioxidant content aids in detoxing the liver.
Growing tips: Cornflower can be sown directly on the surface of freshly raked compost or soil. Scattering seeds on the surface mixed with other seeds like poppies, borage and chamomile is a great way to create a mini wildflower meadow. Taller varieties of cornflower can benefit from being stacked with a bamboo support to help them from toppling over.
Next up is a vigours vine like bushy plant that grow low to the ground. The leaves are a round and sometimes almost heart-like shaped, the flowers come in bright shades of oranges, apricots, yellows and creams with long spurs protruding out from behind them. It’s one of our favourites- nasturtium.
Beauty aside, one of the main reasons why I love to grow nasturtium is I’ve found it to be one of the most effect cabbage white caterpillar trap I’ve come across. Veggie growers will know that if you don’t cover your brassicas you’ll be spending all summer picking cabbage white caterpillar of your kales, broccolis and cabbages. So how do nasturtiums help? Well… the peppery leaves of nasturtium are a delicacy for cabbage white caterpillars, growing them in or next to your brassica’s is a great form of natural pest control. The humble cabbage white get’s a lot of flack and growing some decoy plants is the perfect way to give them a safe place to breed.
It’s worth noting that I advise growing dwarf compact varieties of nasturtiums in the veg patch as the trailing varieties will have vigorous growth and can literally swallow a whole veg bed in just a few weeks.
In the kitchen nasturtium blossoms are great for bringing bursts of colour to the plate. The flowers contain as much vitamin C as parsley, and more lutein than tomatoes which is great for eye health. Even if all you do is toss them into a salad, nasturtium blossoms are good for you. I like to collect the newly open flowers early in the morning so they’re extra sweet and full of nectar.
For me, what makes nasturtium the complete plant for the garden is it has strong antiseptic properties found in its leaves that can be used on wounds to help fight infections. The seeds which are the size of large peas can be ground into pastes to fight fungal infections in toenails. It doesn’t stop there, when you chew nasturtium leaves pungent vapours are released which are said to help ease the effects of bronchitis and other infections in the lungs.
Growing tips: Nasturtium sometimes doesn’t respond well to being repotted so it’s a good idea to direct sow seeds in their final planting position. Dib a hole slightly bigger than the seed and around 5cm deep. I like to sow two seeds per hole for an extra bushy and abundant bloom.
Coming in at number 4 is Nepeta Grandiflora, also known as catnip (also known as cat mint), yes that’s the stuff your fluffy kitty goes silly for! Despite being famous for its effects on felines, cats aren’t the only ones who can enjoy catmint. The leaves and flowers can be steeped to make a soothing herbal tea with a cool minty taste and a sweet floral fragrance. Some people enjoy eating young cat mints leaves. I think they have a delicate fresh minty flavour, making them a great aromatic salad topper. Older leaves can be used as a potherb in cooked dishes. Catmint tea is said to relieve tension and improve sleep quality. Much like many herbal teas, cat mint can aid digestive problems such as upset stomach and nausea. It is also particularly useful for treating fevers.
One of the many benefits of growing Nepeta is that it has a long flowering season and its aromatic leaves and flowers are loved by bees and other pollinators. It’s an easy to grow perennial which will come up and flower reliably every year. Nepeta is notorious for sprawling, especially as the summer goes on it can almost develop a bald spot in the middle. A good way to avoid this is give the old Chelsea chop. (A pruning method which allows you limit the size of plants and control the flowering season of many herbaceous plants. It get’s its name The Chelsea Chop because it is usually carried out at the end of May, coinciding with the RHS Chelsea Flower Show). The Chelsea chop has several functions. Firstly it makes the plant compact, while delaying flowering. It is useful to use on plants that love to sprawl such as Nepeta.
Growing tips: A plant best grown from cutting so you’re better off buying pot plants at any time of the year, although spring and autumn are ideal times to plant in the garden. Once growth dies back in autumn, cut back to the ground before spring.
The fifth and final flower with holistic powers that I will be writing about today (and I must say I personally feel we have saved the best ’til last!) is none other than the humble marigold or tagetes erecta. Marigolds are my favourite flower to grow in the veg garden for so many reasons, but please note that tagetes erecta and calendula officinalis are two different species that both share the common name marigold so be sure to check the Latin name before you buy any seeds.
Dwarf marigolds are my go-to companion flower, particularly for lettuce and tomatoes. Marigold roots release pheromones which deter cutworm, interplanting marigolds with lettuce is a great way to deter those pesky pests from nibbling away at the base of your lettuce plants. Alongside tomatoes marigolds act as a double-edged sword. Deterring pests like aphids and black fly with their strong odour they emit from their leaves and flowers. They also attract beneficial insects who can assist with pollination of your tomato crop and control pests. Ants farming aphids on your tomatoes can be a real pain, lucky enough marigolds are great for attracting lady bugs and guess what a ladybugs favourite meal is? That’s right aphids.
Now the reason why I love the dwarf varieties so much is they can easily be planted on the corners of your beds without losing too much cropping space. Dwarf varieties also fit perfectly under cucumbers and tomatoes growing up string or canes.
Pest control aside, marigolds are incredibly useful in the medicine cabinet. Marigold flowers support skin healing, their petals contain natural antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and hydrating properties. The flowers are generally used in herbal medicine, fresh or dried. The flowers are often used to prepare ointments, oils and gels. Its relaxing and soothing qualities help promote wound healing for sunburns, scratches, eczema and dermatitis.
Growing tips: Growing from seed is super easy. Sow 2 weeks before the last frost date and plant out after the risk of frost has completely gone. When the plant reaches 4 branches high pinch out the stem to encourage the plant to become more compact and bushy, resulting in more blooms.
Top tips for easy growing
- Short on space? Try growing these flowers in baskets, pots or containers, you’ll be surprised at how well the grow with limited space.
- Try growing in raised beds to ease the burden of bending down, alternatively a foam kneeling mat is a great way to make long periods kneeling more comfortable.
- There are lots of lightweight tool options available from plastic wheelbarrows to spades and watering cans.
- Wild flower meadows like the cornflower mentioned are not only beautiful, but they require less maintenance and bring the benefits of nesting habitat for wildlife for ladybirds to butterflies, hedgehogs and birds.