Living on a rural homestead means living at a distance to doctors and hospitals. Minor complaints can be treated at home with medicinal herbs and spices that you might already have in your homestead kitchen. While serious conditions require a doctor’s or naturopath’s consultation, understanding the value of the spices and herbs that you keep in your cupboards, can help you manage when you need to. Often resorting to medicinal herbs can bide time while you consider the seriousness of a pain or complaint. Other times herbal remedies can change the outlooks. But to use them effectively you need to study their uses and their range of actions. I hope this series of articles helps you become better informed about the medicine that you have in your garden and in your kitchen.
10 medicinal herbs you’ll find in the grocery store
1. Ginger – (Zingiber officinale)
Ginger root is found in the produce sections of many grocery stores and Asian markets. It is a tropical plant that can be grown in a pot in temperate climates and brought indoors in winter. It needs a long growing season to multiply its roots. It is a spice used in Asian cooking and for gingerbread, predominantly for its carminative qualities. Ginger aids the digestion, quells nausea, and relieves stomach spasms. It is an effective treatment for travel sickness and can also be used effectively for morning sickness during pregnancy.
You are probably aware that ginger is helpful for digestion, but did you know it is also useful in other complaints. It is also a stimulant for the cardiovascular system, encouraging circulation. It is also an antiseptic that can help in ailments of the respiratory system.
Ginger is a stimulant, carminative, rubefacient, diaphoretic, aromatic, emmenagogue and sialagogue.
Ginger tea is effective in relieving sore throat, sinus congestion and coughing during the flu or a cold. You can increase its effectiveness by combining ginger with lemon juice, flax jelly, and honey in the treatment of colds and flu.
Ginger is effective in increasing circulation when used externally. Make a massage oil by combining a ginger oil, bees wax, olive oil, and cocoa butter to a thick paste. Keep it in a sealed jar and use for cold muscles, cramping, or combine with cayenne pepper, rosemary, and balm of gilead for arthritis relief.
2. Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
Another medicinal herb, Turmeric can be found in the produce section of Asian markets and health food stores. It looks similiar to ginger root and can usually be found in close proximity to ginger.
Turmeric has a long history in herbal medicine and has been used to fight inflammation. According to a paper from the University of Maryland, it lowers two enzymes in the body responsible for inflammation. It has also been used in the treatment of cancer for its superior antioxidant abilities. It stimulates bile secretions and improves digestion. It is used in Europe for stomach complaints. It is antibacterial and antiseptic, as well.
You can use the fresh root, by grating it, and adding it to food or in tea. Turmeric powder is also used in herbal medicine. The powder comes from the root that has been boiled and dried. If you don’t like the spicy taste of turmeric, you can put it in capsules and take it in pill form, or use the tincture.
It has a bright yellow colour and is the colouring agent in American mustard. It is used extensively as a textile dye in Asia for its bright yellow colour.
3. Cinnamon – (Cinnamomum zeylanicum)
Cinnamon is well known for its spicy warmth, that combines well with tree fruits and bland grains, like oatmeal. It is a digestive aid and an appetite stimulant. Clinical studies have shown that using up to 6 grams of Cinnamon a day can help diabetics control blood sugar levels and lower cholesterol in the blood. (Khan A, Khattak K, Sadfar M, Anderson R, Khan M. Cinnamon improves glucose and lipids of people with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2003;26:3215-3218.) Read more Cinnamon has also shown to help with weight loss.
4. Mint (Mentha x Piperita)
Mint has a long list of maladies that it is the recommended treatment: indigestion, colic, flatulence, nausea, vomiting, depressed appetite, menstrual cramps, abdominal and gall bladder pain, sinus congestion. Peppermint is strongly antibacterial and it helps in reducing inflammation of the gums and mouth. It is cooling. Use it dried in tea, or in steam to clear sinus passages and relieve chest congestion during a cold.
While you can find mint in the herbal tea or spice section of your grocery store, it is very easy to grow in zone 3 and higher and 4 plants will give you an abundance of mint for year round use. When looking for varieties to grow, true peppermint is stronger than spearmint. You will want to begin with root cuttings or plants, as it doesn’t grow true from seed.
Peppermint essential oil is an inexpensive essential oil to have on hand for making organic cleaning products. It fills the room with the heady, cheerful, stimulating aroma of peppermint and is antibacterial, too.
Peppermint, along with Rosemary and balm of Gilead makes a good massage oil for the relief of arthritis in the feet, and hands. Keep it away from your eyes.
5. Cayenne Pepper (Capsicum annuum)
Sold in the spice section of the grocery store, cayenne is the dried and ground fruit of the hot pepper. There are several varieties that are effective. Cayenne is one of the hotter specimens. Any hot pepper that you grow in your garden can be used. Cayenne is stimulant, carminative, tonic, sialagogue, rubefacient, anti-catarrhal, anti-emetic, anti-microbial, and diaphoretic. The capsaicin helps reduce pain.
Cayenne helps to ward off coughs, helps in the treatment of cancer for its antioxidant properties, and helps in stomach complaints. It promotes sweating and so helps in the treatment of fevers. It regulates blood flow, equalizing and strengthening the heart, arteries, capillaries, and nerves. It is a general tonic. When added to an ointment and used externally, it helps increase circulation to hands and feet and works to reduce the inflammation of arthritis. One of cayenne’s active ingredients is “capsaicin”.
Capsaicin has very powerful pain-relieving properties when applied to the skin. It reduces the amount of substance P, a chemical that carries pain messages to the brain, in your body. When there is less substance P, the pain messages no longer reach the brain, and you feel relief. Capsaicin is often recommended for topical application for the following conditions:
- Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as joint or muscle pain from fibromyalgia or other causes
- Nerve pain from shingles and other painful skin conditions (post-herpetic neuralgia) that happens even after the skin blisters have gone away. Research is mixed, and it may be that it works for some people and not others. Check with your doctor to see if trying this topical treatment is right for you.
- Pain after surgery, such as a mastectomy (breast removal for breast cancer) or an amputation
- Pain from nerve damage in the feet or legs from diabetes, called diabetic peripheral neuropathy. However, capsaicin doesn’ t seem to work for peripheral neuropathy from HIV.
- Low back pain. Several studies suggest capsaicin cream can reduce lower back pain. However, homeopaths may not prescribe a capsaicin gel as the first treatment, because other homeopathic remedies have fewer side effects. (University of Maryland)
Get my recipe for Cayenne-Ginger Salve for mild to moderate pain relief.
Capsaicin is the active ingredient in pepper spray and bear spray, too. You can make you own at home and use it in the wilderness to protect yourself from bear and other wild beasts:
Pepper Spray Recipe
- Get 100g hot chili powder, and 200mL vodka.
- Mix the two together in a 2 cup container.
- Run the mixture through a sieve to make sure there’s no solid chili powder left, and then put it in a stove-burner-safe container.
- Put your container on the burner until the ethanol boils and evaporates. You’ll have an orange solution of wax consistency left.
- Now add 20mL of mineral oil, or enough to give you a viscous liquid.
- Now you can put it in a bottle. You can buy spray bottles at the dollar store, or pressurized bottles online (for more on homemade pepper spray) For bear spray you will want to use a pressurized bottle. Test the bottle before you plan to rely on it in a life threatening situation.
6. Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
Chamomile is found in the section of your grocery store where you find herbal teas. It is useful for its relaxing, calming properties as well as it ability to ease stomach pain and colic. It is gentle enough to be used with children.
My first experience with chamomile tea was when I was working for the Bank of Montreal, at 18. I, as a teller, had just been robbed at gun point. It was the 2nd time I had experienced the threat of death from a bank robber in less than 6 months. And while I handed him my cash, along with the marked bills, closed my wicket, pressed the bank alarm, and calmly wrote down an immediate verbal description of the man, my hand began to shake uncontrollably. One of my colleagues, an older lady, took me to a nearby restaurant and ordered a cup of chamomile tea to help me calm down. I still remember the smell, like sweet pineapple, apples, and honey. It is the only memory that I have of that day. Within 3 months I had quit banking and was pursuing my degree in English and my dreams of becoming a writer, at a university in Oklahoma.
Chamomile is good for calming the nerves, inducing sleep, and relieving upset stomach. It is anti-spasmodic, carminative, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antiseptic, vulnerary, aromatic, diaphoretic, emmenagogue, nervine, sedative, and tonic. When used externally it reduces inflammation, and swelling and speeds wound healing. Use the cold tea as a mouth wash in mouth inflammation, a gargle for sore throats, or an eye-bath for sore eyes. Use it as a hair rinse with fair hair to accentuate blond highlights.
This is another natural dye that gives a sunny yellow to textiles when used with a alum mordant.
7. Cloves (Syzygium aromaticum)
A powerful antiseptic, mild anaesthetic, and digestive stimulant, clove oil and clove spice have been used for centuries. It is the spice that is used by your dentist to deaden the pain in your gums before he inserts the needle. It is a useful antiseptic for tooth ache, both deadening the pain of toothache while dealing effectively with the bacterial infection. Clove essential oil is available in the pharmacy section of your grocery store. The dried flower buds are sold in the spice section. Cloves are stimulating to the digestive system, and reduce nausea.
8. Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
Thyme has strong antibacterial and antiviral properties while strengthening the immune system to fight disease. It is found in the spice section of the grocery store as dried, crushed leaves, or as a ground powder. The dried leaves retain their strength longer than the dried powder, when in storage.
Thyme helps sluggish digestion. It can be used externally to help heal wounds, and internally for respiratory and digestive infections. When used as a gargle, it soothes sore throats and irritating coughs. It is an expectorant and reduces coughing and unnecessary spasm. It is used medicinally in the treatment of whooping cough, bronchitis, and asthma.
Easy to grow in your own garden in temperate zones.
9. Oregano (origanum vulgare)
Oregano — the spice that you can buy in the grocery store, is used in Italian cooking. But did you know that it is also useful for coughs and colds? It’s an immune booster and cough remedy. Put a tsp. of dried oregano, along with some thyme in a tea ball and make an infusion the next time you feel a cold coming on. I learned this from some wwoofers from France that stayed at the farm. This is the oregano that the essential oil is steam distilled from.
Oil of Oregano, on the other hand, is mountain oregano, or wild marjoram, containing the same herbal benefits as Thyme but on a more subdued note. It is easy to grow, but also available fresh or dried at your local grocer. It is antibacterial, antiviral, and carminative. It is useful for treatment of respiratory complaints and for wound healing. Oil of oregano is also recommended for the treatment of warts, mouth ulcers, and tooth ache. While using it leaves the taste of pizza in your mouth, a strong tea made with the leaves can be made more palatable with honey.
10. Sea Salt
While salt isn’t an herb, per say, it is an important adjunct to your home medicine chest. It is antiseptic and useful in the treatment of sore throats, sinus congestion, tonsillitis, and toothache. A mouth wash and gargle is made with 1 tsp. of sea salt in 1 cup of warm water. Sea salt contains several trace minerals, not available in table salt, and these minerals add to salts effectiveness for minor complaints. I use Celtic sea salt, but any sea salt made from the evaporation of water from natural sea flats will have adequate amounts of trace minerals including magnesium.
This just scratches the surface of the medicinal benefits that can be found in your grocery store and your kitchen cupboards. Every homesteader should become familiar with the healing benefits of herbs both from the garden and the kitchen cupboard, for those times when immediate relief from pain or discomfort is necessary. Many times herbal remedies can save you money and are more effective than prescription medicines. For serious complaints please see your doctor.
Back to you:
Which herbal remedies do you keep in your kitchen that you rely on over and over again. How do you use it? The wise herbalist is always learning. Please share.