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Relief and remedy from your own yard Herbs: The benefits of gardening go beyond activity and aesthetics. You can also grow and harvest plants that have medicinal effects.


Tough day at the office? Rush-hour traffic on your nerves again? Are the thousand and one anxieties of modern life getting you down?

Gardening has long been touted for reducing stress. But our gardens can offer us much more tangible benefits.

Recent mainstream research confirms that stress, anxiety and mild depression can often be substantially relieved by herbs and other readily available plants.

What's exciting is that many of these can be grown in any garden and used fresh. They do not always have to come in capsules or boxes from the health-food store. Relief can be at your doorstep. This will be especially welcome for those interested in organic gardening or concerned with the origins of some commercial herbs.

One vocal advocate of natural, plant-based medicine is R. Lynn Shumake, of Blue Mountain Apothecary and Healing Arts at Smeeta's Pharmacy in Highland. Shumake is a professional herbalist and licensed pharmacist with 30 years' experience, including the formulation of nutritional solutions for hospitals.

At Smeeta's and at Smile's Herb Shop in College Park, he specializes in the custom compounding of medicines, tonics, topical creams and lotions with an herbal basis.

Shumake points out that besides their healing properties, most plants also include vitamins, trace minerals and electrolytes.

Herbs fresh from the garden can be used singly or combined in soothing teas and infusions; juiced to be used topically (combined with oils or lotions and applied to the skin or as strong infusions added to bath water); or as gargles or tonics. Many can be added to foods, such as soups, stews and stir-fry; some also lend themselves to incorporation into baked goods.

Here are a few herbs Shumake suggests for fresh use:

* St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum) is the current reigning star of herbs for combating mild depression. It is also a handsome, shrubby little plant in the garden, adorned for much of the summer with yellow, daisy-like flowers, and it makes a fine addition to the perennial border. Flowers, stems and leaves can all be harvested at any stage for use in herbal teas. Additionally, it is noted for antibacterial and astringent properties.

* Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is another well-known remedy for anxiety and tension. It is especially helpful in cases of stress-related insomnia. Although the roots are generally preferred in herbal preparations, the flowers and leaves can also be used fresh in teas. As a garden plant it is unimpressive, with small panicles of pale pink flowers and a somewhat fetid smell. I grow it in a large pot - which also makes selective harvesting of the roots easier - and consign it to a sunny corner away from the traffic pattern.

* Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), the most popular herbal sedative in Britain, is often used in conjunction with valerian. A weedy, climbing vine, passionflower has beautiful mauve, pink and white flowers and edible fruit. The flowers and fruiting tops of the plant are used in teas to ease tension, fatigue and insomnia. It is also used in soothing herbal baths.

* Catnip (Nepeta cataria) may be your proverbial cup of tea if you are prone to tension headaches. While no one knows just how long cats have known about this coarse-leaved, gray-green member of the mint family, humans have recorded using catnip for at least 2,000 years. Besides its sedative qualities, it is also used as a decongestant and digestive aid.

* Skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia) is very relaxing as an ingredient of herb teas and is reputed to induce important REM sleep, as well as Technicolor dreams, though never nightmares. It has been used to treat muscle tension and insomnia, often in combination with valerian and passionflower, for centuries.

* Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) is another good, old-fashioned herb with mild tranquilizing effects both inside and outside the body. Its sweet, apple fragrance, daisylike blooms and low-growing, ferny leaves make chamomile a welcome addition to the garden. The flowers in particular are valued for nerve-calming teas, and its sweet flavor blends well with other herbs. Stems and leaves can also be used in making strong infusions to add to bath water for a soothing, restorative soak.

* Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) has been said "to make the heart merry," something it would seem we can all use more of. It is a fragrant herb with a mild, pleasant taste that's often added to teas to make bitter herbs more palatable. A member of the mint family, it spreads readily in good ground. You may want to confine this perennial to a large pot or tub for this reason.

While several of these - including catnip and lemon balm - may be grown indoors, Shumake recommends checking with your local garden or herb shop.

Self-prescribed herbal treatments should never replace prescription medicines without the knowledge of your doctor or other qualified health-care professional. As always, any serious or chronic complaints should be referred to your doctor or other care-giver for diagnosis and treatment.

Pub Date: 12/27/98

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