Growing a Home Apothecary

By Erika Aponte

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Since animals roamed the Earth and swam in its oceans, nature’s apothecary has been the local forests, fields, streams and seas. From my high school days of growing food and medicine in garden beds on some asphalt outside a trailer where we met for afterschool programming, to years of learning, working, and teaching in agriculture, my mind opened to the possibilities of how gardening can benefit health.

During the COVID shutdown when I found myself without a job and feeling a lot of emotional stress, the shift I needed came again from creating a garden, this time my own medicinal garden. As I learned as much as I could about the healing qualities of plants, I began to focus on the ones that seemed to suit my needs best. The botanicals I selected for my own mental and physical healing were ultimately influenced by one book – The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Healing Remedies by Shealy C. Norman, which guided me through the world of natural healing.

Surrounding myself with healing plants became one of my most restorative times and increased my passion for living a healthy life. Once again, planting seeds and nourishing their growth helped strengthen my beliefs in the benefits of gardening.

I realized just how essential herbs are and have been since ancient times. The ancient Egyptians and forth century BC Greek physician Hippocrates recommended willow tree bark for pain relief. In 1915 Bayer started selling it as aspirin. Bulgarian folk stories tell of rubbing the flowers of snowdrops containing galantamine on their foreheads to cure headaches. It’s now used as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

As I gained experience in growing medicinal plants and making remedies, the possibilities of what a home medicinal gardener can mean expanded. We are stewards meant to help preserve and grow life, and just like the weeds, we can thrive, no matter what community or land we find ourselves in. Even though many of us live in areas of shrinking greenspaces, we must create our own environments and support the spaces bearing fruitful plant life. If you don’t have access to a ground area, a rooftop or a rare apartment backyard, there are many ways one can create a home healing garden that will serve as a physical and mental support. It can be container gardening on a small fire escape, or a window sill.

Envision your plant list as a reflection of your personality and needs. Allow the scents, colors, and textures you love to guide what you would like to see in this home oasis. You are creating a space meant to support you, your friends and neighbors. Start by creating your plant list and designing your garden with the space that is available to you.

You will want medicinal plants with the properties you need, such as easing pain, fighting inflammation, clearing congestion, aiding digestion, drawing out infection, or helping with relaxation. Look for the plants you can support the most easily with your growing conditions. Your herbal apothecary can be grown in containers placed indoors or outdoors, on porch, patio, stoop or fireescape. Growing medicinal plants in containers makes them portable and easy to adjust if in need of more or less sun exposure. If needed, consider installing a grow light.

Plants like basil or parsley added to one’s daily diet can help with circulation and heart issues. All have great healing qualities and are easy to grow, harvest, and use to make teas, poultices and salves. For a salve, combine the herb with beeswax, shea butter or a hardy oil like coconut. And there is nothing like drinking homegrown herbal tea.

Here are some great starter plants:

Lemon Balm
Applications: digestive upsets, anxiety, insomnia, sedative, flu and colds.

Chamomile
Applications: tension, anxiety, insomnia, stomachache, herpes simplex

Mint
Applications: digestive aid, upset stomach, headaches, cold and flu, cramps, tension, nausea, immune system support, congestion, athletic stiffness

Lavender
Applications: gentle antidepressant, burns, stress, sleeplessness, heartburn, indigestion, nerve pain, joint pain, muscular cramping

Oregano
Applications: sore throat, sinus inflammation, pain-relief, arthritis, wound healer, H. pylori infections, candida, athlete’s foot, skin infections, breathing issues, salmonella, staphylococcus infections, cold and flu, gum inflammation, digestive upset abdominal gas

Rosemary
Applications: memory, concentration, hair loss, stress, digestive aid, cancer prevention

Let this garden be a way to give to yourself, to the soil, and to your neighbors by sharing produce, dishes, cuttings and seeds of what you’ve grown.

Let healing start at home.

Erika Maria Aponte is an artist and farmer born and raised in The Bronx, New York. She received a certificate in agroecology and sustainable food systems from CASFS. Her work explores sustainable agriculture through community while exploring self expression through music, fashion design and food.

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