13 Culinary and Medicinal Herbs For Your Garden
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Herbs have a long history of being used for both culinary and medicinal purposes. They truly are the reason for the famous quote, “let thy food be thy medicine, and thy medicine be thy food.” Here are 13 must-have culinary and medicinal herbs for your home herb garden.
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I didn’t grow up eating a lot of fresh herbs, and I certainly didn’t use them as medicine. We used mostly packaged, dried herbs that had been harvested in other countries and shipped from around the world, and when it came to medicine, we did what most other people we knew did and turned to the shelves or pharmacy counter of our local drugstore for help.
Eventually I did attempt to grow a few herbs for culinary purposes. But at the time I lived in a city condo with a north-facing balcony, so my first efforts at growing an herb garden were pitiful and largely unsuccessful to say the least.
Still, I liked the idea of being able to produce and harvest fresh food right from my own home. And so, the gardener spirit in me was officially born.
At the same time, I was honing my cooking skills, and I began to replace my pantry full of crusty old, store-bought dried herbs from who-knows-where, with homegrown (when possible) fresh herbs of all kinds.
I started getting to know the flavour profile of different herbs, and loading meals with fresh, aromatic and highly flavourful fresh herbs of all kinds. Naturally, I fell in love with them for their culinary uses and delicious flavours, and over the years I actually got pretty good at growing herbs at home (although I admit, I didn’t have success until we moved to a sunnier location).
But it’s really only been within the last two or three years that I’ve discovered the medicinal benefits of different herbs. I don’t know why, but I had just never thought of the herbs that I used to cook with having medicinal properties as well.
My foray into using herbs as medicine began when I started learning about essential oils and their medicinal benefits (because just like I thought herbs were only good for their flavour, I used to think essential oils were only good for their aroma! Yes, I’ve come a long way:)
As I learned more about the health benefits of essential oils, I also began learning more about the medicinal properties of the herbs that these oils come from.
And so, like everything with this lifestyle, it was a slippery slope from there.
Today I use herbs for both their culinary and medicinal benefits, and there are a handful (or two) that I always make sure to keep in my own home garden. Hence, what I’m sharing with you today!
So here they are: the top 13 culinary and medicinal herbs that I grow in my home herb garden year after year, plus tips on how to use them in both your kitchen, your medicine cabinet and beyond.
13 Culinary and Medicinal Herbs for Your Herb Garden
Disclaimer: Before we dive in, I must reiterate that I am NOT a medical professional, and the following information is of entertainment and educational purposes only. I am not certified to diagnose or treat any medical issues and I always recommend talking to your family doctor or natural health care practitioner before using any herbs or essential oils for medicinal purposes.
For more information, you can read my full disclaimer here.
Alright, onto the good stuff:)
First up on the list of my top 13 culinary and medicinal herbs is (drumroll please)….
Mint is a must-have in any home garden. It’s a perennial plant that grows easily and is infamous for its ability to spread quickly and take over a space, so it’s best to plant it in a container garden.
Culinary Uses: Mint has a cool flavour profile and is usually served fresh, often paired with lamb, tossed in a salad or used to flavour or top desserts like ice cream and cheesecake. It’s also classically enjoyed muddled with sugar, lime juice, rum and soda water in my personal favourite summer cocktail, the mojito:)
Medicinal Uses: Mint (peppermint specifically) helps to reduce nausea, soothes upset stomachs, reduces fever and headaches, fights colds and flus and freshens breath (hence all of those mint-flavoured gums and toothpastes). To reap mint’s medicinal benefits, chew it fresh, steep it fresh or dried and take it as a tea or a tincture (ie. mint extract) or dry it and infuse it in oil to use in homemade balms and salves to soothe headaches and stomach aches.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Lemon balm is another plant in the mint family, but rather than tasting minty, it tastes, um, lemony. I know… mind blowing. Lemon balm is perennial and prolific like mint and does well grown in a container in full sun, however I have it mixed in my regular herb garden and haven’t had trouble with it spreading the way my mint has in the past.
Culinary Uses: While cooking with lemon balm isn’t quite as popular as cooking with other well-known herbs, it can add a subtle, sweet lemon flavour to chicken and fish dishes, and even act as a stand-in for lemongrass in exotic, Southeast Asian-style dishes like Thai green curry and Vietnamese chicken and pork dishes. Like mint, it can also be used to flavour and top ice creams and cheesecakes and can be used in addition to or in place of mint in a lemony twist on the classic mojito.
Medicinal Uses: Among its many medicinal uses, lemon balm is known to boost mood, calm anxiety, aid digestive problems like upset stomach, bloating and cramps, regulate thyroid function, reduce the risk of diabetes by lowering blood sugar, protect your heart and liver by lowering triglycerides and cholesterol and it even helps improve cognitive function and reduces the effects of alzheimer’s.
Like mint, lemon balm can be eaten fresh, taken as a tea or as a tincture or extract, or infused in oil to make balms and salves.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
No summer garden is complete without basil! Unlike many other herbs, basil is an annual that needs to be replanted each year. It does best in full sun and is an excellent companion plant for tomatoes.
Culinary Uses: Fresh basil can make just about anything taste like summer on a plate. It’s best enjoyed fresh (not dried or cooked) and makes an excellent topping for pizza and pasta dishes, or served alongside vine-ripened tomatoes and mozzarella or bocconcini cheese in a Calabrese salad. Genovese basil is best used in these Italian-style dishes, while Thai basil goes great in, you guessed it, Thai dishes (and other South Asian and Southeast Asian dishes like Vietnamese Pho).
Basil is also at its best when blended into a yummy pesto sauce. As a dessert herb, basil actually pairs really nicely with berries and adds a distinct and unique flavour to strawberry, blueberry and blackberry desserts like pies and crumbles.
Medicinal Uses: Basil is a powerful antioxidant and can possibly even help ward off cancer. It’s also anti-inflammatory and antibacterial, and can help reduce fever, pain and swelling.
Personally, I think the best way to enjoy basil is fresh in your food! Not only do you get the medicinal benefits, you also get the delicious culinary flavour at the same time. If you’re looking for a way to store basil in your medicine cabinet, you can make an alcohol or glycerin tincture/extract and take a few drops daily as preventative medicine or a more concentrated amount to help ease acute symptoms.
Catnip (Nepeta cataria)
Ah, catnip. Kitty weed. Because of the name (and its obvious effects on our feline friends), catnip is often thought of as an herb just for cats. But it actually has some pretty amazing human uses too! Another member of the mint family, catnip is a leafy perennial that grows best in full sun, away from salivating kitty cats (who will decimate it in no time if allowed… Or is that just my cats??)
Culinary Uses: Alright, so catnip isn’t quite the culinary superstar that some of the other herbs on this list are. But catnip can be used to add a subtle minty, albeit slightly grassy flavour to salads, stews and sauces, or added to smoothies. Most commonly it is consumed as a tea. Or, of course, you can make your cat a fancy, meaty dinner with a catnip garnish and said cat might just love you enough to stop plotting your ultimate demise, for the evening anyway;)
Medicinal Uses: Catnip is much better known as a medicinal herb than a culinary one. While the active chemical compound in catnip (nepetalactone) acts as an attractant and a stimulant to cats when inhaled, and a sedative to both humans and cats when ingested. Catnip can help to induce sleep and reduce tension and anxiety in both human and cats.
Humans most often consume it as a tea, but cats will eat it fresh or dried. Or they’ll just stick their paw in your tea and then knock it off the counter. Because, cats. Gotta love ’em:)
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
Parsley is one of the most versatile yet underrated culinary herbs in the garden. Although it’s not part of the mint family (shocking, I know), it also grows and spreads easily. Parsley is actually a biennial that sets seeds in its second year and then dies. But then the seeds grow into new plants and voilà! You’ve got yourself a perennial:)
Culinary Uses: Parsley can be used fresh as a garnish or dried as a culinary herb in a wide range of dishes from pastas to chicken, steak and seafood dishes or as a flavouring herb in classic Italian meatballs. It is also an essential ingredient in ranch spice mix.
Medicinal Uses: Parsley can be used to induce menstrual flow in women, so it should absolutely not be ingested in large, concentrated quantities if you are pregnant or suspect you are pregnant. However it can help to induce bleeding and release of afterbirth if you have already given birth or miscarried (I have personally been prescribed parsley tea by my midwives in both cases).
I strongly recommend you talk to your doctor before taking parsley tea or ingesting any significant amount of parsley while you are pregnant or even shortly after birth. Always better to be on the safe side. (Typical culinary use is just fine).
Parsley can also be used to boost immune function, treat urinary tract infections and bladder infections and its metabolism boosting properties can help promote weight loss.
Cilantro/Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)
Cilantro (or coriander) looks very similar to flat-leaf parsley, however they taste very different. Cilantro is one of those herbs that you either love or hate, and in fact there have been scientific studies done which suggest that people who hate cilantro and think it tastes “soapy” actually have different genetics that affect the way cilantro tastes and smells. How’s that for random trivia?
But if you’re a cilantro lover like me, then it’s a definite must-have in your herb garden. It grows well in full sun and well-drained soil and makes a great addition to a salsa garden as it’s often used alongside tomatoes, onions and hot peppers to make fresh salsa!
Culinary Uses: As mentioned above, cilantro is a key ingredient in fresh salsa and pico de gallo. Naturally, it goes great with Mexican cuisine and can be used to flavour all sorts of salsas, including mango salsa and spicy peach salsa. It is also a staple in South Asian and Southeast Asian cuisine, and both the leaves and the seeds are often used in curries and other Indian foods, and the leaves and even the roots are used in Thai cooking.
Medicinal Uses: Cilantro is high in vitamins A, C, E and K, as well as folate, potassium and manganese. It is well-known for its ability to help rid the body of heavy metals like arsenic, aluminum, mercury and lead, which can cause all sorts of health complications, such as heart disease, neurological conditions and infertility. Cilantro also protects against oxidative stress which has been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s and arthritis, to name a few. So even if you hate it, it might be worth trying some in your next taco or rice bowl!
Dill (Anethum graveolens)
If you make your own pickles, then this is one herb you’re not gonna want to be without! Often referred to as a weed, dill is a distinctly-flavoured biennial herb that self-seeds and acts like a perennial if left to its own devices. Sow seeds in a warm, sunny area and harvest the leafy fronds (dill weed) as a flavouring herb/garnish and later the seedy flower heads to add flavour to homemade dill pickles.
Culinary Uses: Dill weed (the leafy fronds I mentioned above) can be eaten fresh and used as a flavouring herb or garnish for all sorts of dishes including fish (salmon specifically), potatoes (and potato salad), borscht and mixed with yogurt in homemade tzatziki sauce and dried and used in homemade ranch spice mix. The seedy flower heads are typically stuffed in jars of homemade dill pickles to add that distinct dill flavour!
Medicinal Uses: Dill has long been used to aid digestion and calm the stomach after a good meal. It also helps to ease menstrual cramps, fight depression and insomnia and can even stop hiccups!
Dill is often chewed fresh, however you can also steep it in hot water to make dill tea, or use the seeds to make homemade gripe water to help soother a colicky baby’s tummy pains.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
The quintessential “woody” herb, rosemary is a highly flavourful, highly medicinal perennial herb that’s a staple in just about every herb garden. Keep it watered regularly in really hot weather, mulched in the winter to prevent freezing (hard frosts can kill it), and prune it often to encourage new growth. If growing it in a container, fertilize with liquid fertilizer once every four to six weeks up until about 6 weeks before you first frost.
Culinary Uses: Rosemary’s earthy flavour is one of my personal favourite herbs to use as a flavouring, especially on roasted potatoes and root vegetable like carrots and beets. It goes great with hearty, red-meat based meals like roast beef, beef stew and lamb chops.
Medicinal Uses: Rosemary has long been used as a medicinal herb to help improve memory and focus. It also helps to relieve sore muscles and joint pain, reduces stress and anxiety and promotes hair growth by stimulating circulation in the scalp.
Eat it fresh or dried, or make a tea or tincture for more concentrated medicinal use. Infuse it into apple cider vinegar to make a rosemary hair rinse for your hair, or infuse dried rosemary into oil to make a pain-relieving salve for achey muscles and joints.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
Thyme is another popular earthy, woody herb and goes hand-in-hand with rosemary, both in the garden and in cooking. Thyme does well in warm, well-drained soil and is pretty drought-resistant, so be careful not to water it too much or too often. As a companion plant, thyme is said to repel cabbage moths, so you might want to consider planting it near cabbages and brassicas. It is also said to enhance the flavour of strawberries if planted near them!
Culinary Uses: Thyme is a staple herb in French and Mediterranean cuisine. It goes well with chicken, red meat, root vegetables and mushrooms (you MUST try sautéing mushrooms with butter, garlic and thyme. O.M.G.)
Thyme also blends well with rosemary, so don’t be afraid to throw a handful of fresh or dried thyme in with some fresh or dried rosemary in your soups, stews and roasted meats and veggies. In fact, you’ll be glad you did!
Medicinal Uses: Both the flowers and leaves of thyme can be used to treat a variety of illnesses and ailments, including sore throats (including bronchitis), high blood pressure and cholesterol. It’s known to boost immunity and and even helps combat acne. Thyme is also said to have been used as a hangover cure in the 18th century.
Consume thyme fresh or dried or brew as a tea for medicinal use. You can also infuse honey with thyme for a potent sore throat remedy, or infuse thyme in witch hazel and use as an astringent for acne-prone skin.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
You might be wondering why I’ve got lavender on a list of herbs when it’s often thought of as a flower. But lavender is actually a highly potent medicinal plant, and can be used as a culinary herb in numerous drinks and dishes. Opt for English lavender (instead of French lavender/Lavandin) as English lavender is better both for its culinary and medicinal properties.
Culinary Uses: Lavender can be used fresh or dried as a flavouring herb in desserts like cupcakes, cookies and even chocolate cake, or infused in drinks like lemonade and cocktails like lavender gin and tonics or lavender mojitos (can you tell I like mojitos??).
Medicinal Uses: The medicinal benefits of lavender are plenty. First and foremost, lavender helps to ease stress, calm anxiety and induce sleep and relaxation. It also boosts mood and helps combat symptoms of depression. Lavender is a calming herb that can help soothe skin problems and flare ups like acne, eczema and psoriasis.
Package dried lavender buds in an organza bag with a drawstring top and place it under your pillow to help you sleep at night or sprinkle some fresh or dried buds in a bath with some epsom salts to help you relax and to calm skin irritations. Alternatively, brew some lavender tea (lavender and chamomile is a great combination) to help you relax after a stressful day.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
Oregano is a perennial Mediterranean herb that grows well in hot, dry conditions and requires very little care and attention to flourish. Keep oregano pruned to encourage bushy, thick growth. Harvest often throughout the season to use fresh, then hang stalks to dry, remove dried leaves and store them in a jar or container in a cool, dark place for year-round use.
Culinary Uses: Oregano is a warm, almost spicy herb that adds just a little kick to meals. Being a Mediterranean herb, it goes well with southern French, Greek and Italian cuisine, including pizza, pasta dishes and minestrone soup. But it’s a versatile culinary herb in the savoury food world, and goes well with everything from meat to eggs to veggie dishes of all kinds.
Medicinal Uses: Oregano is known for being a powerful antibacterial, antiviral and antiseptic herb with powerful antioxidant properties. In Ancient Greece, oregano was brewed as a tea to treat coughs and colds, and Hippocrates himself was said to have used it to treat wounds, infections, psoriasis and stomachaches. That’s sort of a big deal considering Hippocrates is known as the “father of modern medicine,” and also famously said “let thy food be thy medicine, and thy medicine be thy food.”
Brew oregano as a tea and mix with honey and lemon to help soothe and heal coughs, sore throats, colds and flu, or make a tincture for a more potent, concentrated dose. Make an oregano decoction to pour over cuts and wounds to encourage healing and ward off infections, or infuse it in witch hazel and use as an astringent on acne and breakouts.
Sage (Salvia officinalis)
Another Mediterranean herb, sage is a perennial that does best in full sun and well-drained soil. It has been used for thousands of years and was a popular medicinal herb with many great civilizations of the past, including the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians and the Chinese, who were so enamoured with the healing properties of sage tea that they were happy to trade 4 pounds of their own sought-after fine tea for just one pound of sage tea from Europe. Native Americans also used white sage (a variety of sage native to North America) in traditional religious smudging ceremonies, in which bundles of sage are burned in order to ward off evil spirits and purify a space.
Culinary Uses: Sage is a beautiful, velvety herb that can be enjoyed fresh or dried, but tastes better when cooked slightly so that as its bitterness disappears. It pairs well with pumpkin and winter squash (pumpkin or butternut squash stuffed ravioli with sage cream sauce is TO DIE FOR), browned in butter and poured over seafood and, of course, as a flavouring herb in stuffing and on roast turkeys during the holiday season. But my all-time personal favourite sage dish is this recipe for Sweet Potato & Sage Au Gratin (aka. scalloped sweet potatoes with sage cream sauce & melted Gruyère cheese). And yes, it tastes as good as it sounds!
Medicinal Uses: Sage has potent medicinal properties that can help lower cholesterol, aid digestion and detox the liver. Sage is also said to enhance focus and mental clarity, and for this reason sage tea is also known as “thinker’s tea.” (Perhaps that’s also why a wise men is also often referred to as a sage?)
Sage is particularly useful for women and can help ease menstrual pain and dry up milk when a mother is ready to stop nursing. Medicinally, sage is best taken as a tea.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
Last but certainly not least, no list of garden herbs would be complete without chives. A perennial herb, chives are one of the first herbs to burst forth in the springtime when most plants are still laying dormant. They’re part of the allium (onion) family and have a distinct oniony flavour that makes them a great flavouring herb and garnish on a wide range of dishes. They’re also incredibly nutrient-dense, which makes chives a great herb to keep handy for health and medicinal purposes too.
Chives are pretty hands-off once they’re established, but they do require a lot of water during dry spells and droughts to keep them lush and green.
Culinary Uses: Chives add a subtle onion flavour to sauces, spice mixes and dishes of all sorts. Try them chopped fresh and sprinkled over eggs, added to white wine sauce and enjoyed over chicken, pasta or sautéed clams, dried and mixed with parsley and dill for a homemade ranch spice mix, or as a flavouring herb is just about any savoury dish that could use just a hint of onion flavour.
Medicinal Uses: Chives are more popular in the culinary world than they are in the medicinal herb world, however they’re packed with healthy vitamins and organic compounds like allicin that can boost immunity and help ward off illness (including cancer), lower cholesterol and blood sugar and improve heart health. Chives are best consumed as a fresh food garnish for both culinary and medicinal purposes, but can be dried, frozen or turned into a compound butter too (garlic butter with chives = heaven).
There are so many more amazing herbs out there that can be used as both food and medicine, but in my humble opinion, the herbs listed here are must-haves in any herb garden, even if all you’ve got is a small balcony or even just a window box. And if you’re really struggling for space (or you’ve got one of those dreadful north-facing balconies like I used to have), I recommend sourcing high quality and organic dried herbs from US-based Starwest Botanicals (not currently an affiliate).
Alternatively (or really, in addition to herbs) essential oils are a staple in my home medicine cabinet and I truly believe they should have a place in your home medicine cabinet too! I exclusively use and recommend Plant Therapy essential oils (affiliate link). And yes, some of them can even be used for culinary purposes despite any controversy you’ve heard about consuming essential oils. But that’s a topic for another post:)
Until next time,
Wishing you homemade, homegrown, homestead happiness 🙂
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