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Herbs From The Garden Can Heal
Your Outdoor Medicine Cabinet and Pantry

April 11, 2009
John Stuart Leslie


some herbs contain aromatic oils that we sense

Generally speaking, an ‘Herb’ is a term used to describe various types of plants in other than botanical nomenclature or ornamental uses. An herb typically falls into one or more of these categories:


Culinary: as a flavoring for cooking as in spices, or in salads or garnishes;


Medicinal: as a treatment for ailments by using various parts of  the plant or by distilling an active ingredient contained within its parts;


Aroma: The scents of various plants are derived from the aromatic compounds contained in the plants. The fragrance can be experienced directly from the natural form of the plant or from distillation and bottled for use as an ‘essential oil’.


Spiritual: Certain plants contain compounds that create various intoxicating, hallucinogenic, psychic and other altered states of consciousness. They historically were used in religious ceremonial uses and many are considered poisonous.


As a garden design element, specific herbs would fit into a category that is consistent with the purpose or intent of the particular garden space. The garden may have a theme such as a kitchen garden in which many herbs and plants are grown for the purpose of utilizing their parts in culinary uses.


A garden could also be centered on the theme of fragrance. The scents of many plants/herbs provide intense reaction that has mind- body- spirit benefits. The scent of an herb such as Lavender for example is relaxing, calming, soothing. Eucalyptus is stimulating. Some herbs can elicit emotional responses such as uplifting the spirit, (countering depression), happiness and joy.    Foxglove - contains compounds that aid in heart disease


The sense of smell is one of our five senses along with taste, touch, sight, sound. As we trigger any one of our senses, our bodies react in myriad ways either in positive, negative or neutral response. Pungent or decaying smells are offensive and tell our bodies to avoid, for they may make us nauseous. Other smells tell us not to eat the plant as it may be poisonous. Others are beneficially fragrant and bring us a multitude of benefits and we therefore welcome those smells. 


Since plants can affect our other senses of sight, sound, taste and touch, we can in turn create another theme based on the sensory input created from the use of selected plants as a ‘Sensory Garden’. 


The primary sense however that elicits the greatest response is the sight of the plant, its form, texture, color and flower. Together with its character, its gracefulness, solidity, delicateness, etc. all contributes to its visual attraction.


The attribute of fragrance  is really a bonus, unless the primary theme of the garden is for aroma. In this case, the physical form of the planting may not be as critical. A good design however, will combine the two so one does not see or smell the garden as fitting into one theme or another. 


Within the context of the ‘herb garden’ which by now you can see can be quite broad once we parse all the aspects of plant uses, whether they be for aesthetic or practical uses, we can look at individual plant species not so much as herbs, but what we intend to use them for in terms of their form.  


Let’s take Rosemary prostratus (Trailing Rosemary) as an example. I may use it to drape over a low stone wall since it looks good in rock gardens and stone textures. I may use it as a high mounding ground cover as foreground border in a hot sunny exposure. It may be used as a solitary accent planting in a container outside my kitchen door for use in cooking. It may be grown along the edge of patio entrance encouraged to creep into the path so as to get crushed by footsteps and thereby releasing its aromatic scent. Lastly, I may use it to provide something with a blue flower during the winter months. 


You can see from this one example that plants can have many uses. Since there are so many plants available in our designer’s palette, choosing which ones are appropriate can be overwhelming. Narrowing down the purpose helps greatly, so the concept of selecting a theme helps to sort out our choices. Especially if we wanted an herb garden that attracted butterflies. In this case, we may not look at our garden as an herb garden that was butterfly-friendly so much as a butterfly garden that happens to have some herb plants within it. 


So from a design perspective, what we call our garden is very important, as it implies what the purpose and use will be, which then dictates the entire design process and what the garden will look like. 


Lavendar a popular herb with a powerful scent

An "Aromatherapy Garden" brings with it a deeper level of meaning. Not just is it a garden with fragrance, but the grouping of scents and aromas may be designed in such as way that brings about a specific emotional, mental or spiritual response, i.e. is therapeutic.


The grouping of certain plants with their respective healing properties could have the benefits similar to a cocktail drug, using several different species to create the same end result. Healing is not just to get rid of an ailment, it can also be healing in that it just makes you feel good -- it lifts your spirits. 


I choose to separate the two types of gardens into Healing Gardens and Aroma Gardens. I use Healing Gardens for specific uses where there is a distinct need to heal something that has an ailment, is wounded in some way or is not in harmony, or at ease, in dis-ease in some way.  I like to call gardens whose primary purpose is fragrance, Aroma gardens where its more like getting a treatment at the spa -- more of a "feel good" experience.


To me, words are powerful. As thoughts are things, words give power to the thought behind them. Stating that something is ‘healing’ gives recognition and validity to the fact that something is out of balance. This concept is congruent with my belief that all gardens have a sacredness that if tapped, can be immensely beneficial to one’s self in mind, body, and spirit. 


To declare that you are going to design and build a healing garden or an aromatherapy garden does not necessarily mean that there is something wrong with you, or that you need special treatment.  


People are used to going to doctors, holistic practitioners, physical therapists, massage therapists counselors etc. - all fitting into the category of the ‘healing professions’. The system is designed to fix your problems rather than prevent it. Preventative medicine is rare these days. Probably because it relies on personal responsibility and the healing professional does not get paid to educate people as much as they do in treating their ailments.  


Being in and around a garden is great preventative medicine, and as such, is therapeutic. Our minds, our thoughts are not always running in a perfect mode. the garden can heal our thoughts, make us feel better, get our thoughts figured out, come to decisions, all things we may otherwise seek out a professional to assist. 


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