The Herbal Connection
by Kajsa Nickels
Summer is an ideal time to add a healthy dose of fresh, organic herbs to make cool salads, luscious smoothies and other hot-weather eats and treats. Herbs are not only a flavorful addition to any meal, they are also chock-full of health benefits, from lowering blood pressure and improving mineral balance to increasing immune support, hydration, energy and healthy skin.
Most people consider using herbs in small amounts as seasonings for recipes such as spaghetti sauce, soups or desserts. However, they are edible plants, just like kale and spinach. Although they tend to have strong flavors when dried, fresh herbs are usually quite mild and can be eaten in large amounts like any other vegetable.
“Summertime herbs are important for dealing with the heat and humidity that the season brings,” says Nathaniel Whitmore, a Chinese medicine herbalist and shiatsu massage practitioner in Milford, Pennsylvania. An herb that he recommends for this time of year is American ginseng, which, unlike its Chinese namesake, is considered a “cooling” herb and helps keep the body moist.
When combined with fresh chrysanthemum flowers, the result is a powerful elixir that both hydrates and energizes. “A piece of American ginseng root and a few chrysanthemums placed in a jar of water and set on a windowsill for a few days makes a great cold infusion,” says Whitmore. “You can store it in the fridge for a few days and drink it in small amounts at a time to benefit from its energizing and hydrating properties.”
Soft-stemmed herbs such as parsley and dill can be used in large amounts in salads and summer sandwiches. Other heat-tolerant herbs that are easy to grow include lemon balm, rosemary, lavender, mint and basil.
“Lemon balm is great for headaches and insomnia that are common during summer heat waves,” says Michelle Schoffro Cook, Ph.D., an herbalist and doctor of natural medicine, in Ontario, Canada. “Basil can help reduce summer achiness, while lavender serves as a relaxant and an excellent bug repellant.”
In addition to relieving headaches and restlessness, lemon balm is also beneficial for those that suffer from high blood pressure. A study in the Journal of Herbal Medicine reports that it is helpful in reducing blood pressure in patients with chronic stable angina. Rosemary, another herb used for sleep disorders, was found to also help improve memory and decrease anxiety in a study conducted in Iran at the Kerman University of Medical Sciences.
One study in 2009 by researchers in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Allahbad, in India, revealed that polyphenols found in herbs and plants harbor antioxidant properties that can help reduce the risk of developing cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and neurodegenerative disorders.
Fresh Is Best
While herbs can be used in their extracted and dried forms, the most significant health benefits are often found in the raw, organic plant. “Fresh is better,” says Whitmore. “This is especially true when it comes to the more aromatic plants such as basil and lavender. A lot of the more volatile constituents are lost during the drying process.”
Most herbs grow best in dry garden areas that receive at least eight hours of sun each day. Although some herbs can grow in partially shaded locations, they won’t be as flavorful. Many herbs can also be grown in containers or pots.
Maria Noël Groves, a clinical herbalist in Allenstown, New Hampshire, and author of Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies: How to Create a Customized Herb Garden to Support Your Health & Well-Being, lists lemon balm, Korean mint, anise hyssop and purple basil as among her favorite summer culinary and beverage herbs that are easy to grow in pots. These make easy pickings for wraps, salads, sandwiches and more. “Lemon balm can also be used to make infused water,” says Groves. “With lemon verbena, lemon grass or holy basil, the result is refreshing and calming.” Just take a few sprigs and place them in either plain or seltzer water. The result is a delicately flavored beverage that’s also healthy and hydrating.
Kajsa Nickels is a freelance writer and a music composer. She resides in northeastern Pennsylvania. Contact her at Fideleterna45@gmail.com.