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My Kind of Medicine

Plan a Hydrosol Garden

This year, I plan on using the plants from my garden in an entirely new way by making hydrosols or “floral waters.” Hydrosols are steam distilled water-based plant essences that can be used in body care products, flavored waters, baked goods, aromatherapy sprays, and more. Rose water is the most recognizable form of hydrosol on the market.

 rose floral water

Photo credit: Fotolia/vesna

Hydrosol is stronger than tea, but much weaker than essential oils. In Suzanne Catty’s book Hydrosols: The Next Aromatherapy she explains that tea typically has a 0.08:1 herb to water ratio, whereas hydrosols have 3 or 4:1 herb to water ratio. Catty calls hydrosols “herbal espressos,” and just like you wouldn’t drink an herbal tea that may contraindicate medication or a known medical condition, you should also research hydrosols before consuming them internally.

There’s evidence that humans were making hydrosols as long as 5,000 years ago, and the useful floral waters predate essential oils by hundreds if not thousands of years. The original hydrosols were made by putting herbs and water in a pot and bringing the concoction to a boil. A sheep’s skin was hung above the pot to catch the steam, and when the pot was finished boiling the sheep’s skin would be wrung and the hydrosol collected. You can also make hydrosols at home using more modern equipment that you probably already own (read “Rose Water Recipe” for step-by-step instructions), and this year I plan on taking my hydrosol creations to the next level by investing in a 10 liter copper alembic still (see photo, below), which will also allow me to collect very small amounts of essential oil. I’ll blog my way through this learning experience, so be sure to check back in over the course of the summer!

copper still
Photo Credit: Essential Oil Company

Grow Your Own Hydrosol Ingredients

You need a lot of fresh plant material to make hydrosols, so I’ll add a few new plants to my garden this year including holy basil (tulsi) and clary sage. However, to save on seed costs and weeding/watering time, I’m going to prioritize using plants that already grow in my kitchen garden.  I’ve done some research to see which easy-to-grow plants will now double as tasty and useful hydrosol ingredients.

Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)

Chamomile patch

Photo credit: Fotolia/sirins

With a sweet, apple-like aroma, this is a great all-purpose hydrosol with a shelf life up to four years. This is the go-to hydrosol for babies and can safely be added to their bath water, used for homemade wet wipes, or rubbed on sore, teething gums. For adults, this astringent hydrosol can be used as a skin cleanser, toner, makeup remover, or soothing eye wash for those suffering from computer fatigue. Internally, chamomile hydrosol can be used much like chamomile tea, as a soothing bedtime drink; simply add a teaspoon to a cup of warm water.

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

lavender plant
Photo credit: Fotolia/Laszlo

Lavender hydrosol has a floral, soapy taste and many people prefer to sweeten it when taking internally. This hydrosol is ideal for all skin types when used externally, so consider mixing it with oatmeal for a deep cleanser, using it as a makeup remover or aftershave, or spraying it lightly on skin when experiencing a sunburn, rash, or itch. Like chamomile, it’s safe to use in a baby’s bath water, and it will help people of all ages sleep deeper when it’s sprayed onto linens before bedtime. Keep a spritzer bottle in your car or your desk drawer to enjoy the calming aroma when traffic is frustrating or work feels tedious. Lavender hydrosols should last about two years.

 If you live in the south and have struggled to grow lavender, check out the article “Which Lavender Cultivars Grow Best in the Panhandle?” for some helpful tips.


Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

lemon balm
Photo credit: Fotolia/lapis238

A member of the mint family, lemon balm spreads like crazy and begs for uses beyond sun tea. I don’t feel the slightest bit guilty using a plethora of lemon balm for homemade hydrosols, which is reassuring because the finished product tastes good and is quite useful.

 The citrusy, slightly bitter flavor of lemon hydrosol is best diluted for a refreshing, uplifting, summer beverage. This hydrosol is safe to ingest in limited quantities during pregnancy and can be helpful with morning sickness, water retention, and digestive issues. Suzanna Catty recommends drinking a diluted lemon balm hydrosol for three weeks during cold and flu season to act as a possible prophylactic (dilute 2 tbsp of hydrosol in 1 liter of filtered water per day).


Peppermint (Mentha piperita)

Peppermint plant
Photo credit: Fotolia/claudio

Like lemon balm, mint can become invasive so I relish it’s abundance while filling a big wicker basket with armloads of this uplifting herb. When taken internally, peppermint hydrosol is stimulating to both the mind and the digestive system; try drinking some in the morning for an instant pick-me-up or spritzing some on your face after spending a hot afternoon in the garden. Peppermint also helps ease pain associated with headaches, so if you feel a headache coming on then spray the air around you. An anti-inflammatory, peppermint hydrosol can be applied externally to help ease the pain of sore or sprained muscles or to soothe uncomfortable bug bites.

 Do not give peppermint hydrosol to children under three-years old, and this fairly unstable hydrosol won’t last longer than one year.

 Basil (Ocimuun basilicum)

potted basil
Photo credit: Fotolia/jamdes

Basil hydrosol has an intense licorice-like flavor and needs to be diluted to bring out the basil taste we all know and recognize. Play with this hydrosol while cooking savory dishes by mixing a bit into your homemade pesto or salad dressings.

 Basil is an effective digestive aid and will help ease a nervous stomach. Also a carminative, add a few tablespoons of basil hydrosol to a glass of water for fast-acting relief from gas and bloating.

 For aromatherapy, basil’s crisp and refreshing scent is both balancing and calming. Externally, basil’s anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties make it an especially good option for oily, acne-prone or aging skin.

 Rose (Rosa damascena)

basket of roses
Photo credit: Fotolia/deyan g

 The hot pink “rose water” typically sold at grocery stores is too overpowering and artificial tasting for most people. Homemade rose hydrosols, on the other hand, are gentler, subtler, and absolutely delicious. A homemade hydrosol should evoke the feeling of walking through a fresh rose garden and this relatively shelf-stable hydrosol should keep for two years or more.

 Rose is a recommended hormone balancer for all ages and can be used to help combat symptoms of PMS, including cramps and moodiness. Externally, rose adds and retains moisture and is particularly beneficial to dry, mature, or sensitive skin. Try using rose hydrosol on a cotton ball to remove excess makeup or dirt after washing your face, or add a few tablespoons to a hot bath for an act of pure self-love.

Rose water has a time-tested role in the kitchen, as well, and is used in sweet and savory dishes alike. Trade rose water for vanilla in baked goods, combine it with saffron and cinnamon for a Middle Eastern rub, combine it with fruit syrups or sorbet, or add a splash to a glass of celebratory champagne. After you taste true, high-quality rose water, you’ll start looking for excuses to use it as often as possible!

New Additions

There are a few plants that I plan on adding to my garden this year specifically for the purpose of making hydrosols: holy basil (tulsi) and clary sage. I’ll also experiment with cedar, which I can forage locally and year-round. People who are lucky enough to live where eucalyptus or Douglas fir grow wild can experiment making hydrosols with those two native plants, and a few other hydrosol experiments could include the use of catnip, cucumber (use whole fruit), calendula, and rose geranium.

The possibilities truly do feel endless, and I’d love to hear from anyone who has experimented with their own homemade hydrosols already, specifically anyone who uses a copper still, for which this will be my first year and I’m sure I’ll have many questions. Please don’t hesitate to send me an email with your story or distilling tips at Hkincaid@heirloomgardener.com.


 Hannah was inspired to write this blog post during her time enrolled in The Herbal Academy’s online school where she worked her way through the Entrepreneur Herbalist Package. She is managing editor for Heirloom Gardener and senior editor for Mother Earth News. Read all of Hannah's posts here.

Grow Arnica for a Homemade Sore Muscle Salve

If you’re like me, you tend to overdo things when the weather is beautiful and you’ve been cooped up all winter. Just last weekend, we had 70 degree temperatures in February. I ran outside in a t-shirt and began aggressively cutting back dead flower stalks to make room for new growth. I yanked weeds, turned the compost, pulled the mulch off the strawberries, and spread seeds for a new bed of poppies. It was glorious! However; my body — still accustomed to winter’s lazier habits — was not happy the next day.  The backs of my legs were super sore, and if I’d been better prepared I would’ve had some of my homemade arnica salve on hand.

Arnica montana in field
Fotolia/Didi Lavchieva

Arnica’s Healing Properties

Arnica is used topically to help ease the pain of sore muscles and heal bruises. According to the German Commission E’s arnica monograph, it’s an approved anti-inflammatory with analgesic (pain-relieving) and antiseptic properties. In a 2007 study, arnica gel was found to be as effective as Ibuprofen gel for relieving pain and inflammation associated with osteoarthritis.

Gels and ointments containing arnica are available as over-the-counter applications in most pharmacies, however they contain petroleum, preservatives, and other ingredients that can easily be avoided by making your own simple arnica salve with homegrown or store-bought arnica flowers.

Arnica is not safe to consume internally and should only be used topically.

Arnica montana close up

How to Grow Arnica

The most commonly used medicinal arnica species is Arnica montana, which is an herbaceous, clump-forming perennial that’s hardy in zones 4 to 9 and is native to the mountains of central Europe. It grows best at high elevations, with 6,000 feet above sea level being its sweet spot. The folks at Strictly Medicinal Seeds have successfully grown arnica at 2,000 feet above sea level (Williams, OR), and they’ve also heard reports of it being grown successfully up to 8,000 feet above sea level. Those of us who live at lower elevations should try growing meadow arnica (Arnica chamissonis), which is less dependent on elevation and is hardy in Zones 4 to 10. The German Commission E has determined that meadow arnica is interchangeable with A. montana in terms of its anti-inflammatory affects.

Both arnica species should be started from seed indoors and then transplanted outdoors after danger of spring frost has passed. Germination can take up to 14 days, and soil should be kept moist in the meantime; arnica is a light-dependent germinator. Established plants prefer slightly acidic, moist soil in a sunny location. Seeds for both arnica species can be purchased from Strictly Medicinal Seeds.

Harvest yellow arnica flowers in mid- to late-summer and spread them on a screen or paper towel to dry.

Arnica montana rocks

Homemade Arnica Salve

Rub this salve on sore muscles and bruises or massage into hands when osteoarthritis pains flare.

  1. To first step is to make arnica infused oil. To do this, first fill a pint jar 1/3 of the way with dried arnica flowers.
  2. Fill the jar with the carrier oil of your choice (olive, almond, sesame, etc.)
  3. Cover and let sit in a warm, sunny location for 4 to 6 weeks.
  4. Strain the plant material from the infused oil. Compost the spent flowers and set the oil aside.
  5. To make the salve, measure the infused arnica oil and then find ¼ as much beeswax. For example, if you have 1 cup of oil, then find ¼ cup beeswax.
  6. Add the oil and beeswax to a double boiler and heat until the beeswax is thoroughly melted.
  7. Pour finished mixture into tin cans or small jars and let cool completely before using.


 Hannah was inspired to write this blog post during her time enrolled in The Herbal Academy’s online school where she worked her way through the Entrepreneur Herbalist Package. She is managing editor for Heirloom Gardener and senior editor for Mother Earth News. Read all of Hannah's posts here.

How to Grow, Forage, and Use Yarrow

 achillea millefolium
Fotolia/Marta Jonina

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a drought-tolerant perennial with feathery, fern-like leaves and tiny flowers that are spread out over large, flat heads. A number of showy yarrow hybrids have been bred to display an entire rainbow of colors, however; if you’re growing yarrow for its medicinal properties then stick to the traditional white-flowered heirloom, which most resembles its wild and hardy ancestors. Yarrow often grows in the disturbed soil of roadsides and along fields and meadows. A popular choice for pollinator gardens, yarrow can become invasive because it spreads by both its creeping roots and dropped seeds.   

Yarrow’s genus name, Achillea, comes from the Greek mythological warrior Achilles. Legend says that Achilles used yarrow in the battlefield to help heal his soldiers’ wounds and to stop the bleeding, which also explains why yarrow’s other common names include soldier’s woundwort, knight’s milfoil, and herbe mĀ­ilitaris. As a battlefield herb, yarrow was picked fresh, chewed or mashed, and then applied directly to the wound as a poultice.

Yarrow is well known for its vulnerary (wound healing) and diaphoretic (perspiration inducing) properties. Applied topically as a poultice or rinse, this antimicrobial, styptic, and astringent herb helps promote the growth of healthy tissue while protecting against infection and preventing blood loss. Taken internally as an infusion or tincture, yarrow’s diaphoretic properties cause a light sweat, which helps cool the body and reduce fevers. A uterine stimulant and antispasmodic, yarrow is also traditionally used for relieving painful and delayed menstruation (but should be avoided by pregnant woman).

 yarrow tea


Fever-Breaking Yarrow Tea Recipe

All of the herbs in this recipe are safe diaphoretics that will induce a sweat to cool the body, break a fever, and eliminate toxins. Elderflower is also an expectorant, which will help release mucus from the lungs, and catnip is an anti-catarrhal, which will help prevent more mucus from forming.

  • 2 parts peppermint
  • 1 part yarrow (aerial parts)
  • 1 part elderflower
  • 1 part catnip (optional, if congestion accompanies fever)

Combine the herbs and steep ¼ cup tea blend in 1 quart hot water for 15 minutes, covered. Strain and drink warm, taking small sips over the course of a few hours. To help induce a sweat, also wrap yourself in a warm blanket and put a hot water bottle at your feet.


How to Grow Yarrow

Yarrow is a fantastic choice for a medicinal herb garden, especially one that’s being established by a beginning gardener. Yarrow is easily grown from transplants or started from seed and is hardy from USDA zones 2 to 9. I purchased yarrow seed from Strictly Medicinal Seeds when I started my medicinal garden and was impressed with the germination rate. The seeds are light-dependent germinators, so cover them with only a sprinkle of soil – if at all – and keep them moist until they sprout, which should take between seven and 14 days. When established, transplant to a well-drained, sunny location after all danger of spring frost has passed.

 country garden with yarrow


I spaced my yarrow seedlings 12 inches apart and by the end of the first year they had already expanded to fill the 3-by-4 foot bed. My yarrow bloomed its first year and has proven its evergreen status by remaining one of the few green spots in my Zone 5 winter garden.

Part of the reason I love growing yarrow is for its hardy, no-fuss nature. It doesn’t need to be watered often, if at all, and I’ve never had any problem with pests. Although pests stay clear, pollinators flock to the tiny white flowers and, more often than not, I’m gifted with the site of butterflies or bees buzzing around my yarrow patch. Consider planting yarrow as a companion plant in your vegetable garden.

 cut yarrow

To harvest, hand-cut yarrow a few inches above the base when the plants are in the early stages of flowering. Garble to separate the flowers and leaves from the large stalks, and then either use the herb fresh or dry it for storage. Yarrow’s potency and aroma hold up well in storage and will keep for a year or more.


Foraging for Yarrow

Yarrow grows wild in every U.S. state and Canadian province. It blooms from late April to early July in the south and from mid July to mid September in the north. There are two other white-flowered perennials — both of which are also in the parsley family (Apiaceae) — that you may confuse with yarrow: Queen Anne’s lace and Hemlock.

Although very similar at first glance, yarrow differs from Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) in both its flower and its leaves. Yarrow’s white flowers form in clusters at the tip of its many branched shoots; whereas Queen Anne’s lace has a flatter umbel that’s attached to one main stem. Yarrow also has feathery, fern-like, finely divided leaves (hence its species name millefolium, which means “a thousand leaves”), and Queen Anne’s lace, on the other hand, has fewer leaves and they look like flat carrot or parsley leaves. Queen Anne’s lace is edible and its roots are considered survival food by many. So, if worse comes to worse, you’ll have the wrong plant but you won’t get sick.

yarrow and queen annes lace infographic 

Another plant with flowers that resemble yarrow is Hemlock (Conium maculatum), which is one of the deadliest plants in North America. Ingesting even a tiny bit of hemlock can be fatal, and it’s the plant that supposedly poisoned Socrates. Bring a guidebook with you and don’t ingest anything that you even question as possibly being hemlock.

One way to tell the difference between yarrow and poison hemlock is the stem — yarrow’s is a little bit fuzzy and green, whereas hemlock’s stem is completely hairless and often has purple splotches near the base. Hemlock can also get much bigger than yarrow, up to 8 feet tall, and has significantly more foliage, which is flat and parsley-like.

hemlock infographic 

The YouTube video "yarrow, poison hemlock and Queen Anne's lace - a close look at the differences" is a helpful resource for comparing the three plants side-by-side.



Hannah was inspired to write this blog post during her time enrolled in The Herbal Academy’s online school where she worked her way through the Entrepreneur Herbalist Package. She is managing editor for Heirloom Gardener and senior editor for Mother Earth News. Read all of Hannah's posts here.


How to Make a Materia Medica

making a materia medica
Image credit: The Herbal Academy

A materia medica is a body of work used to study and record information about medicinal plants. Crafting your own materia medica is a fantastic way to thoroughly study one medicinal plant at a time while creating detailed, creative plant profiles. These useful reference tools include monographs for the plants of your choice, and each monograph includes an image of the plant along with its Latin and common name, botanical features, harvest information, medicinal use, parts used, recommended dosage, folklore, and any other information that you’d like to keep handy. For the plant’s image, you can tape dried plant material to the pages (read How to Make a Flower Press to learn more) or you could sketch or paint the plant you’re studying. If you don’t trust your artistic nature, then consider picking up an inexpensive copy of the Medicinal Plants Coloring Book; after coloring your selected plant you can cut and paste the image into your materia medica. (Confession, this is what I do!)

dover coloring book
Image credit: Dover/Ilel Arbel

Homemade materia medicas can be structured in a three-ring binder so they lay flat, written in a composition notebook, or organized on a collection of note cards. They can even be typed on a computer or iPad so the files are easily searchable. Consider creating reusable, printable templates. And most importantly, have fun! A beautiful, well-made materia medica is a custom-to-you resource tool that you’ll find yourself reaching for time and time again.

Materia Medica History and Inspiration

As you start mentally designing your future materia medica – or making small adjustments to the one you already have – consider some of these classic materia medicas as inspiration.

Most of the following images are from various translations of De Materia Medica by Dioscorides. Dioscorides was a Greek physician and botanist in the Roman army, and he published the five-volume work between 50 and 70 AD. Volume one covers aromatics, volume two focuses on animals to herbs, volumes three and four focus on roots, seeds, and herbs, and volume 5 covers vines, wines, and minerals.

One of the longest lasting natural history books, De Materia Medica was widely read for more than 1,500 years before it was replaced with revised herbals during the Renaissance. Several illustrated manuscripts survive and one of the most famous is the Vienna Dioscurides manuscript that was used as a working hospital reference for more than a thousand years.

blackberry vienna 

Credit: wikipedia public commons

This illustrated page (above) features blackberry vines and is from the famous Vienna Dioscurides - early 6th century.


mandrake naples

Wikipedia public commons

This illustrated page features mandrake root and is from the Naples Dioscurides, 7th century. 


physicians arabic 

Wikipedia public commons

This illustrated page features a physician preparing an elixir and is from the Arabic Dioscorides, 1224 AD.


whole book byzantine 

Wikipedia public commons

 This Byzantine materia medica is from the 15th century.


tibetan materia medica

Wikipedia public commons/Wellcome Images

This anonymous materia medica is written in the 'Trungpa' ('khrungs dpe) genre of Tibetan medical literature and deals with various plants, animals, and stones.

Linnaei materia medica

Wikipedia public commons/Wellcome Images

 This beautiful title page accompanies Caroli Linnaei’s Materia Medica, 1749 AD.


chinese materia medica

Wikipedia public commons/Biodiversity Heritage Library

This Chinese materia medica by Li Zhongli contains 12 volumes with 379 illustrations and was first published in 1612. The illustration is of the blackberry lily (Belamcanda chinensis).


Free Herbal Materia Medica Course

If you’re still not quite sure how to build your own materia medica – or if you’re overwhelmed by all the options - then check out the Herbal Academy’s online Herbal Materia Medica Course, which is FREE for the entire month of January (2017). By the end of the course, you should know how to study a plant thoroughly, how to find the best resources for your studies, and how to research a plant’s botanical characteristics, growing conditions, harvesting guidelines, active constitutions, safety, herb-drug interactions, and more. You’ll also receive advice from the Academy’s teachers about how to transform the herb from a name in a book to an integrated part of your everyday well being. This course is for beginning and advanced students alike and no prior knowledge about medicinal herb is required.

materia medica screenshot 

For those enrolled in the free course, The Herbal Academy provides free downloadable resource charts to help with botanical identification along with thoughtfully designed templates for students to print and fill out as they built their own materia medicas. There’s also an option to upgrade your enrollment with the purchase a beautifully bound Materia Medica Journal, which you can work through as the course progresses. You can share photos of your homemade materia medica on Instagram using the hashtag #myherbalstudies.  

my herbal studies 

Hannah was inspired to write this blog post during her time enrolled in The Herbal Academy’s online school where she worked her way through the Entrepreneur Herbalist Package. She is managing editor for Heirloom Gardener magazine and senior editor for Mother Earth News. Read all of Hannah's posts here.