For botanist Laura Shiels, herbs in the garden are not only a source of spice and flavor, but of healing.
Lemongrass adds zest to a soup but also helps relieve insomnia, while ginger is good for nausea. Chili peppers add spice but also stimulate circulation.
Basil can help relieve indigestion or nerves. Rosemary is said to enhance memory.
Shiels, a doctoral student in ethnobotany and former lecturer at the University of Hawaii, has been teaching workshops on how to grow and cultivate herbs for several years, with a focus on healing.
“Let food be your medicine,” says Shiels, who cultivates gardens everywhere she goes.
Many culinary herbs make aromatic compounds to protect themselves from being attacked by viruses and fungi, as well as to attract pollinators, she said. Those same compounds have antioxidant or antimicrobial properties.
So you can add flavor and health at the same time, she said, and address specific ailments with herbs.
Basil, for instance, popular in salads and the main ingredient for pesto, alleviates gas. Its leaves can be used for many dishes, while the flowers can be brewed into a tea, good for treating coughs.
Garlic is good for lowering blood pressure and relieving colds and flu.
After finishing her doctorate, Shiels’ dream is to start an herb farm that would also be an educational center, while continuing to do research. Her philosophy is that when people grow their own food, they have more control over what goes into their bodies and, thus, a sense of empowerment as well as satisfaction.
“It’s really important to grow something and to have some sort of connection to your food,” she said. “If you don’t have that, then you’ve lost something.”
Shiels’ passion for plants began during her childhood in Santa Rosa, Calif. “I always played with plants,” she said. Her interest in health comes from her parents. Her father is a medical doctor, and her mother a nurse.
Since then her passion has taken her around the world as a botanist interested in the relationship between plants and the agricultural customs of various peoples.
“Plants are special,” she said. “They give back so much, providing our basic needs, and they make oxygen. Life wouldn’t be possible for people without them.”
Herbs can either be grown in containers (any container with holes for drainage will do if you don’t have a yard) or in the ground. Containers work well for herbs like mint, which tend to spread quickly.
Many herbs can be grown from cuttings or seeds — the seeds inside of a chili pepper, for instance.
Growing herbs is easy in Hawaii due to the year-round warm weather here, according to Shiels, and with several basic principles in mind: soil type and adequate sunshine, water and nutrients.
Aloe vera, best known for alleviating sunburn, is a low-maintenance plant. Rosemary is also hardy, but needs to be watered regularly.
HERB GARDENING TIPS
» Use moist, composted soil unless otherwise specified.
» Water when soil feels dry.
» Make sure plants get a good amount of sunlight.
» To make a cutting from an herb, cut a healthy stem or branch just above a node, preferably underwater. You can recut the stem underwater (in a cup or bucket). Keep plants in the mint family (basil, mint, thyme) in water for one to two weeks, until roots form, then plant in ground or a pot.
» Frequent pruning helps maintain new growth.
» Fertilize with vermicompost from worms or organic compost available at the store.
Source: Laura Shiels