When I’m looking for plants to add to my gardens, I lean toward options that will not only give me beautiful blooms, but will also add value to our lives in other ways. There are so many herbs and plants that can be used for their medicinal benefits, as natural insect repellents, in foods, decorations, and more.
I’m really excited about three plants I’m adding this year. To our hummingbird and butterfly garden, we are adding bee balm and lavender, both of which will attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and a variety of beneficial and pollinating insects. And to our herb garden we are starting basil plants, which will not only attract beneficial insects, but can also repel aphids and tomato hornworms.1
All three plants are members of Lamiaceae, the mint family, which includes some of the most useful and important plants you can add to your garden. There are a tremendous variety of mints – over 6,000 species worldwide. And many of the plants offer just what gardeners are looking for: “a triple whammy of benefits: beauty, taste, and scent.”
Mints run from the sweeter varieties (chocolate, pineapple, apple, orange) to the stronger scents and flavors often used in the kitchen, including marjoram, rosemary, sage, and thyme.2 With so many to choose from, which will you add to your garden this year? Keep reading for more on the many benefits of bee balm, basil, and lavender.
Bee Balm (Monarda spp)
Bee Balm, native to North America and also known as wild bergamot and horsemint (among other names), is a flowering plant in the mint family.
With cheerful pink, red, and light purple blooms and delightfully fragrant leaves (reminiscent of the bergamot orange), this hardy perennial is a wonderful addition to your garden. Bee balm can grow in a clump up to 3 feet tall, so plant it outside of a window where you can enjoy the many birds and butterflies that will visit its blooms, or toward the back of your garden where it will not overshadow your other plants.3 Here are just a few of the many reasons to plant bee balm.
- Repel mosquitoes naturally. Bee balm’s scent is an effective mosquito repellent, but generally works best when its leaves are crushed to release the fragrant oils.4
- Whip up a soothing skin tonic for itchy, dry, or sunburned skin. To make the tonic, “boil 1 cup of bergamot leaves and flowers in 1 1/2 litres of water for 10 minutes. Cool and strain. Use as a splash or spritz, or add to the bath . . . .”5
- Introduce your children to a natural medicine cabinet. Native American tribes have harvested native plants and herbs for thousands of years for their fungicidal, antibacterial, and antiseptic properties. Bee balm is high in Vitamins A and C, and it is an antiseptic, so have some on hand to brew the next time you have a cold or sore throat.6
The Blackfoot recognized the strong antiseptic action of [bee balm] plants, and used them in poultices for skin infections and minor wounds. North American Indians, and later settlers, also used it to alleviate stomach and bronchial ailments. A tisane made from the plant was also used to treat mouth and throat infections caused by dental caries and gingivitis. Bee balm is a natural source of the antiseptic compound thymol, the primary active ingredient in some modern commercial mouthwash formulas. The Winnebago used a bee balm tisane as a general stimulant. Bee balm was also used as a carminative herb by Native Americans to prevent excessive flatulence. An infusion of crushed, boiled Monarda has been used to treat headache and fever.7
- Attract natural predators such as birds, pollinating insects, and predatory insects. Bee balm attracts pollinating insects such as bees, and predatory insects such as beetles, centipedes, spiders, bees, and butterflies, which “will eat the herbivorous insects and parasites that eat your plants.”8 Butterflies and hummingbirds also love bee balm.
- Brew a cup of tea. Bee balm is also known as bergamot, because its flavor is reminiscent of the bergamot orange. The oil from the bergamot orange is used to flavor Earl Gray tea, so tea made from bee balm may taste eerily similar. You can brew bergamot tea from fresh plant parts or dried leaves. Use up to 1/4 cup of fresh plant parts or 2 teaspoons of dried leaves, steep about 5 minutes in hot water, strain, and enjoy.9
- Harvest blooms to add to your favorite foods. The blooms of the bee balm flower are both attractive and edible, although they can be spicy. Add them to salads or use them to decorate a summer cake.
- Learn about the Boston Tea Party. “Oswego tea” (another name for bee balm) gained popularity after the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Colonists, angered “by taxes imposed on tea and the monopoly given to the East Indian company and, disguised as Indians, raided three British ships in Boston Harbour, tossing a shipload of British tea overboard. [Thereafter, b]ergamot or oswego tea became the fashionable tea to drink.”10
- Create an “oxymel” to sooth sore throats and coughs. “Oxymels are herbal preparations that date back as far as the ancient Greeks. They are made by combining herbs with both honey and vinegar.” The medicinal and antimicrobial properties of both bee balm and honey can help you through your next respiratory illness. Follow the instructions at LearningHerbs.com to prepare this simple concoction that can last up to a year.
- Grow tastier tomatoes. Bee balm, planted in proximity to your tomato plants, will improve “both the growth and the flavor of tomatoes.”11
- Fight gum disease and other bacterial-borne illnesses. “Bee balm is a natural source of the antiseptic compound thymol,” which is a proven effective antimicrobial. Native Americans and herbalists have been using bee balm for generations to treat everything from tooth decay to skin infections.12
- Create a tincture from bee balm to use as a fungicide. Thymol has also been shown to be effective against Candida (yeast) infections. Learn how to create a tincture from bee balm at Methow Valley Herbs.
Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia)
Lavender, like bee balm, is a flowering plant in the mint family. It is a perennial from the Old World, and it does “best in dry, well-drained, sandy or gravelly soils in full sun.”13
Lavender’s beautiful purple blooms are so distinctive that they merited the naming of a color. But lavender is not just known for its beauty; it has been used for thousands of years for medicinal, aromatic, culinary, and health purposes.
- Rub lavender blooms onto your kitchen counters and picnic tables to keep flies away. Lavender has been used as an insect repellent for many centuries. It is particularly effective against flies, fleas, and moths.14 Rubbing plant parts onto surfaces and drying plant parts for use in sachets are both effective methods of repelling insects.
- Create a lavender simple syrup for use in lemonades, on your pancakes, in coffee and ice cream, and more. Making lavender simple syrup is easy – all you need is lavender buds, sugar, and water. (See recipes here, here, and here.) Use your syrup to flavor just about anything, from yogurt to cocktails!
- Decorate your home with lavender’s timeless beauty. From simple floral arrangements to lovely wreaths, there are so many ways to add a dash of lavender to cheer up a room. Find 25 decoration inspirations at Shelterness. Read tips on how to harvest and dry lavender at Timber Press.
- Soothe sore muscles with a homemade lavender massage cream. Lavender has proven calming, soothing, and sedative effects, so make a cream, or simply add some blooms to a bath before bedtime. To make a massage cream, “[s]immer 1 cup fresh lavender flowers in 1 cup aqueous cream in a double boiler for 15 minutes. Stir occasionally. Strain out the flowers, cool for 10 minutes, then add 1 tablespoon almond oil and 10 drops pure lavender erssential oil.” Keep sealed in a sterilized glass jar.15
- Mix up some lavender sea salt. Easily infuse sea salt with the flavor of lavender and season meat, add it to chocolate desserts, sprinkle on salad, or find your own culinary uses. Find an easy recipe for lavender sea salt at You Grow Girl.
- Sleep easier with a cup of lavender tea. Steep fresh or dried lavender to make a tea before bed. “Scientific evidence suggests that aromatherapy with lavender may slow the activity of the nervous system, improve sleep quality, promote relaxation, and lift mood in people suffering from sleep disorders.”16
- Make a lavender-infused salve to heal diaper rash, soothe cuts, and ease the pain and itch of bug bites. Lavender’s medicinal properties will work wonders on minor skin irritations. Find instructions on how to make a salve with your lavender here, here, and here.
- Add lavender sugar to your recipes for a fun floral twist. Lavender sugar is easy to make – simply layer 1 tablespoon fresh lavender buds or 1 teaspoon dried lavender buds with 1 cup of sugar, and let it sit for at least a day before using. Add lavender sugar to chocolate desserts, sprinkle it on sugar cookies, or use it to sweeten your lavender tea.
- Freshen up your laundry. Get rid of those unhealthy dryer sheets and freshen your clothes naturally. Sew a sachet using sturdy cotton fabric and stuff it with dried lavender. Throw it in the dryer with your laundry.
- Throw lavender buds as confetti at a wedding. Rather than rice or bubbles, add a touch of elegance at your wedding by giving your guests sachets of lavender buds to throw after the ceremony.17
- Deter garden pests. Deer and rabbits do not like the smell of lavender, so plant some in areas where you’d like them to stay away.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
Basil is a fast-growing annual that loves warm weather and moist, well-drained soil. Grow it in your garden or in containers, and pinch off any blooms throughout summer to keep the leaves lush.
Before the first frost of autumn, go ahead and harvest all of your basil, or the leaves will turn black. Freeze leaves or use them to flavor your favorite oil (keep the oil refrigerated).18
- Grow basil around vegetable gardens and other areas to deter insects. Historically, people have grown basil and placed it in their homes to deter flies. You can also grow it around your garden and other areas of your yard to deter a variety of insects. Basil is particularly effective at repelling aphids, flies, and lice.19
- Sooth your cough with a homemade basil syrup. Basil is both antibacterial and an anti-inflammatory, and it has expectorant properties. Consequently, basil has been used by many cultures as a cough and cold reliever. You can either chew the leaves fresh, or you can create a basil syrup to take when you feel a cough or cold coming on. Herbal Roots Zine has instructions on how to make a basil syrup.
- Kill unwanted germs on your produce and enjoy a tastier salad. “Basil inhibits the growth of food-borne disease bacteria – some of which are resistant to common antibiotics – including Listeria, Staphylococcus, and E. coli. . . Adding fresh thyme or basil to vinaigrette will make salads tastier while helping ensure that they are safer to eat. . . . [Basil] is especially complementary when served with fresh tomatoes.”20
- Ease the pain of a headache with a basil facial steam. The medicinal properties of basil include its ability to help alleviate headaches.21 To make a facial steam, “add a tablespoon of dried basil leaf to 2 cups of boiling water in a large pot. Carefully lean over the pot, cover head with a towel and breathe in the steam for 5-10 minutes until headache starts to subside.”22 If you don’t feel like steaming your headache away, you can boil basil leaves in half a quart of water, reducing the water until about half remains. “Take a couple of teaspoons an hour with water to relieve your pain and swelling.” Or create a “paste of basil leaves pounded with sandalwood to apply to your forehead to relieve headache and provide coolness in general.”23
- Wow guests with homemade strawberry basil ice cream. Basil’s not just for pesto! Try this incredible strawberry basil ice cream recipe. You can thank me later.
- Steep the stress away with a basil bath or a cup of basil tea. Basil has been used a stress reliever, so add some fresh leaves to your tea or throw some in a hot bath.
- Make your own basil-based insect repellent. You can make a natural bug spray with fresh basil leaves: pour 4 ounces of boiling water over 6 ounces of clean, fresh basil leaves; cover and allow to steep for several hours. Squeeze and strain leaves out of water, add up to 4 ounces of a carrier (vodka or witch hazel can work), and spray as needed to deter stinging insects.24
- Soothe bug bites and stings. “Eugenol (one of basil’s volatile oils) can . . . help block the enzyme cyclooxygenase (COX) in the body. This is important because COX is the same enzyme that anti-inflammatory medicines like aspirin and ibuprofen are formulated to help block, making basil a natural anti-inflammatory.”25 So when you’re out in the garden and a stinging insect gets you, crush a couple of basil leaves and roll them in your fingers to release the oils. Rub the oils directly onto the sting/bite to help relieve the pain.26
- Fight acne with a basil-based toner. Basil’s antiseptic properties are a great way to guard against breakouts. Fight acne-causing bacteria by making a toner: crush 3 tablespoons of basil leaves and mix them with 1 cup of boiling water. Allow mixture to cool, strain the basil leaves out, and put into a spray bottle. Spritz your skin daily, using a cotton pad to spread the toner around your skin if necessary.27
- Eat basil for a healthier heart. “Basil’s high content of polyphenolic flavonoids . . . gives the herb its ability to neutralize cell-damaging free radicals. Free radicals also cause trouble by oxidizing cholesterol in your bloodstream, where it builds up in your arteries as atherosclerosis and raises your risk of stroke and heart trouble. By preventing cholesterol oxidation, basil helps prevent narrowing of the arteries.”28 Check out these ways to use fresh basil in your cooking from Food Network’s Healthy Eats, Pinterest, and Huffington Post.
- What’s a list about basil without pesto?! Arguably one of the best ways to use up an abundance of basil is to make fresh pesto. Here are some fabulous pesto recipes to try this summer from Simply Recipes and Pinterest. And if you are dairy free or vegan, you’ll want to check out these vegan-friendly recipes from AllRecipes.com, Gluten-Free Goddess, and Food Loves Writing.
What are your favorite herbs to grow from the mint family?
- Attracting Beneficial Insects ↩
- The Mint Family ↩
- Sources: Marian Sebastiano, 15 Herbs for Tea: Storey’s Country Wisdom Bulletin A-184; Mondara, Wikipedia; Bonnie Plants, Growing Bee Balm ↩
- For many more ideas on what to plant and use for natural insect repellents, including recipes for natural bug sprays and lotions, see Homemade Cleaners: Quick-and-Easy Toxin-Free Recipes ↩
- Edible and Medicinal Flowers at 7. ↩
- Cassie Liversidge, Homegrown Tea: An Illustrated Guide to Planting, Harvesting, and Blending at 28. ↩
- Wikipedia: Monarda ↩
- How to Attract Beneficial Predators and Pollinators ↩
- Bergamot/Bee Balm Herb of the Week ↩
- Edible and Medicinal Flowers at 7. ↩
- Louise, Riotte, Carrots Love Tomatoes at 30. ↩
- Wikipedia; M.A. Botelho, et al., Antimicrobial activity of the essential oil from Lippia sidoides, carvacrol and thymol against oral pathogens ↩
- Lavendula, Wikipedia ↩
- Edible and Medicinal Flowers at 48; Valerie Ann Worwood, The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy at 368-69. ↩
- a href=”http://books.google.com/books?id=6jRsF1nOmqgC&pg=PA7&dq=bee+balm+monarda+health+benefits&hl=en&sa=X&ei=BlU5U9zhI4W1qQHLmoG4CA&ved=0CEsQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=bee%20balm%20monarda%20health%20benefits&f=false”>Edible and Medicinal Flowers at 48; University of Maryland Medical Center. ↩
- University of Maryland Medical Center ↩
- Five Ways to Use Lavender Buds ↩
- Growing Basil ↩
- Worwood, The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy at 368-69. ↩
- Nicholas Perricone, The Perricone Promise: Look Younger Live Longer in Three Easy Steps ↩
- The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods ↩
- 10 Great Ways to Use Basil ↩
- Medicinal Uses and Health Benefits of Basil ↩
- Making Insect Repellent with Basil ↩
- Basil: Health Benefits ↩
- Basil for Bug Bites ↩
- 8 Natural Recipes for Amazing Skin . . . from a Plastic Surgeon ↩
- Basil protects the heart and destroys free radicals ↩
Lavender on teaspoon: Adapted with permission (added words) from Elizabeth Weller via Flickr Creative Commons; also see the original photo for a simple recipe for lavender sugar water to add to your lemonade! Bee Balm: Used with permission from John Lodder via Flick Creative Commons) Lavender and Butterfly: Used with permission from Ian via Flickr Creative Commons Basil: Used with permission from ento via Flickr Creative Commons
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