I was giving a talk at the Staffordshire Pagan conference at the weekend, and a woman, who knew nothing about growing and using herbs, asked me what five herbs I would recommend to a beginner. I thought that they would have to be multi-purpose herbs, useful for cooking, magic and personal care, and also easy to grow for a beginner. I didn’t get the chance to answer her fully, so here is what I came up with:
Rosemary is a hardy, evergreen perennial that grows to a height of 3-6 ft. It likes a sunny position where it is protected from cold winds, and a limy, free-draining soil. Leaves can be collected all year round as required but the aroma and flavour is best just before the flowering. Sprigs of rosemary may be tied in small bunches and hung upside down to dry. The branches should be stripped before storage. The leaves should be crushed just before they are used.
Rosemary is a well-known culinary herb and goes with all manner of soups, stews, roasts, breads, cheeses and vegetables, but try it on unripe peaches and figs too. Use a rosemary twig as a toothpick, or as a skewer for canapes and kebabs, where it will impart a rosemary flavour. Make a rosemary syrup and add it to drinks. Infuse a few sprigs of rosemary in oil to make rosemary oil, or try a few sprigs infused in vinegar for salad dressing. Sprigs of rosemary can be placed in drawers and cupboards to deter mice and insects.
The fresh or dried leaves are used medicinally. Rosemary is thought to strengthen the brain and help the memory, hence the proverb ‘rosemary for remembrance’. Students in Greece and Rome in ancient times wore rosemary wreaths to help them memorise their lessons.
Studies have shown there is some truth in the idea that rosemary helps memory. It stimulates the circulation, eases headaches and migraines, and may be helpful for vertigo. It is said to raise the spirits and may be helpful in cases of mild depression. Rosemary tones and calms the digestive system. Rosemary’s anti-inflammatory and mild analgesic actions may be helpful for rheumatic pain and aching joints. The tea can be used as an antiseptic gargle or mouthwash. Externally it can be used to heal wounds, bruises, strains and bumps.
An infusion of rosemary can be used as a final hair rinse to treat dandruff, or rub an infused oil into the scalp. For a tonic effect, add ground rosemary to body scrubs.
Magically, rosemary is ruled by the Sun and the element of fire. In Italy and Spain rosemary was considered a protection against evil spirits. The old French name for rosemary incensier denotes its use in incenses, particularly exorcism incenses.
Rosemary is also considered to be a herb of love. In some places rosemary is a wedding herb, all guests being greeted with a branch of rosemary wrapped in gold and ribbons. Sometimes it was used as a garland for brides, even for queens. The wood was employed to make musical instruments used to accompany love songs. In the language of flowers rosemary is seen as the symbol of fidelity, love, remembrance and friendship. It also has connections with birth and was used to stir the cup at christenings. Rosemary has a deep folk association with graveyards and funerals, making those who saw it growing remember friends who had died. For centuries rosemary was included in the funeral wreath and, until early the twentieth century, in northern Europe sprig of rosemary was placed in the folded hands of the deceased. Mourners would also carry sprigs of rosemary to help them remember.
Rosemary is a cleansing herb and repels negativity. It may be used in washes to purify the temple or working area and magical tools or in incenses or smudges used to expel negativity. It can be used in the ritual bath to purify the body and mind. A sprig may be hung in the home to keep the atmosphere pure.
Sage is a hardy, aromatic, evergreen shrub that grows to a height of 1-3 ft. It likes a position in full sun and light, well-drained soil. Plants should be cut back after flowering and woody plants should be replaced every four or five years. For drying purposes the leaves should be harvested just before the plant flowers. They should be dried slowly to avoid mould forming and then crumbled and stored in an airtight container.
Cooks use the leaves and stems with meats, in stews and soups, with cheese, pasta, in herb butter and in stuffings. Make a sage honey by infusing the leaves in gently warmed honey – this is good for coughs, and can be used to dress desserts. The plant also is brewed to make tea. Sage leaves and flowers can be frozen in ice cubes and added to summer drinks.
The dried or fresh leaves are used medicinally. Sage is used for coughs and colds, or use the infusion as a gargle for sore throats, tonsillitis, and as a mouthwash for inflamed gums and mouth ulcers. Sage tea helps menopausal women with hot flushes, night sweats and other menopausal symptoms – sip the tea during the day. An infusion of the leaves is useful for the treatment of diarrhoea, depression, rheumatism, anaemia, menstrual problems, and migraine, for lowering fevers, and indigestion. It also helps improve the memory and reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol. Externally it can be used as a wash for acne, eczema, wounds, scabs, insect bites and stings. Sage is antiseptic. The fresh leaves can be rubbed on stings or bites.
Sage can help keep teeth clean in a toothpowder – add powdered dried sage leaves. The fresh leaves can be rubbed onto the teeth to whiten them. Add the fresh leaves to the bath for an invigorating wash. Used as a rinse, an infusion of sage leaves benefits the hair and darkens greying hair. Sage can be made into a cleansing lotion or used in an astringent facial steam it will tighten the pores. It is a natural disinfectant and deodoriser.
Sage was a sacred herb to the Romans who believed that its use benefited most illnesses with the ability to save and create life. It was collected ritually by a priest dressed in a white tunic, barefoot and ceremonially bathed. The sage would be cut by a tool that contained no iron after sacrifices of bread and wine were offered. Sage was dedicated to their chief god Jupiter. The Greeks believed that sage improved both the mind and the body and dedicated it to Zeus. It is also a sacred herb amongst the Native American peoples, who have used it for purification, healing and cleansing.
Magically, it is ruled by the planet Jupiter and the element of air. Sage is a herb of purification and its smoke may be directed to cleanse the aura, the working area and magical tools. An infusion of the leaves may also be used for the same purpose. Sage tea may be taken whilst fasting to purify the body and spirit. Dried sage leaves may be smoked to connect with the plant’s energies. It can be used for spells to attract abundance, in incense, charm bags and powders.
Lavender is a hardy, aromatic, evergreen shrub that can grow to a height of 18-30 inches. It prefers a well-drained, sandy soil in a sunny and open position. Faded flowers should be removed and the plants can be trimmed in the autumn. The flowers should be collected just before they open. They should be dried gently, flat on a tray or hung upside down in small bunches. The leaves can be collected as required.
Lavender can be used in cooking, cakes, biscuits and ice creams, but the secret if to be very sparing with it. Use the dried flowers in potpourri, in sachets to freshen stored linen and deter moths and insects, or as a general air fresher.
Medicinally, the fresh or dried flowers are used. An infusion of the flowers is effective in the treatment of headaches, depression, nervous debility, exhaustion, insomnia, indigestion, stress, dizziness, halitosis, nausea, flatulence and colic. It can also be used as a general tonic and to help with respiratory problems, tonsillitis, colds, flu and high temperatures. It can be used as a mouthwash for oral thrush. Take the tea or tincture for a soothing effect on the central nervous system, mild pain relief, to sooth nervous tension or to act as a mild sedative in cases of insomnia. Make a gentle antiseptic salve for cuts, bruises, to help minimise scarring and relieve skin irritations.
Used as a bathing herb since Roman times, lavender is used in perfumes, cosmetics and soaps. Lavender helps skin to heal and renew itself, fights wrinkles and helps prevent acne. It is a natural deodorant. The genus name lavendula comes from the Latin lavare and means ‘to wash’. The Greeks, Romans and Carthaginians used lavender in bath water for both its scent and its therapeutic properties.
Lavender was dedicated to the Greek goddess Hecate and her daughters Medea and Circe. It was used to avert the evil eye. It is ruled by the planet Mercury and the element of air. Lavender is a potent magical plant which purifies, cleanses and brings inner stillness and peace during meditation. Burn to bring about harmony during meetings and rituals as well as within the home. It may be used as an incense to explore the element of air, to develop the intellect and powers of logical thought. It may be added to love incense, oils, sachets and charm bags, or used in love spells.
Basil is a tender plant, very sensitive to the cold, so it is usually treated as an annual, meaning that you will have to sow new plants each year. Basil requires full sun and a well-drained soil. The seeds can be sown in pots or directly into the ground once any danger of frost is passed, and will germinate in about a week. Basil will also grow quite happily in pots on your kitchen windowsill. Harvest your basil plants regularly, picking off the leaves as required; if the plant is outdoors, it is best do this on a sunny day to avoid any moisture on your harvest. Basil is always best used fresh or made into oils and vinegars.
Basil is often called the king of the culinary herbs. If you are cooking with basil it is always best to use it fresh and add it towards the end of the cooking process to retain the scent and flavour of its volatile oils. There is something about the pairing of basil and tomatoes that makes food magic, and basil can be added to all tomato based pasta sauces, pizzas, tomato soup and lasagne. Basil leaves add a fresh peppery zing to salads and sandwiches, and work particularly well with mozzarella or feta cheese and tomatoes.
You can use basil to repel insects from your garden and house plants by boiling water, liquid castile soap and basil leaves together before straining and putting into a spritzer bottle to spray your vulnerable plants. Dried basil leaves and flowers make wonderful potpourris, herbal sachets and dried bouquets which will repel flies and mosquitoes. The antifungal and antibacterial properties of basil make it useful in making household cleaners.
Basil has been used in traditional and folk medicine for thousands of years to treat a variety of conditions, including anxiety, stress, congestion, coughs, colds, colic, constipation, cuts and wounds, diarrhoea, flatulence, headaches, indigestion, insect bites, muscle tension and sore throats. It is a particularly important herb in Ayurvedic medicine, where holy basil is used as a treatment for gastric, liver, respiratory and inflammatory diseases, and features in over 300 remedies. Despite the glut of articles appearing about the almost miraculous healing powers of tulsi, holy basil and sweet basil actually have very similar medicinal qualities.
Not only is basil delicious and healing, it also has some amazing benefits for your skin. It contain antioxidants which help protect it from the oxidative stress and free radical damage that lead to fine lines and wrinkles, and also helps tighten the skin, improve its tone and boosts the growth of new skin cells.
Basil has amazing benefits in hair care too. It stimulates hair follicles, increases blood circulation in the scalp and promotes hair growth, as well as adding shine to dull hair. The magnesium in basil helps protect hair from breakage, the antioxidant properties protect the hair from environmental damage, and its antiseptic and antifungal properties treat dandruff and an itchy scalp.
Basil’s reputation as a high holy herb is reflected in its botanical name basilikon from the Greek basileus meaning ‘king’, indeed, in France it is often called Herbe Royale. The genus name Ocimum is from the ancient Greek word okimon, meaning ‘smell’ in the sense of ‘to be fragrant’.
The basil plant is a protective spirit that deflects negative energy from its surroundings, bringing peace, prosperity and blessing into the home. Basil is connected with love and used in love spells, incense and charm bags. It is ruled by the planet Mars and the element of fire.
It is generally accepted that there are about six species of mint with more than six hundred varieties available. Mints generally like a position in either full sun or partial shade and a moist, well-drained soil which is rich in nutrients. Mint is very easy to grow and it hybrids readily. It can be propagated by stem or root cuttings which root easily when placed in water. Large plants can be divided during the spring or autumn. They should be grown in large pots or polythene bags to restrain the roots. To avoid cross pollination, all flowering stems should be removed. Mint is suitable for growing indoors. Avoid planting mint near to parsley as they do not grow well in each other’s company. The leaves should be picked before the flowers open.
Mint leaves are used as flavouring in cookery, in sauces and sweets. They can be frozen, dried or infused in oil or vinegar.
The aerial parts are used medicinally. Mints are a general tonic and an antispasmodic. They have antiseptic and anaesthetic properties. A mild infusion acts as a sedative whilst a stronger infusion acts as a stimulant and a tonic. Mint helps relieve nasal congestion and catarrh and may be used for colds, coughs, catarrh insomnia and dyspepsia. Mint infusion can be used as a gargle for sore throats, mouth ulcers and toothache. It can be applied externally as a skin wash for cuts, bruises and wounds. It can also be sipped cold for hiccups and flatulence. Menthol (from the volatile oil contained in the leaves) is antiseptic, antifungal, and has pain killing properties when applied to the skin, although it can irritate. Fresh leaves rubbed on the affected area will reduce the pain of bee and wasp stings. Peppermint is particularly good for calming the nerves, insomnia and anxiety. It has been used for hundreds of years for digestive problems, increasing the flow of bile, and helpful for indigestion, bloating, wind, dyspepsia, diarrhoea and constipation, flatulence and nausea.
A mint infusion can also be used as a hair rinse or in a footbath for tired feet. A decoction of the leaves can also be made for the treatment of chapped hands.
Magically it is ruled by the planet Venus and the element of air. Mint is a herb of prosperity, and a leaf can be carried in the purse or wallet to attract money, while the dried leaves can be added to charm bags, incense or spells to attract abundance. It is also an herb of protection and purification. It can be hung in the home or used in charm bags and protection amulets. A mint infusion can be used to cleanse the ritual area, working tools, added to the final rinse for robes or added to the pre-ritual bath.