Herbal remedies: Ready. . .set. . .grow?

Jun 24, 2008 at 2:27 p.m. ET

Herbal or folk remedies typically have ethnic or cultural origins. Most are passed down from generation to generation and used to soothe a variety of ailments such as digestive disorders, colds or the flu. Here is some information on using and growing your own herbal remedies.

Herbs can be culinary or medicinal or both

About 70,000 known species of plants have medicinal qualities, but herbs typically fall into one of two categories: culinary or medicinal. Some, like onions, can serve both purposes. In Germany, for example, onions are recommended for treating coughs, colds and hypertension.

Not all herbal remedies are as familiar -- or harmless -- as onions

"Some medicinal plants should be avoided completely," says Rhonda Janke, Kansas State Research and Extension sustainable cropping systems specialist and author of Growing Herbs for Home Use.

"Digitalis, which is a heart stimulant, is an example. It's extracted from the foxglove plant, but should be taken only as a pharmaceutical preparation and not as a home remedy."

Many other herbs are relatively safe, as long as one uses common sense. For example, chamomile, which is used in tea for calming the nerves and easing an upset stomach, should not be used by someone who is allergic to plants in the daisy family, she says.

"Echinacea, known on the Great Plains as the purple coneflower, can be used to enhance the immune system to ward off colds, but should not be taken by people suffering from autoimmune diseases," Janke says. "It's also not recommended for people who are allergic to ragweed or plants in the daisy family." In the United States, herbal remedies fall into a category called "dietary supplements." They are not subject to the same testing and approval procedures that drugs are.

If unsure about taking an herbal remedy, Janke suggests talking with a pharmacist.

More research is being done on herbal remedies

"Germany has done some extensive testing of herbal supplements, and our National Institute of Health is now funding research in this area," she says. These studies and other published literature can be found in the Physician's Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines and on Web sites, such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) data base at www.ars-grin.gov/duke.

"One of the best ways to learn more about an herb is to grow it," says Janke, who recommends consulting with an experienced herbalist or master gardener, or both.

Grow your own

If the number of medicinal plants seems daunting or the information too extensive, she suggests that prospective growers begin with one or two plants that they like.

For starters, Janke suggests spearmint. "It's is easy to grow and identify and can be added to tea and used to relieve indigestion. Adding it to a pot of beans can counteract flatulence-producing properties."

Growing Herbs for Home Use was written for gardeners who want to grow and use a few medicinal herbs at home, and includes a reference list of books and Web sites. Copies of the publication (MF 2579) are available at county K-State Research and Extension offices and can even be downloaded from Extension's web site: www.oznet.ksu.edu/catalog.