Grow Your Own Drugs

Eeek! Not something you’d expect from a person who has never taken a recreational drug in her life, apart from alcohol. Today, though, I am making one great exception. I plan to promote a book by that name. I will not receive any royalties or drug money for the promotion – just satisfaction that I have pointed you in the direction of really good information.

Now having got your attention, I will confess. This book, by ethnobotanist James Wong, is a book about using plants for medicine.

Plants “are the basis of a large part of our (commercial) medicine, with up to 50% of the world’s top proprietary drugs being originally derived from natural sources,” points out James. Brought up in Malaysia watching his grandmother using plants in health concoctions, James sees plants as “warehouses of infinite possibility”. In Grow Your Own Drugs: Easy recipes for natural remedies, he takes us through a wide variety of natural medicinal uses for common-to-garden varieties.

Return to natural

When it’s put like that, the return to using natural remedies makes total sense. Instead of pharmaceutical companies making millions from putting a natural plant property into a pill, we can go out into our garden and pick a few leaves or flowers and brew a tea for what ails us. The issue is that the knowledge of plants and their properties has become so protected and so subject to testing behind the laboratory doors of pharmaceutical companies, we’ve forgotten what to use for what.

Grow Your Own Drugs” blends the knowledge of herbalists with up-to-date scientific facts, and provides a list of 100 Top Plants to grow. And if you can’t grow them all, you may be able to find the essential oils and dried herbs at health food shops. James is quite clear about the role of your GP in diagnosis of any illness or disease, and views the remedies and recipes in the book as complementary to conventional medicine in treating everyday ailments.

My joy at finding this Kindle eBook is that I have not only found a list of useful plants to go in the herb garden, I have also found a list of useful household products I will need to make the lotions and potions.

Looking through James’ Top 10, I find I need to add Echinacea to my list – a plant I knew nothing about, but which turns out to a very pretty daisy-like plant. A particularly interesting description of Echinacea I found on Patty’s Feel Good Teas page. (No I don’t hold shares! I just appreciated the research repeated here.)

I’m also keen to grow some ginger. This will be a windowsill or hothouse plant because it is used to growing in warmer climates than ours. But that will be part of the Herb Garden adventure.

Proof is in the Comfrey

I have heard it said that the reason why herbs heal is because of the belief of the people who use them. If belief is the only factor then I celebrate their success.

However, I do know that conventional medicine and drugs stand firmly on the backs of ancient herbalists and their research. Modern chemical drugs mimic the healing properties of many healing herbs. Modern drugs may indeed also require a strong belief in them to work, but modern drugs are subjected to supposedly rigorous testing, whereas the ancients were prepared to believe.

If a herb worked they used it; if it didn’t (for whatever reason) they kept looking until they found one that did. So a few people died in the experiment (read mice/dogs/chimps for modern medicine), but in the end they came up with herbs that worked for most people. Modern herbalists follow their tradition, but people don’t die and many are saved from suffering that chemical medicines cannot cure. I guess you could say I’m a believer.

One of my earliest introductions to the efficiency of herbs to heal was when I resorted to comfrey poultices to cure my cat of the effects of a terrible accident.

Tosca, a self-coloured seal Siamese was hit by a car near our property in the country. We did not find him for three days when he finally replied to our calls and we traced him to long grass in a paddock over the road. He was in a bad way. When he was x-rayed at the vets he was found to have a broken pelvis, hip and leg (three breaks in all). He also had many cuts which had started to go septic.

There was no question in our mind – save him at all costs. The skilled surgical vet pinned his leg and hip back together and we nursed him back to health administering antibiotics and tempting his appetite with soft foods on a regular routine. Gradually he started healing and walking again, but the broken rear leg dragged so he was putting weight on the back of his paw.

Inevitably the skin on that paw broken down and became affected. He developed an abscess that the vet had to drain. Then he seemed to have a slight stroke. The vet believed that matter from the abscess may have travelled in the blood stream. Tosca’s mobility reduced again. What to do? Should we ‘be kind’ and have him put to sleep? The vet said he was likely to have suffered liver damage.

I decided one last try. I started making comfrey poultices and binding them onto his deformed leg and paw. I took clean comfrey leaves, chopped them up so that the juices were running and wrapped the mush in muslin. Then I bound the poultice on top of the paw where the original abscess had started. Tosca didn’t like the bandage but we kept replacing it.


Above: Comfrey leaves and flowers. The long tap roots are reputed to gather minerals from up to 40cms below the surface and store these minerals in its leaves. If the leaves are chopped down regularly and left as mulch around lemon trees, I can vouch for the fact that the lemons will be magic!

Over several weeks we noticed that Tosca was walking on the pad of his paw, not the top. His abscess had cleared up and healed completely. His leg was much stronger and his limp diminished. He went on to live a further two years before the liver damage became evident and we had to face the inevitable.

So did Tosca decide to believe that the comfrey would help him? I think not!

In ancient times, comfrey was known as ‘knit bone’. It has been known to “have healed the most sinister chronic ulcers” (p103, Elizabeth Francke, The make-your-own Cosmetics and Fragrance Book for New Zealanders). Apparently comfrey leaves and roots contain a substance called ‘allantoin’ the promotes the regeneration of cells.

By Heather Sylvawood, author of Real Estate Rollercoaster.

What should go in your herb garden?

As part of our move toward being more eco-friendly human beings, I have convinced my partner that we need a herb garden. The final convincing argument about why we should lose lawn and gain herb garden was there was nowhere for the strawberry patch. The prospect of no strawberries was enough to make a herb-cum-strawberry garden seem bearable.

Now my next task was to decide what to put in it? Was the herb garden culinary or medicinal? Would I plant international or native plants?

I opted for medicinal – which sent me into a lot of research. Here is a sskin tonics, ummary of what I discovered:

  • Culinary herbs are often also medicinal. (e.g. sage as a deodorant or mouth wash, thyme to promote sleep, (lemon balm for headaches and tiredness)
  • Many herbs considered as weeds are extremely beneficial. (comfrey, heartsease, yarrow, nasturtium, puha and sorrel)
  • There are so many herbs and vegetables that make effective cosmetics and skin tonics. (e.g. citrus, cucumbers, onion and even strawberries)
  • A herb garden is unlikely to be tidy as you have to let some plants go to seed to harvest and others (like yarrow) are weeds most people would remove immediately. Depending on what I decide to put into the herb garden, this could be the subject of strong discussion between my partner and me.


Sage – not just for taste alone – the tea  taken regularly can reduce body odour


Heirloom Garden seeds come with hints about their medicinal uses

Seed suppliers

I started by looking for suppliers of seed. The more unusual herbs may not show up as plants in your local garden shop. One gem of a website I discovered was Carol’s Heirloom Garden.  Carol produces a wonderful array of seeds, including herbs at very reasonable prices, but she can only supply in New Zealand. She also has some eBooks on sale, including one on Seed Saving at Home. It’s on my ‘must-have’ list.

What I like about Carol’s seeds is that they come in tiny packets which have growing instructions on one side and medicinal or culinary properties on the other. Once these herbs grow into healthy plants I am going to have to decide:

  1. In what part of the herb garden will they grow on best?
  2. How can I water and cultivate them to get best results?
  3. How I will label them so that come harvest time I still remember what they are?

Maybe that’s counting my herbs before they’re grown. I’ll keep you posted.