A Garden of Simples, Growing Medicinal Herbs

Ilona Erwin

The Medicinal Herb Garden

A “Simple” in Colonial times was an herbal plant grown on its own as a medicine. “Simple” being a term from the melding of two Latin words, Singula plica: a single purpose. This was the most elementary way to use medicinal plants. No fancy recipes or scientific acumen was needed. Often given as teas, or used as poultices, herbs were sometimes mixed together, or used singly.

The housewife of olden times was able to use these simples for common remedies often needed in daily life in her home and with her domestic animals. Increasing milk, treating a fever, calming a queasy stomach… the medicinal herbs held the answers for many common ailments.

Remedies compounded from herbs were important to common people, monks, and kings alike.

Petersfield Physic Garden

Use with Caution, Update your Knowledge

Make no mistake, our benign view of “herbs” just because we grow it ourselves has the potential to be no less toxic or potentially harmful. Or we may have just enough knowledge about it to be dangerous.

This article is a guide for purposes of landscaping and historical interest. Any use of herbs medicinally should be with consultation with your health professional, as well as your own research into the use and dosages of such plants.

Beware that some medicinal herbs are downright poison, especially if ingested without expertise; foxglove, or digitalis, is one of those plants. Pennyroyal might be another, but as decorative plants they give a garden their beauty. Their historical medicinal use might be for academic interest alone– just interesting to know.

With that rather scary warning, most herbs that you might grow in a simples medicinal herb garden will be mild and safe, such as mint or chamomile. Some are common culinary herbs, like sage, rosemary, and thyme. For many of us, the decorative value is the most important thing, but the addition of knowing how to use our herbs for good health is a boon we can enjoy, too.

Prescott Farm

Useful as food, medicine, and flavorings, they have time proven properties. Warnings are necessary because proper knowledge is needed when taking even the most natural source of medicine. More and more findings about spices and herbs show that these are indeed healing plants.

Once you decide you would like to have a handy, natural medicine cabinet closeby, it is time to plant the layout.

Simple Designs for Simple Gardens

It seems to me that if we use our herbs for their properties, that we would like to grow them in the most organized and clear way possible. I imagine that is the idea behind some of the early garden designs of growing a single type of plant in blocks, the way a Colonial garden is often laid out.

Besides growing the plants in well defined blocks, using markers made of permanent, weatherproof materials will identify plants. It is surprising how similar the foliage of one may be to another.

Traditional Designs

Translating the past into the present requires some forethought. How much labor is involved? Does the style work with modern house and landscape?

Rich nobles in Europe had the means to build intricate plans of knots and parterres, but most folk had little time or space for such things. The amount of care laborers gave in service of a wealthy castle owner makes a large knot garden more trouble than it is worth to most homeowners.

Parterres may lose their visual value if you live in modern one story home. On the other hand, including elements from large historical estate gardens are grace notes that could make your own design a source of pride and pleasure.

Whether the idea of clipping neat lines of herbs is appealing, or simply snipping some fresh leaves from raised boxes near the back door, there are plenty of ways to incorporate this type of garden into your plan. For medicinal uses, I would definitely take notes from earlier generations and keep the plants well marked and in a particular section of the plan, whatever the style.

A Shaker Herb Garden Motto

simplicity, order, purpose, and beauty

Design Ideas Plucked From The Past

Many medicinal garden plans are planted around the spokes of a wheel, or in squares divided by wattle fences or boards. Such order in the garden can be quite pretty, and takes the guesswork out of which herb is being harvested.

A ladder garden is where each rung of an old ladder is divided to create block of space planted to single herbs. Works best if the herbs are of similar height.

Similarly, a wheel garden has sections of a circle divided by spokes for separated planting areas. Old cart wheels were utilized for this design.

Beautiful plant markers can be purchased or home made, and they will further define exactly which plant is which.

Blocks of herbs lining a straight pathway is a straightforward way to add fragrance to your yard.

A circular bed with low growing medicinal herb choices centered with a fountain or birdbath is a traditional and formal look. For more on herb garden design, see the Herb Garden page.

Incorporate ‘Physic gardens’, as they were called, into the vegetable patch. Many of the herbs were also used as flavoring for the vegetables and stews, anyway. And they might prove useful for repelling insect pests by virtue of their volatile oils.

Chelsea Physic Garden

Chelsea Physic Garden


Suggested Medicinal Herb Garden Plants

Many of these are very ornamental plants with colorful flowers or handsome foliage. Check out the list of companion plants used to deter pests and diseases for more medicinal herb uses.

Medicinal Properties Calendula Officinalis

For Colds And Fevers Echinacea purpurea Feverfew, Chrysanthemum parthenium Sage, Salvia officinalis Lemon Balm, Melissa officinalis Mullein, Verbascum thapsus
For Stress And Stomach Disorders Peppermint, Mentha piperita Chamomile, Anthemis noblis
For Skin Balm Calendula officinalis Apothecary Rose, Rosa gallica var. officinalis Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis Lavender, Lavandula
“Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food” -Hippocrates

Herb Plants For Healing

Boneset, Eupatorium perfoliatumfor fever and colds
Thymus vulgaris
bacterial and fungal infections, and minor irritations
Motherwort, Leonurus cardiacacalming, for heart, rheumatism and lung problems
Scarlet Bee Balm, Monarda didymaexpel gas, to relieve nausea, in menstrual cramps
Mugwort. Artemesia vulgarisfor worming and as insect repellent
Catmint, Nepeta cateriamild sedative, settles the stomach, soothes flatulence, and colic
Meadowsweet, Eupatorium purpureumfor fever and to eliminate stones.
Hyssop, Hyssopus officinalisexpectorant, and cough suppressant
Southernwood, Artemisia abrotanumdeworming,moth-balls,and as topical wash
Achillea millefolium
styptic which help heal wounds; also used for cols and fever

medicinal herb plants, reputed benefits. sample information for further study.


Visit My Pinterest Board Featuring Herbs


Seeds and Plants:

Seeds of Change S10698 Certified Organic Lemon Balm

Feverfew Seeds – .17 grams – Organic – Tanacetum

500 Seeds, Roman Chamomile (Anthemus nobilis) Packaged By Seed Needs

An herb garden in the English style


Other Herb Garden Links

Herbalism Education sources
Medicinal Herb Guide
Herbal Site
Shaker Herb Garden

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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.