Friday, March 19, 2021

Just a Few of My Favorite Useful Plants

By Yvette Henson, San Miguel Basin, CSU Extension

My definition for herbs is ‘useful’ plants.  The Merriam Webster definition of an herb is “any plant with leaves, seeds, or flowers used for flavoring, food, medicine or perfume.” The past two gardening seasons, I have returned to herb gardening like I did when I was first learning to garden, and I have been using my herbs in many ways!  I would like to share with you my favorite herbs and how I use them. Since I garden at 8,400 feet, all these herbs should grow well for anyone who gardens at a high elevation site, with cooler temperatures.

Calendula flowers and seeds

I will start with Calendula officinalis. Most people call it by its Genus name, Calendula, but another common name is pot marigold, alluding the fact that it is edible.  It can be used fresh in a salad or cooked with spinach or added to soup.  It can also be dried and ground and used to color rice, etc. 

Calendula is useful in salves and lotions and is scientifically proven to be good for skin. The variety that is reported to contain high amounts of the compounds that are good for the skin, is ‘Resina’ but any Calendula variety will work. I use the salve for any skin irritation—it is my favorite salve because it is so soothing.  I also made a diaper cream for my granddaughter that works well.  Many recipes can be found on the internet.

You can find Calendula in shades of yellow, orange and peach, the most common being orange.  It is a cool-season annual that grows in average soil.  If happy, it will bloom continuously until a killing frost, and will reseed itself.  The seeds can be collected and re-planted. If stored properly (consistently cool, dry, and dark) the seeds remain viable for about nine years.

German Chamomile, Matricaria chamomilla

For the past two years, I have grown German Chamomile, Matricaria chamomilla, from seed.  When danger of frost is past, I transplant the young, hardened-off seedlings into pots or raised beds in my garden.  I love it for its abundant bloom and delicious-smelling flowers.  It is the yellow disk flowers that contain the fragrance and oils.

Use in tea and infuse in oil for salves. Besides making a calming tea for us to drink, a strong, cooled chamomile tea can be applied to seedling trays at the first sign of damping-off disease, and it really works!  My daughter has eczema.  She uses the salve I made her when she starts getting an outbreak and it clears it up!  It is also a calming salve for babies.

Grow chamomile in well-drained, lean soil. Plant hardened-off seedlings into the garden after chance of frost. Continuously remove blooms as they open to promote continuous bloom.  I dry the cut blooms in paper bags or spread out on newspapers in a dark area. 

Dandelion blooms--Taraxacum officinalis

We built our house on ‘virgin’ land in a Ponderosa/Pinon/Juniper forest. I was so dismayed when the dandelions started coming up— I did not want anything non-native growing without my permission.  Apparently, we brought them here, because they were not there before. Although I tried to remove them, each year they multiplied in number, until I finally gave up. 

Now, I pick the young greens in early spring and sauté them in oil with a dash of lemon at the end.  What a yummy, although bitter, green for an early spring ‘tonic’!  I also make salve by infusing the dried blooms in oil.  I like the dandelion salve for lip balm and to massage sore, dry feet and ankles.  My daughters agree that it is helpful—we do not know if it is the massage or the dandelion oil or both, but it eases the pain. 

I am not recommending that you plant them on purpose—I am sure you can find some dandelions, somewhere, preferably in a place where no weed killer was applied.  Last year, my favorite spring mornings were spent in the sun, watching the bumblebees collect pollen from the dandelion flowers while I picked a bag full of blossoms.  So, why not make a few dandelion chains and blow some seeds into the wind--“If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em!” -- I think I may make dandelion jelly this spring.  

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