Chemistry, biology, medicine, perfume, food and cooking all converge in one place. A garden.
After spending a few moments in an early spring garden talking to Wendell Combest, Ph.D., a professor of pharmacology at Shenandoah University’s Bernard J. Dunn School of Pharmacy, and checking out the labs in which he works, it’s easy to see how chemistry, cooking and gardening are close cousins.
He’s a man who knows his plants and his medicine, and he’s the PERFECT person to talk to if you’re interested in planting a garden filled with plants you can use to make both homemade remedies and delicious meals. He has designed medicinal gardens in Virginia and Vermont, and a garden with around 100 plant species sits in front of the pharmacy school’s home at the Health Professions Building on the Winchester Medical Center campus. Many of the plants in the garden are on the United Plant Savers’ endangered medicinal plant list and regarded as “at risk.” And, he intends to add to a zen garden at the rear of the building and get the medicinal garden designated as a registered botanical sanctuary for the protection and study of endangered plants.
Plants that work well in a moisturizing salt scrub or insect bite ointment can also make for a tasty meal, which is plain to see when Dr. Combest lays out the dried plant materials he studies to see if they have medicinal properties. The lab where plant products are dried and initially studied feels a bit like a storybook witch’s cottage, with dried bark, roots and leaves stored on shelves that ring the room. It’s no surprise really, that a handmade sign on the wall says “Wendell Combest, Potions Master.” The name came courtesy of a visiting high school student, and of course, alludes a bit to the faculty at the fictional Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, made famous through the “Harry Potter” book series.
But Combest’s work is anything but make-believe. A master gardener, Combest says he’s essentially an ethnopharmacologist – he studies how people have used folk medicines, and ultimately, he’s interested in how folk remedies may or may not work.
What should you plant if you want the most useful garden on the block?
Here’s the good news. You’re not going to plant anything that’s particularly hard to find, and you don’t need much room (a space as small as 20-feet by 20-feet will do), either.
Raised beds, with good soil, would work, as would a spiral design, like a labyrinth, which combines beds and a path. The latter, he said, “is a good trick to get the most plants in the smallest area.” Laying out a spiral plan couldn’t be easier: get some flour, find your center, and then start walking in a circle, spreading the flour as you go. If it rains, the flour will turn to simple dough and remain in place. When you’re ready, dig along the lines, prepare the soil and add your plants. A spiral garden could probably accommodate 30 to 40 plants, Combest said.
With a spiral design, you could even place some triangular raised beds at the edges of an imaginary square surrounding the circle you’ve created and plant items like cherry tomatoes, arugula, lettuce, kale and chard. Pots can be utilized as well, to cultivate home-grown ginger and turmeric, both of which are beneficial roots that need to move inside during Virginia’s winter months. If you want big, beefy tomatoes, a small garden isn’t the spot for them, according to Combest, who recommends finding another place for them in your yard.
So, what should form the heart of your healing garden?
Here’s Combest’s list:
- Peppermint (keep the mints away from each other, though)
- Calendula (a flower and the only primarily medicinal plant – it has wound-healing and antiseptic properties – among Combest’s choices)
- Thyme (garden thyme and lemon thyme)
- Lavender (be careful to get a winter-hardy variety)
- Horehound (for cough syrup and lozenges)
- Fennel (warning: bronze fennel is invasive, so a different variety would be best)
- Watercress (great for a damp area)
It’s best to start small, with multi-use herbs. “You don’t have to grow everything,” said Combest, who picks up dried herbs and plant products (wild cherry bark or kava, for example), essential oils, clay, and other ingredients for some of the plant-based products he concocts from Mountain Rose Herbs.
While the vast majority of the items he suggests for a medicinal garden can be used fresh in food, it’s best to dry them when they’re slated to become a scrub, ointment, lip balm or lotion. Drying plants is simpler than you might think, too. Just lay them on a towel with a fan blowing air across them. Turn the leaves with regularity. If the leaves can still bend, they still contain too much water. Once they crumble, they’re ready to use or packed in jars without much room for air circulation. While herb jars don’t need to be dark, they do need to be kept away from light to prevent oxidation from sunlight.
With dried plants and a few other ingredients in hand, making cough drops or lotions is a matter, really, of cooking. To make a cough drop, you’ll simmer some items in an enameled or stainless steel pan, add some sugar to make a simple syrup and boil until the syrup is at the “hard crack” stage. Essentially, you’re making a beneficial candy. “You can get really creative on making cough drops,” Combest said.
You can infused dried plants in oil or in alcohol as a tincture. You can infuse witch hazel (a shrub with medicinal properties that’s sold as a preparation in drugstores and pharmacies) with plants, as well. You can make ointments, lotions and creams, too. Ointments contain the most beeswax and lotions, the least. To make a lotion, cream, or ointment, Combest said the only tools you really need are a double boiler, a whisk, and a small skillet or pan to extract the herbs.
Combest obviously enjoys demonstrating how to make plant-based remedies and delights in revealing the ease with which they’re made. He said he often hears, “‘If I would have known it was this simple, I would have done it years ago.’” A tea (actually a tisane) is one of the simplest preparations of all – it’s just dried plant material steeped in hot water.
For those interested in aromatherapy, he noted that the general rule there is that a scent should be barely detectable for its benefits to be seen – you don’t need to overwhelm yourself with scent.
When creating remedies, investing in some nice essential oils is a good idea, to create products you enjoy using. Combest uses the same kind of process perfumers use when coming up with scents, by combining a base note (something woodsy or earthy like cedar), a middle note (citrus or herbal) and a top note (floral). Vanilla binds them all together well. As you play with the scents, you’ll notice what most positively affects your mood.
Now all that said, plants aren’t harmless, even ones that seem innocuous. For example, someone could add too much lavender essential oil to a bath and sedate themselves so much that they hurt themselves by falling upon exiting the tub, he said. Lavender moves through the skin and into the bloodstream and brain very quickly, he said. Many plants are highly toxic, as well. When creating a healing garden, it’s best to stick with items that have been well studied or used consistently and safely as food, he said.
Use Your Common Sense
Ultimately, common sense rules when using plant-based products. “You’ve got to be cautious and wise. Just like you do with your foods,” Combest said.
So while Combest is studying plants like the Osage Orange tree in the pharmacy garden (he’s investigating the antifungal properties of its bark and roots) you can use plants to your advantage, too, by walking into your garden and plucking out some herbs with myriad uses, just like your grandma, or your grandma’s grandma used to do.
“Your grandmother indeed, was very wise,” Combest said.
To learn more great, practical information about herbs and their uses, Combest recommends looking into the works of Vermont herbalist Rosemary Gladstar.
MEDICINAL RECIPES FROM THE GARDEN
Interested in creating a garden-variety apothecary? With a few plants and a little know-how, you can make some great skin care products, and even an effective bug balm, with recipes provided by Dr. Wendell Combest.
Poison Ivy/Oak and Insect Bite Poultice
This is a very effective topical remedy for soothing irritated and itchy skin such as insect bites or poison ivy.
Step 1: Measure out ~ 1.0 tbsp each of the following herbs into a skillet or small pan: witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) bark, Kava (Piper methysticum) roots, willow (Salix alba) bark, and comfrey (Symphytum officinale) root.
Step 2: Add ½ cup of witch hazel (a USP formulation of 14% alcohol extract of witch hazel bark and leaves) to the herbs in step 1 and simmer for 5-10 min. Strain and use in step 3.
Step 3: In a bowl mix 1 tsp of sea salt with 2 tbsp of white bentonite clay (readily available through a company like Mountain Rose Herbs).
Step 4: Add a small amount of the witch hazel herbal extract from step 3 to step 4 clay and salt and mix to form a thick paste.
Step 5: Add 10 drops of peppermint essential oil and mix ……****store in a closed container
How/why to use: Apply to itchy or painful skin. The clay will dry and provide some relief. The witch hazel and comfrey are strongly astringent, the allantoin and mucilage in the comfrey roots are demulcents and wound-healing, the salicin in the willow bark is analgesic, keratolytic and bactericidal and a rubefacient. The menthol in the peppermint is analgesic functioning as a counter-irritant.
Compounding an Herbal Lip Balm
The basic procedure for this formulation is to combine an aqueous infusion of a combination of fresh and dried herbs and alcoholic herbal tinctures with an oil/beeswax mixture also containing olive oil infused herbs. The aqueous and oil phases are held together by using an emulsifying wax called Lanette wax (made from coconut palm oil). Vitamin C and E are added to prevent oxidation of the oils. Essential oils are added at the last step to scent and flavor the formulation. Below is one of the basic protocols you can start with.
Step 1: Formulate an aqueous herbal decoction
- Add ½ cup (120 ml) of spring water to a small pan and bring almost to a boil and reduce heat (down to low setting on the hot plate).
- Add dry or fresh herbs of choice (use ~ 1 tbsp of each herb )
- Add alcoholic tinctures (~ 1 tsp)
- Add 1/4 tsp powdered Vitamin C
- Heat until reduced to ~ 2 tbsp
Add 2 tsp of the reduced herbal aqueous infusion to the oil/wax mixture below
Step 2: Formulation of oil/wax mixture
- Add ¼ cup light olive oil to a stainless steel bowl heated over a double boiler (if herb-infused oils are used, subtract that volume from the above ¼ cup (60 ml) of olive oil)
- Add 9 g of grated beeswax (amt. here determines the consistency of final product)
- Add 2 tsp of Lanette wax pellets
- Add 1 tsp of jojoba oil
- Add 1 tsp of sweet almond oil
- Add 1 tsp of coconut oil
- 1 capsule (puncture capsule) of Vitamin E (800 IU capsule)
Step 3: Add aqueous phase to oil/wax mixture
- Add 1 tsp of aqueous infusion from step 1 to the oil wax mixture.
- Whisk to emulsify
- Test by withdrawing a small sample (~ ½ tsp) and placing on ice to determine the consistency of the final product. If too soft add more beeswax and if too hard, add more oil.
- Add ~ 5 drops of your chosen essential oil to the mixture
- Pour into containers before mixture hardens
1 Tsp = 5 ml 1 Tbsp = 15 ml ¼ Cup = 60 mls ½ Cup = 120 ml 1 oz = 28 g
Herbal Salt and Sugar Scrub
These formulations are commonly used in health spas as whole body, hand or foot exfoliating/softening/moisturizing treatments. This formulation is very different than most scrubs, which have much more oil added. This one is less messy and more effective. You can vary the consistency of the sea salt or sugar from fine to coarse or even use kosher salt for a harsher effect. Sugar scrubs are softer and more gentle and are especially good for the face and when there are cuts or abrasions on the skin.
Step 1: Measure out ½ cup of sea salt or organic sugar into a bowl.
Step 2: Add the following oils:
- 1 tsp olive oil
- 1 tsp apricot kernel or sweet almond oil
- ¼ tsp Vitamin E oil
Step 3: Add ~ 2 tsp of powdered or coarsely chopped or ground herbs. Good examples are lavender flowers, chamomile flowers, dried lemon, grapefruit, or orange peel, peppermint, spearmint, thyme, oregano or ginger.
Step 4: Add a total of 5-10 drops of a combination of essential oils of your choice.
Instructions for use: Moisten skin with warm water. Rub in a small amount of the salt or sugar scrub (~1 tsp if you are doing a hand scrub) for a few minutes. Simply wash off the scrub and dry with a towel. The treatment will stimulate the skin and leave it soft and moisturized.