By Joyce Driemeyer
Herbs are merely plants with a present or past history of usefulness. Although we commonly think of herbs for culinary purposes, a great many have a rich medicinal history of use by Native Americans who introduced the early European colonists to their virtues.
Our beautiful witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), the fragrant yellow blooms of which appear almost obscured by drying foliage in November, is the last plant to bloom before winter. Yes, woodies can be classified as herbs! And the first shrub to bloom in late winter is the vernal witch hazel, H. vernalis. You can say the blooming season begins and ends with witch hazel. The astringent qualities of infusions and extracts were used by the American Indian for eye ailments and skin problems. Uses were adopted by the settlers, and in the 19th century witch hazel was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopeia and the U.S. Formulary for topical treatments of skin problems and even for hemorrhoids. It is still in use today for that purpose and is also found in many skin lotions.
In July, the lovely red flowers of Monarda didyma – bee balm or Oswego tea – appear. The foliage is aromatic, and was used as a pleasant beverage and to aid digestion. The flowers are an attractant for butterflies and hummers. Plant it in full sun.
A member of the milkweed family is the showy butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). It was used by our natives for a thousand years for treatment of chest and bronchial problems and even pneumonia. It is also called pleurisy root. It grows in full sun, gets about 2-3 ft. tall and has massive reddish-orange terminal umbels – butterflies love it and you will, too.
A shade-tolerant and handsome ground cover is the American wild ginger (Asarum canadense). Its heart-shaped foliage attains a height of 4-5 inches, while the brownish-purple flower, which appears in April, is mostly hidden by the leaves. Like the tropical ginger, it is the rhizome or part of it that is used for flavoring or for medicinal purposes. Some tribes used it for female problems and even as a contraceptive.
One of our most important and ornamental native plants is the coneflower (Echinacea purpurea or E. pallida). It is rhizomatous and presents a great impact on the border. Many cultivars of this wonderful plant have been developed both here and abroad. The Plains Indians used different parts of the coneflower to treat wounds and as a panacea for many ailments. Modern reports claim it stimulates the immune system and also has antiviral and antibacterial properties. Grow it in full sun, where it will attain a height of 3-4 ft. It will flower from July to September. If flower heads are allowed to seed on the plant, yellow finches will adorn it in the fall.
Joyce Driemeyer says she’s semi-retired after more than 25 years as a professional landscape designer. She is a Master Gardener, and volunteers, lectures and conducts classes at Missouri Botanical Garden, and has actively served in both the St Louis Herb Society and The Herb Society of America.