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I love the line from the Dixie Chix song, I want to grow something wild and unruly….,” which is exactly how I feel when I push a hyacinth vine seed deep into the soil and know it will bloom with crazy lavender flowers and deep eggplant-colored pods all the way into fall. Many naturopathic doctors enjoy growing plants, from edibles to culinary herbs to those used in the botanical medicine formulary. As a city kid myself, the closest I came to gardening growing up was when we planted parsley seeds in milk cartons in the spring!
My first taste as a real gardener was as a twenty one year old attending naturopathic medical school. I pored over seed catalogues while the dreary, rain-drenched winter swirled outside our windows, dreaming of juicy watermelon, basil for pesto and echinaceae flowers to grace the front yard. When I learned about mixing in compost to our soil, when I saw the way the plants literally followed the sun , when I witnessed orange squash flowers bursting from winding vines, and when on a hot summer’s day I took my first sublime bite from the belly of sun-warmed watermelon, I was hooked for life.
I love gaining a deeper understanding of how it’s both the hardest and easiest thing in the world to grow something. I developed a reverence for farmers, I lean into the underlying optimism that is part of gardening, and the way a small seed knows exactly how to grow and what to become. I appreciate the benefits gardening presents my family: time together outdoors, being surrounded by growing plants and colorful beauty, and the health-giving nutrients of the food that nourishes us, body and soul. I know not all my patients enjoy gardening, but I think exposing everyone to the process, whether growing baby tomatoes in a pot on the porch or a parsley plant in a milk carton on the window sill, there is inherent value to playing in dirt, watching things grow and feeling connected to the natural world.
Amy Rothenberg, ND
Amy Rothenberg ND practices in Northampton, MA. Dr. Rothenberg served on the AANP Board and as President of the Massachusetts Society of Naturopathic Doctors where she spearheaded the successful effort for licensure in the Bay state.
Stevia leaves can be added to brewed tea
Growing herbs at home is a great way to incorporate nature into your life and your diet. After moving to Southern California, I decided to try my hand cultivating a few plants. As we are in a water conservation area, I personally don’t like putting water on things I can’t eat – so little by little, I am converting our landscaping to edible plants. My advice for folks is to start small – and consult with your local gardening store to understand your microclimate and what does well where you live.
My current favorites include lavender – which makes for a pretty addition to the landscape and is both fragrant and medicinal. I also use rosemary as a hedge. In addition to being great in savory dishes, I regularly add a sprig or two to my water. Another plant I never thought about growing until now is stevia, which is currently in my garden. Most people are used to seeing the processed version, however, its leaves can be added to brewed tea for natural sweetness. It’s a hardy plant and comes back year-after-year. Hibiscus also makes for a beautiful garden addition and a delightful tea as well.
At the end of the day – grow what you want to eat and what you enjoy looking at!
Throughout the year I will rotate mint, basil, oregano, thyme, onions, and other medicinal botanicals through my garden. There are no rules – just have fun getting your hands a little dirty!
JoAnn Yanez, ND, MPH, CAE
JoAnn Yanez, ND, MPH, CAE is the Executive Director of the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges and the chair of the Academic Collaborative for Integrative Health (ACIH).
Lemon balm is relaxing and antiviral too
Anyone who is a gardener can tell you how enjoyable it is. The benefits of gardening are recognized in research, where it was found the health benefits of gardening include reductions in depression and anxiety, stress, mood disturbance, and BMI, as well as increases in quality of life, sense of community, physical activity levels, and cognitive function. Gardening has been life-changing for me since growing herbs brought me closer to naturopathic medicine, and I hope students can have a similar experience.
By far the most popular herb in the National University of Health Sciences (NUHS) herb garden is Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis). Lemon balm has many medicinal uses. The best thing about growing it is being able to smell it every day. It’s very popular as a calming, relaxing nevine to reduce stress and anxiety; and it’s been said to bring joy to the heart. It is a carminative, and effective at reducing digestive complaints (especially if stress related). Lemon balm can also be used in infections as an antiviral, especially against the Herpes virus.
Due to the aromatic volatile oils, it is best used fresh. The fresh leaves can be used in teas (I make extra to give my dog on hot summer days) – tinctures and in food. It is available as dried herb capsules, although it is more commonly added to combination formulas. Over the last few years, my favorite way to use Lemon Balm is in sun-infused water with strawberries.
Lemon balm is a perennial that can be grown in containers, but when planted in the ground it becomes a mound of delightful aromatic leaves. In our NUHS herb garden it is the first perennial to come back from our harsh winters, and except for pruning, needs very little support. If you plant it, you will enjoy it!
Lorinda Sorensen, ND, MSAc
Lorinda Sorenson, ND MSAc is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Sciences at the National University of Health Sciences and founding board member for the Endocrinology Association of Naturopathic Physicians.
Cilantro is antifungal and also a powerful antioxidant
Herbs not only add a pretty garnish to a plate but incredible flavor, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Cilantro, Chinese parsley, and coriander come from the leaves of Coriandrum sativum, it can be often found growing in my raised beds and potted plants when I am traveling. My love for this organic herbaceous goodness came from learning to mix the ground seed in Indian cooking with my Maasi/Auntie in India and sprinkling the fresh herb on top of prepared meals.
Toxic metals such as mercury and lead have no beneficial role in human health and often contribute to chronic illness and disease. Cilantro has gained popularity as an herb to help mobilize mercury and lead levels out of tissues.
Cilantro also has been shown to have antifungal properties and high amounts of carotenoids an antioxidant.
Cilantro can be polarizing—many people are obsessed with it while others claim that it tastes like soap, this is likely caused by a single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) associated with the soapy-taste.
My favorite preparation of cilantro has to be chopped finely and mixed into guacamole or blended in a vegan cashew green goddess dressing.
In the garden, I also love growing other culinary herbs, medicinal herbs like yarrow, sage, chamomile, calendula, and edible flowers like— hibiscus, pansies, nasturtiums, and violets as they add a pops of color to meals and many antioxidants!
Erin Rhae Biller, ND
Dr. Biller is the first naturopathic doctor in the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine (AIHM) fellowship program. She practices in California, Arizona, and telehealth globally through video conferencing.
 Soga M, Gaston KJ, Yamaura Y. Gardening is beneficial for health: Ameta-analysis. Prev Med Rep. 2016 Nov 14;5:92-99. eCollection 2017 Mar. Review.PubMed PMID: 27981022; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC5153451.