Knowing how to heal yourself and your family members with plants that grow around your home is an invaluable skill to have. This is especially true in rural locations where medical care is scarce or in emergencies.
In this article, we’re specifically going to look at the importance of knowing basic herbalism from a homesteading perspective.
What is Herbalism?
In simplest terms, herbalism is a traditional medicine practice in which plants are used to treat a wide variety of health issues and conditions.
Practitioners use various plant parts (e.g., roots, bark, leaves, flowers, seeds, and fruits) to create medicines. These are used internally or topically in different applications, such as infusions, decoctions, tinctures, extracts, salves, poultices, etc.
When it comes to self-sufficiency, knowing which locally available plants can be used to heal is essential—especially if one doesn’t have easy access to quick medical treatment.
Those living in rural or hard-to-reach places may have limited medical services. Additionally, doctors and medications may be scarce in times of upheaval or crisis.
As such, it’s an excellent idea to familiarize oneself with indigenous healing plants and the healing properties of species cultivated in one’s garden.
Many people don’t realize that a number of the herbs they grow can be used medicinally or that the “weeds” they pull from beds may be invaluable for healing many health issues.
People have been using plants as medicine for thousands of years, and up until recently, they were the only source of healing for most people worldwide.
Although the oldest documented evidence of herbal medicine practices dates to ancient Sumeria approximately 5,000 years ago, that’s just the oldest writings that we have on the subject.
We have evidence that people have been treating ailments with herbalism for significantly longer.
For instance, the Shanidar cave burial in Kurdistan is estimated to be 70,000 years old, and the Neanderthal people buried there had yarrow, chamomile, and other medicinal herbs buried alongside them as grave goods.
Knowing which local plants can be used medicinally is as vital as knowing which are edible. Medicine is as essential as food in survival situations, and the plants around you could potentially save a life someday if appropriately used.
We could easily offer a thousand articles on the foundations of herbalism, but since we need to keep this fairly short, we’ll stick to the absolute basics—in particular, foundational herbalism for homesteaders and gardeners.
There are health issues that plague all of us, as well as issues that are more common with those who aim for self-sufficiency.
While anyone can cut themselves while cooking, homesteaders are also likely to get cut by outdoor tools (which often cause infection). Similarly, we’re prone to injuries from manual labor, respiratory congestion, contact dermatitis, and animal or insect bites.
As such, the herbs we cherish as medicine have a variety of different actions, including (but certainly not limited to):
- Styptics: Help to coagulate bleeding and thus lessen or stop blood flow, internally or externally.
- Analgesics: Pain relievers.
- Febrifuges: Fever reducers.
- Astringents: Astringents are used topically for issues like fluid-filled insect bites.
- Antibiotics: Contain antimicrobial compounds that can kill or inhibit bacterial growth, thus treating or preventing infections.
- Expectorants: These assist with loosening phlegm and mucus so it can be expelled from the body.
- Vulneraries: Help to soothe wounds and promote healing.
- Nervines: Support healthy nervous system function via relaxation or stimulation.
- Sedatives: Herbs that can relax you enough to help you sleep.
Considering the conditions many homesteaders deal with regularly, knowing how to treat various issues with local and home-cultivated plants can make a massive difference to the family’s health and well-being.
Choosing Which Herbs to Keep on Hand
When it comes to determining which herbs are essential to keep on hand, just about every herbalist will have their own recommendations for a top 10 or 20 list.
As far as herbalism for homesteaders goes, one of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was to work with as many locally available plants as possible. This way, you always have remedies within reach rather than wishing you had imported that special plant for such an occasion.
As discussed in the foundations section above, it’s vital to know the healing plants that grow in your area. Indigenous peoples have used these for thousands of years and they can be collected quickly and easily when needed, or to stock your herbal apothecary cabinet in advance.
For example, I live in Quebec’s sub-boreal Laurentian mountains and often use yarrow (Achillea millefolium) as a styptic herb. In contrast, when I lived in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, we used California buckeye (Aesculus californica) bark instead.
As such, when building your own herbal medicine chests, ensure that the vast majority of the plants you use either grow nearby naturally or are cultivated in your gardens.
Below is a list of some well-loved plants in herbalism for various homestead-related illnesses and injuries. Their availability in the wild will of course depend entirely on your location, but the guide below is a good one to get you started. Some of these may grow around your home, while others are easily cultivated.
Best Species for Infections (Antibiotics)
Whether dealing with an inflamed cut or a sore throat, these plants can help fend off or even destroy the pathogens that cause infection.
Usnea (Usnea barbata) is an all-purpose plant. It’s a fruticose lichen species that contains usnic and barbatic acid, which have been proven to inhibit bacterial, fungal, and viral growth, including candida, E-coli, and staph infections.
It looks nearly identical to Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) and grows across the globe.
Bee balm (Monarda didyma, M. fistulosa) isn’t just a pretty face. These plants contain the antimicrobial compounds thymol and carvacrol, and can be used internally or topically to treat or prevent infections.
Learn about growing bee balm in our guide.
When infused into olive oil, mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is ideal for ear infections. This plant is native to Europe and Asia, but it has naturalized across North America.
When it comes to multi-purpose plants, garlic (Allium sativum) tops the list.
The allicin that garlic contains has antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal properties. It’s been used to treat infections of the skin/wounds, respiratory system, and digestive tract for thousands of years.
Our guide to growing garlic has what you need to know.
The same oregano (Origanum vulgare) that you add to pasta sauce has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that can fend off and help heal bacterial, fungal, and parasitic issues.
It can be used to treat throat and chest infections, Staph infections, candida, and more.
Sage (Salvia spp.) contains thujone, camphor, and cineole components, which are highly antimicrobial and thus effective in treating mouth and throat infections. Both wild and cultivated sage are effective.
Our guide to growing sage will help you get started if you’d like to grow your own.
Species to Control Bleeding (Styptics)
A bad cut isn’t just painful or uncomfortable: blood loss can affect our health on numerous levels, and an open, bleeding cut can invite infection.
Yarrow’s (Achillea millefolium) hemostatic and astringent compounds help it to stop bleeding by constricting blood vessels and reducing blood flow, while its flavonoids assist with the clotting process. I’ve even seen injured deer roll themselves in yarrow patches to ease bleeding!
(Capsella bursa-pastoris): This plant, with its little heart-shaped leaves, also contains clotting flavonoids, but also contains tyramine: a vasoconstrictor that narrows blood vessels to reduce bleeding.
Witch hazel (Hamamelis sp.) has been an important part of the herbalists toolkit for a long time. Witch hazel’s high tannin levels tighten and constrict blood vessels, thus staunching bleeding.
Red Raspberry Leaf
(Rubus idaeus): Also has high tannin levels, and thus constricts blood vessels to lessen blood loss.
These herbs are also effective in alleviating heavy menstrual bleeding (menorrhagia), as well as blood loss after childbirth or miscarriage.
Species for Musculoskeletal Injuries
Considering how often we get banged up on the homestead, knowing basic herbalism can go a long way to alleviate pain and inflammation from sprains, strains, bumps, bruises, dislocations, and fractures.
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale): Not only does comfrey have analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects, but it also contains allantoin, which stimulates cell proliferation to promote new tissue growth.
It can speed both wound and bone healing, but it has to be used carefully! Topical comfrey use can heal wounds more quickly than underlying infections, which can lead to more serious illness.
Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.) is indigenous to Southwestern North America, Mexico, and South America, and has been used by indigenous peoples as food and medicine for millennia.
The cactus pads’ internal gel is excellent for easing pain and inflammation from bumps, bruises, and even insect and animal bites.
Arnica (Arnica Montana) is ideal for alleviating pain and swelling from muscle aches, tendonitis, and joint pain from conditions like repetitive strain injury (RSI).
Species to Treat Respiratory Issues (Expectorants)
Working outside in all seasons can cause several different respiratory issues, ranging from allergies and upper respiratory infections to bronchitis and pneumonia.
Onions (Allium cepa) aren’t just a key component of many delicious meals. Those tasty bulbs you grow in your garden have been used for centuries to treat coughs and sore throats, especially in syrup form.
There’s science to back its use up, too, as a recent study published in the journal Nutrients shows.
If you make a tea (infusion) from them, strain it well to remove the little leaf hairs. They also have demulcent (moistening) properties, which are invaluable for throats that are raw and sore from hacking coughs.
Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus, E. radiata): If you live in Australia or are gardening in a warm area, you’re lucky enough to have access to Eucalyptus trees.
Their leaves have antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic properties and are ideal for treating coughs and alleviating congestion, as a study in the journal Inflammopharmacology showed.
If you don’t have access to trees, keep some eucalyptus essential oil in the house to add to chest salves or poultices.
Studies show something that people have known for centuries. Marshmallow’s (Althaea officinalis) mucilaginous properties can alleviate dry, hacking coughs, and loosen up lung congestion.
Pleurisy root (Asclepias tuberosa), also known as “butterfly weed,” grows extensively all over North America. The roots have been used to treat lung issues such as bronchitis, asthma, flu, and pneumonia for centuries.
Thyme: (Thymus vulgaris) is an important part of the herbalist toolkit. Yes, that standard garden thyme you can use to season potatoes or chicken is also invaluable for respiratory issues.
Its expectorant properties loosen mucus and phlegm so they can be expelled from the lungs, while easing coughs and constricted breathing.
Species for Skin Issues (Astringents and Vulneraries)
From insect bites to frostbite, homesteaders are prone to many skin issues and inflammations.
Rose (Rosa spp): Rose species all have anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antioxidant properties that can ease a wide variety of skin issues.
Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), also known as spotted touch-me-not, is more than a pretty face. This plant’s stems and leaves contain a gel that neutralizes inflammation from poison ivy as well as contact dermatitis from other plant exposure.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) is a sunny little plant that has effective antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that speed healing while preventing infections. It’s as good for sunburns and scrapes as it is for frostbite.
Aloe (Aloe vera) is one of the most invaluable plants around for treating burns and skin irritation. It can also be used to treat mouth issues and taken internally to relieve constipation.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is a wonderfully fragrant plant ally with excellent antimicrobial and antifungal effects in addition to the actions mentioned earlier and can thus be used for athlete’s foot, candida/thrush, and acne.
Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) is often overlooked as an annoying weed. You may have this friendly plant growing all over your lawn and never realized how healing it is.
It has antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and wound-healing properties that make it ideal for treating cuts, burns, bruises, insect bites, and rashes.
Olive leaf (Olea europaea) contains oleuropein and hydroxytyrosol, which exhibit strong antiviral activity and help inhibit varicella-zoster virus (VZV) replication and is thus used for treating chicken pox, shingles, and cold sores.
Witch hazel’s (Hamamelis virginiana) astringent properties are perfect for easing psoriasis and weeping eczema, and its anti-inflammatory effects ease the swelling of various cuts and bruises.
Species for Stomach Distress
Belly issues can strike at any time and can be debilitating around the homestead. The last thing you need when the animals need feeding, and the crops need watering is to be laid low by vomiting and diarrhea.
Peppermint (Mentha × piperita) has antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory effects that ease gas, bloating, cramping, nausea, and various IBS symptoms. That’s why your mom probably offered you peppermint tea when you weren’t feeling well.
Peppermint tea is particularly good for rehydrating people after the stomach flu or food poisoning. It can also be used to treat rabbits dealing with gas or GI slowdowns.
Peach (Prunus persica) trees offer more than just juicy fruit. The flowers, leaves, and bark have cooling, soothing effects that are ideal for “hot” digestive issues like heartburn, acid reflux, and diarrhea.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) has noted anti-inflammatory effects, and can significantly alleviate nausea, vomiting, gas, bloating, and gastritis.
Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum): This licorice-flavored member of the mint family has antimicrobial effects, which can combat infections and increase gut health. It’s also antispasmodic (eases cramping) and carminative (alleviates gas).
Species to Treat Fever and Heatstroke (Febrifuges)
Although these issues have different causes, the goal in treating them is to bring down the body’s core temperature if and when it rises dangerously.
In addition to being one of the world’s best styptics, yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is also invaluable for reducing fevers.
Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) is also called “tulsi” and is used in Ayurvedic medicine as an antipyretic (fever reliever) and adaptogen.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), chrysanthemum flowers (Chrysanthemum morifolium) are brewed into a tea to eliminate excess heat from the body, thus alleviating fevers, heat stroke, and hot flashes.
Sage (Salvia spp.) can have heating or cooling effects, depending on its preparation. A cup of cool sage tea can cool down fevers associated with heavy sweating, while a cup of hot tea can induce sweating, thus “breaking” a dry fever.
Species for Stress and Trauma (Nervines and Sedatives)
Homesteading is not for the fainthearted. Many situations on the homestead can cause immense stress (such as crop failures, inclement weather, financial issues, etc.) as well as trauma.
While many homesteaders brace their emotions to slaughter their own poultry, for example, that’s very different from discovering that coyotes have massacred several lambs overnight. As such, calming nervine herbs are essential herbalism allies to keep on hand.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is one of the most effective anxiolytic (anxiety-relieving) herbs around; this plant can also lessen trauma and encourage restful sleep.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) alleviates anxiety and depression and can relax a person who’s dealing with frayed nerves. Visit our guide to learn about growing lemon balm in your garden.
The root of valerian (Valeriana officinalis) has been used as an effective sedative for centuries. It’s ideal for insomnia and for alleviating anxiety.
You’ve likely already had chamomile tea (Matricaria chamomilla) to soothe frayed nerves, as this wonderful little friend is magnificent for calming stress and upset, and is as safe for children as it is for adults.
Additionally, chamomile can also have a soothing effect on many animal companions, but be sure to consult with your veterinarian before offering them any.
Head on over to our guide on growing chamomile if you’d like more details on this useful herb.
St. John’s Wort
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) eases anxiety and depression, including premenstrual or perimenopausal emotional upheaval.
Peach (Prunus persica) is a beloved, cooling, soothing plant that eases the stress from emotional stress and burnout, and is a gentle relaxant and sedative.
Species for Physical Pain (Analgesics)
Pain is one of the main issues homesteaders face for many reasons. Sprains and strains, broken bones, cuts, and burns are as common as cramps, headaches, and arthritis. As such, herbs that can alleviate pain and discomfort are vital for any home herbalism cabinet.
Certain willow species (Salix alba, S. fragila, and S. nigra in particular) have analgesic salicin in their bark and inner cambium. In fact, willow bark was the precursor to modern aspirin.
Learn all about growing willow trees in our guide. Then, visit our guide to learn how to make homemade aspirin.
Wild or bitter lettuce (Lactuca virosa) is a biennial plant that contains lactucin and lactucopicrin, which have analgesic, sedative, and nervine properties. It’s been used to treat headaches, muscle pains, and more for thousands of years.
It grows wild in parts of Europe, the British Isles, and North America.
California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is both pretty and powerful.
This flowering plant is native to western North America and contains the analgesic alkaloids californidine and eschscholzine. Unlike opium poppies, these plants are legal to grow everywhere.
They’re also incredibly easy to raise and grow as a wildflower in many areas.
Ghost pipe (Monotropa uniflora) has analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects and modulates people’s pain perception and transmission.
Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) has long been considered an invaluable plant for multiple reasons. It’s edible, beautiful, can be used to make supplies, and has medicinal properties. You’ll notice it has appeared several times on this list.
The roots of this plant are used to alleviate nerve pain, particularly around the head, jaw, and neck. It’s ideal for TMJ, Bell’s palsy, neuralgia, and pain caused by tooth movement in childhood and middle age.
A study published in the journal Biology by Spanish researchers confirmed mullein’s anti-inflammatory properties.
Paracress (Spilanthes spp.) may not be native to your area unless you live in Brazil or Peru, but it’s invaluable for the homestead. Its cooling, numbing effect is ideal for toothaches—hence its colloquial monicker “toothache plant.”
Its antimicrobial and analgesic effects can also help ease the pain and inflammation from food poisoning. Additionally, it can be used as a mild topical anesthetic and analgesic to alleviate pain from arthritis or to numb an area that needs medical treatment such as injections or stitches.
Start Your Journey
If you’re seriously interested in herbalism, the best thing you can do is take a course in the subject. Herbalism is a life-long study, and there’s a lot to know as far as combinations, contraindications, and various treatments go.
I’ve been studying herbal medicine for nearly 30 years and still have an extraordinary amount to learn. As such, aim for the highest quality herbal education that you can afford. Some of the best online herbalism courses available are:
- The Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine
- Herbal Academy
- Dominion Herbal College
- Southwest Institute of Healing Arts
- Wild Rose College
- University of Natural Health
Additionally, aim to amass your own herbal medicine library of printed books that cover diagnostics, herbal actions, and treatments. While e-books are great, they may not be accessible if you’re off-grid or the power fails.
Note that your library should always include plant identification guides for your region, as there are a lot of lookalikes that could be potentially harmful.
Concerning plant cultivation, remember that if you cultivate any mint (Lamiaceae) species, grow them in containers rather than in the ground. They’re incredibly invasive and will take over the entire garden if you aren’t careful.
A general herbalism rule is if the plant has a square stem, meaning it is likely part of the Lamiaceae family, grow in a pot.
Be aware that everything in this article is meant for educational purposes, and your health and well-being are your responsibility.
Never use an herbal remedy unless you’re absolutely certain you’ve identified the plant correctly and you know you aren’t going to have an adverse reaction to it.
Many plant-based medicines can contraindicate with pharmaceuticals, and people with various allergies or sensitivities can also react badly to some components. Talk to your primary healthcare provider if you have any questions, and consult with a trained herbalist or naturopath for additional advice and guidance.
When in doubt, or if you’re seriously ill or injured, please seek professional medical attention accordingly.
Green, James. The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual. Berkeley, Calif: Crossing Press, 2000.
Brill, Steve. Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
Gladstar, Rosemary. Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2012.
Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal, Volumes I and II: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books, 2008.
de la Forêt, Rosalee. Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients into Foods and Remedies That Heal. Hay House, 2017.
Reader’s Digest. North American Folk Healing. Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest Association, 1996