Kitchen Medicine - Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme

In the summer months, my time is filled with the wild plants growing outside; fresh green nettles, fragrant wild roses, sweet purple bee balm. I'm busy gathering these wonderful wild beings and turning them into medicine - drying them, tincturing them, and making sun-brewed oils to use in my creams and serums. It's a time of lush greens, warm sun, and the humming of bees.

As the days grow shorter, the wild herbs of summer begin to fade. Their energy returns to their roots in preparation for the long cold months ahead. I too think of fall as a root-time for myself, a time to be still and look inward. I take in the last rays of the warm autumn sun and try to store up that energy for the coming season of snow.

It's also a time when I begin to pay more attention to the awesome little plants who hang out with me in the kitchen.

Rosemary, sage, basil, parlsey and thyme...most people probably use these on a regular basis, especially as many of us find a renewed interest in preparing hearty, savory meals with the return of the cold weather. These wonderful aromatic herbs definitely add lovely flavor to our favorite dishes. But, they aren't simply seasonings, and their value shouldn't be underestimated - these little guys contain powerful medicine. All of them are wonderful digestive aids (makes sense, right?), and have unique qualities that make them valuable allies.

 

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)

  • Indications: digestive, diuretic (kidney stones, bladder and urinary tract infections), antioxidant
  • Usage: tea, tincture

Primarily, when I think of the medicinal use of parsley, I think of it's diuretic action. What does that mean? I'm gonna be straight with you: it flushes you out and makes you pee a lot. That doesn't sound great, but it's just what you want when you're fighting off a urinary tract or bladder infection. Parsley can also help to break up kidney stones and make them easier to pass. Of course, this action is only noticeable when taking medicinal quantities (such as drinking a tea of the root or leaf). Adding some parsley to your meal as a garnish will most likely not produce these strong effects.

Like the other culinary herbs, parsley is an excellent digestive aid. It increases appetite, improves bad breath, relieves constipation, and eases bloating.

Parsley is also a bit of a superfood (I'm not really a fan of that term, but, yeah...). It contains high amounts of antioxidants, folate, and vitamin K1. This means, essentially, that Parsley benefits the heart/arteries and combats inflammation in the body. So, it's not a bad idea to add a bit more to your diet!

Sage (Salvia officinalis)

  • Indications: digestive, runny nose and cough, sore throat, memory tonic
  • Usage: tea, tincture, infused honey

More or less the poster child of Thanksgiving and Christmas seasonings, sage pops up frequently in side dishes and is often used to flavor mains featuring meat (there are probably 100 trillion turkey recipes with sage as a prime ingredient out there). Like rosemary, sage is an excellent herb for the stomach - its slightly bitter flavor stimulates the digestion and helps with the breakdown and assimilation of fats, easing gas pains and stomach aches.

Astringent and slightly warming, sage is an excellent remedy to reach for when you have a head cold; it can help to dry up excess moisture in the system by tightening lax tissues, and will soothe a scratchy sore throat. According to Gerard, it's a great way to dry up a runny nose: "and being put up into the nostrils, it draweth thin flegme out of the head".  He almost certainly meant inhaling an herbal steam of the plant, but I choose to picture actual whole sage leaves. I mean, that could work. Although I'm sure your friends and colleagues would greatly enjoy the sight of sage leaves protruding from your nose, I'm going to go ahead and say that the best way to take it for a cold is as a nice warm tea with lemon and honey.

In the past decade or so, science has begun to back-up what herbalists have been saying for centuries about sage: it's is excellent for improving memory and cognitive function. In fact, many clinical trials have shown that sage extract improved the recall of participants. It is therefore a viable candidate for the potential treatment of Alzheimer's and other memory disorders.

Note: because if it's drying effects, sage is not recommended for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding. In fact, sage is often used by mothers who are ready to stop nursing, as it will dry up breast milk.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

  • Indications: circulation, digestive, antimicrobial (colds and flus), memory tonic
  • Usage: tea, tincture, infused honey

It groweth neither in the fields nor gardens of the Easterne cold countries; but it is carefully and curiously kept in pots, set into the stoves and cellars, against the injuries of their cold Winters. - Gerard

Well, yep. That does about sum it up, Gerard. A native of the warm sandy Mediterranean, Rosemary doesn't particularly appreciate the cold climate we have here in the northeast. It loves to stretch its arms out into the sun and drink in all that heat and light. It's name, Rosmarinus, means "dew of the sea". I let mine flourish in the garden during the summer and bring it in when the nighttime temperatures start to dip below 40 degrees in the autumn. Despite putting it in the sunniest windowsill, it barely hangs on until the next spring. Growing it can be tricky indeed, but it's well worth it for what this herb has to give.

A very warming, drying herb, rosemary tends to be best for people with cold constitutions. It improves circulation, helping to warm up cold hands and feet and keeping the arteries and heart healthy.

Rosemary is well regarded as a memory tonic. Especially for older people, it's a wonderful way to stay sharp. I have noticed that it does seem to help dissolve brain fog - it's a great pick-me-up halfway through the afternoon, when many of us are sitting at our desks, staring into space and starting to drift (or is that just me, maybe?).

Rosemary is also strongly antimicrobial. It's a wonderful herb to drink as a tea when you feel a cold coming on, or when your sinuses feel a bit irritated and stuffy; it's great at relieving congestion and helping to clear the head and lungs.

When you think of cooking with rosemary, what is it usually paired with? Meats and other heavy foods. Rosemary is excellent at aiding the digestion - it supports the liver and gallbladder, thereby helping in the breakdown of fats. It can also sooth an upset stomach.

Herbalist Juliette de Bairacli Levy loved this herb most of all and used it as an almost universal cure-all. She writes that the best way to take rosemary is as a tea sweetened with honey. It really does make a delicious tea - just steep the leaves from a couple of sprigs in just-boiled water for about 5 minutes (making sure to keep the mug covered, as you want to keep those volatile oils in there), then strain and enjoy. A small cup daily could go a very long way in keeping your mind sharp and your body well.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

  • Indications: digestive, antibacterial, antifungal, bronchitis/choughs
  • Usage: tea, tincture, infused honey

One of my happiest memories from this past summer was climbing up the side of a hill to watch the sunset and discovering that I was surrounded by wild thyme. It crept all around the rocks I was sitting on and spread in dense clumps on the ground. As the sun went down, I gathered some of that beautiful wild thyme and tied it into little bundles. Its spicy, intense scent rose up and surrounded me, and I felt tremendous gratitude for this hearty little plant.

Medicinally, thyme is perhaps best known for its antibacterial and antifungal effects. It's a trusted remedy for infections, colds and flus, acute lung problems like bronchitis, and particularly nasty, rib-cracking coughs. Because of it's antiseptic properties, it's often used as a wash for cuts and included in herbal salves and liniments (in fact, a strong brew of thyme also makes a fantastic all-natural cleaning spray for wiping down kitchen counters).

Thyme is also wonderful for keeping your stomach healthy, allaying bloating and general stagnation in the digestive tract.

Note: while it's perfectly safe to use thyme as a seasoning in cooking, taking it in medicinal amounts while pregnant or breastfeeding is not recommended.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum)

  • Indications: digestive, immune support (colds and flus), mood booster, calmative
  • Usage: tea, tincture

Think back to the last time you smelled fresh basil (or, if you have some around, go and visit it). Did it make you feel relaxed, maybe even cheer you up a bit? I find the scent of basil alone is incredibly calming, centering and uplifting.

A stately plant with shiny oval leaves, basil is indeed wonderful for calming nervous conditions like anxiety, mild depression, and insomnia. It works by stimulating and then relaxing the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems (i.e. it chills you out, man).

For a cold or flu, a nice sweet basil tea is sometimes just the thing. The volatile oils that give basil its strong scent are also helpful in relieving fevers by helping to open the pores of the skin in order to sweat out heat and remove toxins from the body. It's also excellent for the digestive system and helps to clear the lungs.

So go ahead and indulge in some pesto: it could help you unwind, feel better, and get a good night's sleep, too!

References:

  • Woodward, Marcus. Leaves from Gerard's Herball; arranged for garden lovers by Marcus Woodward.
  • Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants.
  • Tierra, Michael. The Way of Herbs.
  • Gladstar, Rosemary. Rosemary Gladstar's Medicinal Herbs: A Beginners Guide.
  • de la Foret, Roselee. Alchemy of Herbs.
  • de Bairacli Levy, Juliette. Common Herbs for Natural Health.