Healing Herbs with Nature's Remedies


We're looking to the herb garden this winter for simple, natural ways to stay healthy during cold and flu season. To learn more about the healing properties of familiar herbs, we caught up with author and expert Jean Willoughby of Nature's Remedies. In this brand-new book, she shares fascinating facts about dozens of healing herbs, alongside vibrant illustrations from artist Katie Shelly. We chatted with Jean about herbal remedies of all kinds, from lemon balm for stress to plantain for pain relief. Read on for our interview and a closer look at four favorite herbs, below. 

terrain: How did you become interested in healing herbs?

Jean: I’ve worked on farms and with farmers for the past six years, but I was interested in plants before that, too. I moved from New York to North Carolina, which is a center for agricultural education. My intention was to get a degree in sustainable agriculture, but I ended up meeting people who were working on farms and starting small businesses. I applied for a job at Rural Advancement Foundation International, where I managed a grant program for farmers for a few years and now serve as their Communications Manager. So really, my interest in healing herbs came from an overall interest in plants. 

I'm also interested in the idea of food as medicine. For a lot of people, understanding that diet and nutrition play a crucial role in our health is the entry point to herbal medicine. Food is some of the best medicine we have, and herbs are especially rich in nutrients, minerals, and medicinal compounds. The dense dose of minerals and vitamins in herbs helps to reverse the effects of less healthy things we eat, like caffeine, sugar, and alcohol. 

terrain: For those just starting out, what are some good sources for finding quality herbs and botanicals?

Jean: Right now, it can be tough to find locally-grown herbs; they're actually an important set of potential crops for farmers! Many farmers in the U.S. don’t focus on herbs, so they’re being imported. Even for me, a community-based herbalist, it’s hard to find local herbs. I hope more farmers start growing herbs as part of their crop rotations. Since many are flowering plants, they’re also great for bees and other pollinators. That was an ulterior motive for me in writing this book – if people become interested in herbs, farmers will grow more to meet that demand!

Since most herbs are so strong and savory, a little goes a long way. That also makes them perfect for growing in your own backyard, or even in a container garden. They’re a great starting point for people looking to green up their lives. Small is beautiful when it comes to herb gardens! If you’re not a green thumb, one of my favorite sources for organic herbs is Frontier Natural Products Co-op; the quality is excellent and I’ve never gotten a bad batch. 

terrain: What are some of your favorite ways to prepare herbal remedies?

Jean: Tea is the most relied-upon method for herbalists, because it’s so versatile and easy. Teas and tinctures take very little prep, and can be enjoyed every day. You can also incorporate herbs into salves and creams for skincare. I recommend mixing herbs into your daily cooking, too! I pick herbs from my garden every morning and use them fresh – cilantro with eggs in the morning, nettles mixed into a pesto, etc.

terrain: What are some herbs with immune-boosting properties for cold and flu season?

Jean: There are two sides to this answer: you can boost your immune system, or take a protective approach. If you’re already sick, you don’t want to overstimulate your immune system. It has been doing its job your whole life, so you want to work with it! 

Two well-known herbs for immune stimulation are echinacea and elderberry. You can start to consume them when the weather turns chilly, but should discontinue if you feel a cold coming. If you’re under the weather, protective plants like ginger, peppermint, and nettle are good choices. Ginger has been found to contain compounds that combat rhinoviruses, which are linked to the common cold. There are so many anti-viral compounds in plants! For a cold, any combination of mint and nettle is also great – some people don’t love the taste of nettle, so peppermint helps to conceal it. 

terrain: Can you tell us about each of the herbs we’re featuring in the illustration above? 

A. Peppermint: This is one of my favorite herbs ever! People say I’m addicted to peppermint. It contains strong, cooling menthol and has anti-microbial properties, so it’s good for getting over colds and infections. Peppermint is also soothing for digestion. It helps to calm the movement of the digestive system, so it can be great to enjoy after heavier winter meals. 

B. Lavender: Lots of people love lavender for relaxation; it helps to relieve irritability, nervousness, and insomnia. Before bed, it’s nice to have something calming; your mind can be starting on tomorrow already.  I like to rub lavender-infused oil on my hands at night, then cup my hands over my nose and inhale before sleep. As a bonus, the oil is perfect for soothing dry or chapped winter skin. Lavender is a fascinating plant, and has been used for thousands of years. It even appears in ancient Egyptian and Sumerian prescriptions. A huge part of my interest in herbs comes from their roots as the earliest form of medicine, so I tried to incorporate that cultural history into Nature's Remedies. I love feeling grounded in the long, winding trail of human history by knowing that people have been using these remedies for thousands of years – the tradition connects us across time and culture.

C. White Willow Bark: This is the least familiar of the four herbs featured here, but it should be the most familiar! White willow bark contains a compound that is the precursor to aspirin. Willow bark was used for its anti-inflammatory properties in ancient Greece; it’s mentioned in writings by students of Hippocrates. When modern organic chemistry began to develop in eighteenth-century Europe, we became able to isolate and synthesize certain compounds. Chemists isolated salicylic acid, an anti-inflammatory compound in willow bark, and used it to synthesize aspirin. If you use natural willow bark, your digestive system can metabolize salicin from the bark into the acid. Essentially, white willow bark is like taking a baby aspirin. It's gentler on the stomach and can be used as a tincture to help relieve chronic pain, arthritis, low-level inflammation, or fever. It's a very safe remedy, and it's really interesting to see the overlap of ancient medicine and modern science.

D. Elderberry: I often make jam with elderberries, since they grow wild in the South in abundance. These berries are packed with nutrients, including Vitamins A, B, and C. As I mentioned before, elderberry is a great immune stimulant to take during cold and flu season when you’re feeling healthy and want to stay that way. It’s also delicious as a juice!

Illustrations by Katie Shelly for Chronicle Books.

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