What can you do with herbs aside from garnishing your meals? Plenty! Read on to find out 10 surprising ways to use common herbs.
Herbs have a rich history of use as disinfectants and natural beauty treatments. In 19th-century Europe, pungent lemon balm was strewn over floors to freshen rooms. Ancient Egyptians used herbs and essential oils to soften and perfume their skin. Today, herbs are just as eco-friendly, economical, and effective.
Herbs as household helpers
“Most people enjoy the relaxing effect of a cup of herbal tea, but the same infusion can perform double duty as a surface-cleaning spray,” says Karyn Maier, author of The Naturally Clean Home: 150 Super-Easy Herbal Formulas for Green Cleaning (Storey Publishing, LLC, 2008).
“Certain herbs, such as lavender and sage, can go straight from the kitchen cabinet to a bowl of baking soda destined to become a soft scrubber when mixed with water,” she advises.
For a simple all-purpose cleaner, Maier recommends filling a large spray bottle with the following ingredients:
- 1 capful of liquid castile soap
- 15 to 20 drops of herbal essential oil, such as basil, rosemary, lavender, or sage
Katolen Yardley, medical herbalist and owner of Alchemy & Elixir Health Group, suggests growing fragrant herbs such as rosemary, comfrey, and mint to ward off mice as well as insects.
“These are aromatic plants … and the smell is what repels a lot of insects,” she explains. “If it’s not possible to grow the actual herbs, crush up dried herbs with a mortar and pestle. Lavender powder, for example, could be sprinkled onto a pet’s bedding to help repel fleas.”
For a mixture that’s anathema to clothes-loving moths, combine equal parts camphor basil, lavender, and rosemary in a small cheesecloth bag and place in closets. Yardley also lauds lavender as a moth repellent. “Growing lavender in a flower pot … or even putting [bundles of lavender leaves] in clothing will help to protect them from moths,” she says.
Clear the air
Conventional air fresheners can be chemical minefields. A test conducted by the Environmental Working Group found that scented products contain an average of 14 secret chemicals. For those seeking a more sensible air freshener, Maier recommends a DIY option with only three ingredients. Plus, it can double as a deodorant or body spray.
“To make [your own herbal air freshener], fill a small spray bottle with organic witch hazel and eight to 12 drops of your favourite essential oils,” she says. If you’re not sure which essential oils to choose, try one of Maier’s suggested combinations:
- lavender and peppermint
- sweet orange and vanilla
- vetiver and bitter orange
Calendula, or pot marigold, is known for its use in soaps; however, this plant’s sunny hue also makes it a natural choice for eco-friendly dye projects. Beyond crafts, calendula can be added to the food of ornamental koi and other vibrantly coloured fish to brighten their scales.
Herbs as beauty boosters
Natural shampoos with antifungal ingredients such as sage, rosemary, and thyme may combat the flaking and scaling of dandruff. Yardley notes that herbal rinses can also promote healthier, more lustrous locks.
“Nettle, rosemary, and horsetail prepared as a tea and then used as a hair rinse are really good for strengthening the hair and making it shinier,” she says.
Herbs such as thyme have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that make them valuable tools in our acne-fighting arsenal. Yardley adds that applying essential oils such as lavender, rosemary, or tea tree to the skin may help banish blemishes. Before applying essential oils, always dilute them with a carrier oil such as grapeseed.
To balance oily or acne-prone skin, she recommends the following herb-infused facial steam.
- Add fresh or dried herbs, such as lavender or rosemary, to a bowl of boiling water.
- Cover the bowl and allow herbs to steep for a few minutes.
- Put your face under a towel, lean over the bowl, and allow the steam to seep into your pores.
- Finish by applying cold water to the skin to close pores.
According to Yardley, marigold’s merits include antibacterial properties. Topical creams or poultices that incorporate this herb can help treat skin ailments ranging from dry, cracked feet to mild inflammation.
“Marigold helps to stimulate epithelial cell turnover and wound healing,” says Yardley. “It’s fantastic for burns and for preventing infections.”
Rather than reaching for gum after garlicky meals, consider chewing a few sprigs of fresh parsley. This herb’s deodorizing effects may be due to its high levels of chlorophyll—a natural bad odour neutralizer.
Aromatic marjoram is known in Greek mythology as the goddess of love’s favourite herb. Inspired by Aphrodite, medieval women used marjoram in love potions and bridal bouquets. Today, marjoram leaves can be rubbed against wrists to perfume skin with a sweet, slightly floral scent. A sprinkle of marjoram leaves can also be a relaxing addition to bath water.
Beyond marjoram, fragrant herbs can be used to make bath “tea” bags. “[They] make terrific gifts,” says Maier. “Just fill a muslin bag (or use a large fabric square and ribbon) with fresh or dried lavender flowers, camomile flowers, and rose petals.” Steep a bag in your bath water for a relaxing soak.
Decorating with herbs
Herbs can add rustic beauty and fresh scents to almost any space. Here are some basic tips for herbal decor, but don’t limit yourself to these suggestions—experiment to find what suits your design preferences.
- Brighten your kitchen with a bouquet of fresh herbs such as basil, mint, and parsley.
- Rather than top presents with a bow, attach a sprig of rosemary.
- Display homemade herbal potpourri in Mason jars. Dried camomile, sage, rosemary, and bay leaves are fragrant options, while cinnamon sticks, cedar chips, pine cones, and dried flowers can add visual appeal.
- For an eye-catching centrepiece, group together a few different-sized pots that house a variety of herbs.
- Decorate doors with festive herbal wreaths. Rosemary and thyme are well suited to such crafts.
Grow your own!
Although these plants can be bought at any store that sells bulk herbs, nothing beats fresh, home-grown herbs. “It’s a great way of getting to know the plants,” adds Yardley. For city dwellers who’d like to harvest herbs year-round, indoor gardens are ideal. Here are a few tips to get you growing.
Seek sage advice
Before you start planting, visit your local gardening store. The experts there will be able to recommend herb kits and the best starter seeds for beginners. Popular plant options include rosemary, oregano, basil, and thyme.
Many herbs thrive in sunny, dry locations. Set up your indoor herb garden near a south- or west-facing window for optimal sunshine. Although the plants can be moved to your balcony or deck during warmer months, it’s best to keep them indoors during fall and winter.
Thyme to water
Avoid overwatering your herbal housemates. Doing so can cause them to wilt and lose flavour. Also note that most herbs won’t need to be fertilized, as this can cause the plants to grow too large.
Ceramic, clay, and wood pots with drainage holes are all viable options. The perfect pot size will vary by herb. Some herbs need plenty of elbow room to grow, while others are happy to rub shoulders with pot edges.
Pick and use
Don’t be shy about plucking your herbs’ leaves. Although it may seem counterintuitive, picking or cutting the leaves promotes healthy growth.