It takes very little effort to plant your own little herb garden at home

A stub is all that remains of a Vilva (Indian Bael, Aegle Marmelos) tree that once stood in the garden of a house at Kanjirampara. The tree was planted by the owner two decades ago to go with the name ‘Vilvamangalam’ that he had given to his house. The tree was recently cut down to prevent it from leaning over an electric pole on the street. The tree had become a ‘misfit’ in the locality.

Vilva is one of the State Medicinal Plant Board’s (SMPB) Red Listed Medicinal Plants. It is a plant that is becoming extinct. But less than 50 years ago, the tree was found in most houses and in public places. It was revered for its religious significance and more so for its abundant medicinal properties. There are several such plants that used to be grown in homes and common public spaces but are now sparsely found.

One such plant was Thazhuthama or Punarnava (Hogweed). It was used to reduce inflammation and for anaemia. Curry made of its leaves is part of a healthy diet.

Avanakkinkuru (Castor seeds), which was used by women as a face cleanser, especially during the Malayalam month of Karkidakom (July-August), is now available only on demand at local herbal shops. “We are facing an acute shortage of herbs that were once commonly available,” says C.K. Vijayalakshmi, a medical practitioner.

To promote the growth of medicinal plants, SMPB had launched a project to encourage people to plant herbal gardens in their homes, a few years ago. The project did well initially but faced hiccups in between. “We are going to re-launch the project. This time, we will include several leafy plants that have medicinal value. We are also looking at the sustainability factor. This means, we will encourage homemakers who are interested in the plants to explore ways of growing and selling rare herbs, which are necessary to make medicines,” says K.G. Sree Kumar, chief executive officer, SMPB.

Although homes in rural areas still accommodate such plants in their gardens, people in the cities find it difficult to grow such plants in their restricted living spaces. “You need space and you need water for this. Both are precious commodities when it comes to living in cities,” says Shashi Kumar, a former government official and a plant enthusiast.

But there are medicinal plants that can still be included in our list of plants for the garden, even if we live in a small flat, says P. Usha, coordinator of a rural health programme and author of a book on herbal medicine.

“In the rural health institute where I work, we supply bags, potted plants, and seeds of plants that can be grown at home. Such a trend has picked up in the rural areas. People are getting more aware of the need to grow herbs. The trend will soon come to the cities too,” she says.

According to Velayudhan Nair, former professor of Government Ayurveda College, Thiruvananthapuram, every house should find some space for growing herbs.

“Tulsi is the most important of them all. Apart from using it for various ailments such as the common cold and fever, it also has other therapeutic properties. It is a natural mosquito repellent and helps to replenish the ozone content in the air,” he says.

Planting tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum or Holy basil) in a window box near the bedroom of a house or a flat, or even in front of the house will help to purify the air. It can be grown as a potted plant and requires less space. Similar air purifying properties are also found in neem (Azadirachta indica) and vilva, but as both tend to grow as trees, it will be difficult to grow them inside homes or in small spaces.

Nonetheless, common spaces around apartments and even public spaces could have vilva, amla (gooseberry), and neem trees. Such a trend should be encouraged more, says Dr. Velayudhan.

Aloe vera is a plant that should be a must in every home, Usha says. It can be grown in pots or bags and should be kept in spaces where there is ample sunlight. Apart from its known cosmetic properties, the plant can be used to “cool down” during summer, and keep away eye problems and headaches.

Other plants that can be easily grown in homes are turmeric known for its antiseptic properties, Malabar Nut or adalodakam (Justicia adhatoda), ginger, kaiyunnyam (Eclipta prostrata) that is used to treat minor respiratory problems and as a hair-care herb, lemongrass (a tea with it could be used to combat stress), Brahmi (Bacopa Monnieri or Thyme-leaved gratiola) for promoting memory and alertness, and drumstick tree or muringa whose leaves are said to be a good multi-vitamin stock.

While turmeric and ginger can be planted in pots, drumstick tree, whose leaves have great medicinal properties and can be used to make leaf curries, could be accommodated in bags but will have to be occasionally trimmed. Herbs such as peppermint and coriander could also be planted for an ‘air-freshening’ effect. Curry tree, whose leaves are a staple in Indian cooking and is known for its anti-diabetic, anti-toxic, and digestive properties, could also be grown at home. “The trend to grow curry leaves in homes is picking up especially since endosulfan traces were reported to be found on leaves bought from the market,” says Usha.

Growing a herb garden means one need not run to pharmacist or a doctor for minor ailments. It is like a first-aid box at home. “There is also a greater cause. Thumba (Thumbe) used to be found everywhere in Kerala. Now we have to really look hard for it, especially in the cities. So, a herb garden at home can mean an investment for the future,” says Sreekumar. It also means better air around us and a wholesome feel that only nature can give. So plan whatever space you have at home and call up SPMB officials or even NGOs in your vicinity promoting eco-friendly living who can guide you to having a good herbal garden at home.