Why buy cough drops, antioxidants or pep-up pills when fresh herbs grown at home can help you better, minus the side-effects, says Hema Vijay

A small garden space need not be a reason (or an excuse) to hold you back from growing herbs at home since they do not require too much soil to root in. Medicinal plants can be raised in small containers or pots placed on balconies, window ledges, kitchen sills and similar areas.

Do this, and you get fresh herbal medicine, with its natural potency intact. In fact, in cities like Delhi, organisations such as TERI distribute medicinal herb saplings to households through resident welfare associations.

Home pharmacy

“The eugenol, aromatic oil and urosolic acid content of Krisna tulsi or black tulsi makes it an effective cough remedy, immune-modulant and a powerful antioxidant,” says Dr. T. Thirunarayanan, Centre for Traditional Medicine and Research. But tulsi is just one herb. There are other health-bestowing plants that can be easily grown at home.

Dr. Thirunarayanan, Dr. M.V. Vishwanathan (who is associated with an NGO, Parampara, and is also a retired CSIR scientist involved in research on medicinal plants) and S. Indrakumar, president, Home Exnora list a few of these herbal wonders that are very handy to have at home such as Tulsi, Sotru kathazhai (aloe vera), Nilavembu (green chiretta kalmegh), Vettiver (khas root), Nannari (Indian sarsaparilla), Vibhudhi pachilai (sweet basil), Sembaruthi (red hibiscus), Long pepper (Thippili), Perandai (cissus species), Vasambu (sweet flag), Vettrilai (betel leaf plant), and greens such as Vendayam (methi), Manathakkali (black night shade), Vallarai (Indian pennywort), and Adathodai (Malabar nut).

“Regular use of these herbs kept our ancestors healthy,” surmises Indrakumar. The sap of Aloe vera, now famous for its cosmetic effects, is a body coolant too. Eating a single nilavembu leaf a day helps prevent diabetes and helps fight chikungunya and fever; the roots of vettiver and nannari (generally left to soak in drinking water) are effective body coolants. Vibhuthi pachilai enhances respiratory effectiveness and is a de-congesant. Hibiscus juice is a skin and cardio tonic, and tastes great too. Methi leaves in your daily dal help lower cholesterol, diabetes, and heal stomach ulcers; manathakkali leaves and its fried berries protect you from mouth and stomach ulcers. The spicy chutney made from the stem of the perandai creeper is a great digestive aid and makes for a tangy thogaiyal too. Chew one-vettrilai-leaf-a-day for powering up your digestive juices. But be judicious and moderate with your consumption.

Setting up a herbal garden

Smaller pots will do the job, but 15-litre capacity terracotta pots with soil, river sand and manure (preferably vermi-compost or organic manure) in the proportion of 1:1:1 are ideal. Make a drain hole at the bottom of the pot. Now, you are set for herbal gardening, and just need a handful of manure once a fortnight for each pot to keep it going. Make sure the plots aren't placed in a windy spot.

Most of these herbs grow well in sunlight and semi-shade, but some, like the betel leaf plant, vasambu, and vallarai greens need semi-shade. If the plants seem pale, drooping or haven't sprouted enough leaves, shift them to a spot that gets more sunlight.

If you are going to grow them indoors, make sure they receive some amount of sunlight everyday. It is advisable not to place them under the fan or air conditioner.

Of course, it's vital not to forget to water the plants once a day — either after sundown or in the morning before the sun has warmed the soil. Water just enough to wet the soil, not clog it, which harms the roots. If the plant looks yellow, check if you have over-watered it.

Use drip plates to collect drained water so that it doesn't make the floor muddy. You can hose water, but a sprinkler can is gentler on the herbs, and besides, this gives you the chance to observe if the plant is doing well and spot pest infestation. If you do find something suspicious, isolate the plant, rinse it with water (even the lower surfaces of the leaves) and use herbal insecticides.

For guidance and assistance, contact Parampara at 98403 24158, Centre for Traditional Medicine and Research at 22533399 or Indrakumar at 22486494.

The premise was that food would also be medicine, and that herbs could protect and cure