Perennial Favourites

Last week we took a short road trip out to Richters in the beautiful and pastoral Goodwood, Ontario, just north of Markham. Richters are specialists in culinary, aromatic, and medicinal plants, offering hard-to-find varieties as seeds, seedlings, essential oils, and dried herbs.

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They have been generous enough to donate a number of plants to us, to help us fill our gardens with socially and environmentally significant medicinal herbs and native plants. Over the summer, we have been slowly converting our Gerrard Street and Perennial sites into collections of perennial herbs that have played important roles in various cultures and bodies of traditional knowledge. Some of these plants have long cultural histories as medicinal herbs in Europe or Asia, and were introduced to this continent with the first colonialist settlers, but whose virtues have largely been forgotten over time.

Other plants are native to this region, and have been traditionally used in the healing practices and rituals of North American communities for many centuries. In addition to having important socio-cultural associations and medicinal benefits, native plants are also very beneficial to the environment, and are essential to shaping an urban landscape that promotes biodiversity and ecology. While this may be no more than a pleasant coincidence, yesterday we noticed an unfamiliar ground-walking bird hanging around the clumps of wintergreen and partridgeberry we planted last week. Since the berries are a diet staple for many ground-nesting birds, we’d like to think there is some correlation here.

The plants that we were excited to received from Richters include wintergreen, partridgeberry, betony, valerian, bergamot, feverfew, wild thyme, and passionflower. In the weeks to come, we’ll be featuring each of these plants as part of our “picks of the week,” with some specific details on each one. In the meantime, we’d like to give a brief introduction to the new members of our garden.

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“Wintergreen” is the common name attributed to a group of plants which remain green throughout the winter. The variety that we planted (Gaultheria procumbens) is best known as a common additive to foods, toothpaste, and candies. The berries and leaves from wintergreen plants have long been used by in the traditional medicine of several Canadian First Nations tribes where the berries grow naturally, used as a natural remedy for various pains and aches including headaches, arthritis, and menstrual cramps. According to the website WebMD, the association between wintergreen and healing is more than lore: the leaves contains an “aspirin-like chemical that might reduce pain, swelling, and fever.” The berries are not only edible, but continue to produce throughout the winter, where they can be harvested even while covered by blankets of snow.

We planted six clumps of wintergreen at our Gerrard Street garden, around our two grape vines. We planted another two alongside the blueberry bushes in the Children’s Garden, since the two plants are often found together in the wild, and both prefer a slight acidity in the soil.

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The common name of Mitchella repens is an indication of how favoured the plant is among some of our feathered friends. “Partridgeberry” is an evergreen shrub which produces small edible red berries that may be relatively tasteless to humans, but are very popular among ground birds like grouse, quails, and wild turkeys. The berries are often used in jams, pies, and compotes, and are typically combined with sweeteners and other berries. The leaves and fruit from this plant have been used in alternative medicine to stop heavy uterine bleeding during childbirth. Since these plants do not like direct sunlight, we placed them under our grape vines in our Gerrard Street site, and under our elderberry bushes at our Perennial Garden site.

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Yet another plant whose common name reveals its qualities, Tanacetum parthenium or “feverfew,” has been planted for centuries and used as a remedy for headaches, pains, and arthritis. It has been used as early as the first century as an anti-inflammatory in Ancient Greece, and has more recently been the subject of in vitro scientific experiments to assess whether compounds from the plant may be effective against cancer cells.

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a beautiful purple flowering plant which is cultivated for both ornamental and medicinal purposes. We planted two seedlings at the back of our perennial garden, and two at the front of our Gerrard site where the plant’s beautiful flowers will be on full display. Valerian has a reputation as a panacea or cure-all, and the leaves from the plant are often used as a sedative, pain reliever, and treatment for insomnia.

Another plant that has traditionally been used as a sedative is the passionflower vine. Passionflowers produce beautiful flowers, leaves, and an edible fruit known as the maypop. Native to the Eastern United States, dried passionflower leaves have been used for centuries as medicinal herbs, and are still used to treat anxiety, with scientific studies claiming that the plants worked as effectively as an anti-anxiety treatment as the pharmaceutical oxazepam.

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Betony, Stachys officinalis, is another favourite of Old World herbalists. The virtues of this plant are extolled by every renowned herbalist and compendium of folk medicine. It has been used to treat high blood pressure, anxiety, pain, sweating, dreaming, sorcery and ghosts. So if you are kept up by nightmares, worried that the local witch has accursed you, or feel as though your house is haunted by presences from the past, it may be worth familiarizing yourself with this antiquity plant. You can acquaint yourself with this herb by checking it out at the front of our Gerrard garden.

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Bergamot, also known as “bee balm,” is a wild plant in the mint family that is native to North America. It is used as an alternative to black tea, is believed to treat colds and flus, and has antiseptic properties (it is a source of thymol, which is used in commercial mouthwashes).

Thyme is renowned as a culinary herb across Eurasia, a staple ingredient in Middle Eastern dishes (zaatar), Italian sauces, and North African cuisine. Less known is its history as a cold and cough remedy, as well as a bandage dressing. Like bergamot, wild thyme is a source of thymol, and can function as an antiseptic.

Once these small plants become established in our gardens, we plan on harvesting them, drying them, and making them available as tea blends specifically designed to help with relaxation, concentration, and pain relief. While there is often little hard scientific evidence to suggest that medicinal herbs produce the effects they are associated with, it is nonetheless a useful project to learn about the use of plants to educate yourself about ecology, history, culture, and tradition.

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