Rodale's 21st-Century Herbal: A Practical Guide for Healthy Living Using Nature's Most Powerful Plants



Ancient people noticed that using herbs throughout their living areas offered many benefits—the scent of some plants was able to cover noxious smells, clean the air or water, or repel pests such as fleas and mice (a big plus in sleeping areas, which often were directly on the floor). Ancient Romans cleansed and scented their bathwater with aromatic lavender, an herb that science now knows has powerful antimicrobial properties. Later, Medieval and Renaissance Europeans scattered herbs across the floors of their dwellings—a practice known as using “strewing herbs”—to repel pests and improve their harsh living conditions.

In North America, native people cleaned cooking items with horsetail (Equisetum spp.)—one of the oldest groups of plants on earth—by rubbing the plants’ silica-rich stems on dirty pots. When North American settlers learned to use the plants this way, they referred to them as “scouring rushes.”

In ancient China, people burned the bark of fragrant herbs such as sandalwood and cinnamon to produce a purifying smoke that was often used during ceremonies and rituals. And as long as 5,000 years ago, Egyptians burned aromatic plants to cover bad odors in their dwellings, repel harmful spirits, and enhance sacred rituals.

People have always used herbs—especially those with strong and pleasant fragrances—in their homes to create a more pleasant living environment. Learning about these ancient uses of herbs is not only fascinating, but it can also offer healthy alternatives for modern living.


Ever wonder if those commercial cleaning products and indoor pesticides you use might do more harm than good? You’re not alone. Natural home-care products (many of which contain herbs) are growing in popularity as more homemakers become aware of indoor toxins. The use of certain cleaning products has been linked to higher rates of asthma—inducing the condition in some people, as well as aggravating the condition in those who already have this chronic inflammatory disease. And although you can buy many excellent nontoxic products for your home, it’s easy and fun to make your own. Just remember that even plant products can be toxic under some circumstances, and the same cautions given for other herbal uses also apply here. For specific cautions, see the individual plant entries in Part II of this book.


With just a few basic ingredients, you can make safer “green” cleaning products for a fraction of the cost of the commercial products and without the scary ingredients. Distilled white vinegar (which contains acetic acid) has antifungal and antimicrobial properties and can eliminate mineral deposits from sink and bathtub fixtures, as well as cookware. Acidic lemon juice kills germs on countertops, cutting boards, and more. Baking soda deodorizes and dissolves grease and dirt. Mixed with other ingredients, it makes a gentle but effective scrub. All-natural castile soap, made for centuries with olive oil, not only washes dirt and grease from your body, but also from household surfaces and laundry.

Many herbs have potent disinfectant properties, too. Basil, bay, cardamom, clove, coriander, eucalyptus, ginger, hyssop, lavender, lemongrass, oregano, peppermint, rose geranium, rosemary, sage, spearmint, and thyme are cleaning powerhouses. All contain a multitude of plant chemicals that possess antibacterial, antifungal, antiseptic, and antiviral actions. By adding a few drops of these essential oils to your homemade cleaning products, you can boost their cleaning power and impart a delightful fragrance that makes cleaning more pleasurable.

Because essential oils break down plastic over time, it’s best to store your homemade cleaning products in labeled, dark glass containers (see “Resources”). Plastic spray bottles are fine for short-term storage of smaller quantities. Also, remember to store all cleaning products—even those made with natural ingredients—in a cool, dark location where children and pets cannot reach them.

Kitchen Countertop Spray

Use this fragrant solution to disinfect counter-tops, refrigerator shelves, and painted surfaces, including walls and wood trim. Feel free to experiment with other antibacterial essential oils, such as basil, thyme, or lemon.

½ cup distilled white vinegar

½ cup water

10–12 drops rose geranium essential oil

In a small, dark glass jar, combine the vinegar, water, and oil. Stir. Pour small amounts into a spray bottle as necessary.

Make a fragrant countertop cleaner with vinegar, water, and essential oils, such as lavender.

Gentle Spearmint Scrubber

This nonscratching, chlorine-free paste is perfect for cleaning cookware, countertops, and porcelain sinks and tubs. Lemon and lemon verbena essential oils also work well in place of the spearmint.

1 cup baking soda

1 tablespoon liquid castile soap

10–12 drops spearmint essential oil

Warm water (90° to 110°F)

In a small, dark glass jar, combine the baking soda, soap, and enough warm water to form a thick but pourable paste. Stir in the essential oil. Apply to surfaces, wait for 5 minutes or more, then scrub with a sponge. Rinse off the residue with water.

Antibacterial Bathroom Cleaner

Use this fragrant spray to disinfect bathroom surfaces. Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) oil—which has antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal powers—helps clean and control mildew. Lavender and hyssop, which were once used as disinfectant strewing herbs, have antibacterial and antiviral properties.

½ cup distilled white vinegar

1½ cups water

2 tablespoons liquid castile soap

8–10 drops tea tree essential oil

8–10 drops lavender essential oil

8–10 drops hyssop essential oil

Combine the vinegar, water, soap, tea tree oil, lavender oil, and hyssop oil in a dark glass jar. Stir. Pour a small amount into a spray bottle to use as needed. Rinse off any residue with water.

Chlorine-Free Grout Cleaner

This all-natural paste removes mildew but has no harsh fumes.

1 cup baking soda

10 drops tea tree oil


In a dark glass jar, combine the baking soda and oil with enough water to make a thick paste. Apply the paste to grout, then wait 1 to 2 hours. Scrub with a stiff nylon brush, then rinse with water.

Fragrant Floor Cleaner

Mop floors with this fresh-smelling liquid; the eucalyptus and rosemary oils have antiviral properties. Make a fresh mixture each time you need it.

1 cup distilled white vinegar

1 gallon hot water (at least 130°F)

1–2 tablespoons liquid castile soap (optional)

1 teaspoon lavender or eucalyptus essential oil

1 teaspoon rosemary essential oil

In a bucket, combine the vinegar, hot water, soap (if using), and lavender or eucalyptus oil and rosemary oil. If you include the soap, rinse with clear water after using.

Lemon-Scented Furniture Polish

Remove dirt as you add shine to furniture with this naturally lemon-scented formula. Shake well before using; buff dry with a clean cloth.

1 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar

½ cup water

1 teaspoon lemon or lemongrass essential oil

In a dark glass jar, combine the olive oil, vinegar, water, and lemon or lemongrass oil. Pour a small amount into a spray bottle to use as needed.

Magic Carpet Deodorizer

The spicy fragrance of this deodorizer will remind you of an island breeze.

1 cup baking soda

10 drops grapefruit essential oil

10 drops ginger essential oil

In a dark glass jar, combine the baking soda, grapefruit oil, and ginger oil. Sprinkle the mix over your carpet, wait an hour, and then vacuum.

Fresh Air Laundry Detergent

This powdered mix will clean and brighten your laundry naturally and give it a fresh outdoor scent. The recipe makes enough to last several months.

8 cups baking soda

6 cups borax

4 cups grated castile soap

1 tablespoon lavender essential oil

1 teaspoon clary sage essential oil

In a large bucket, combine the baking soda, borax, and soap. Whisk in the lavender and clary sage oils. Store in a dark, covered container in a cool, dark location. Use 1⁄8 cup per medium-size load.

Aromatic Fabric Spray

Refresh upholstered furniture, drapes, linens, and mattresses with this herbal spray.

15 drops lavender, lemongrass, patchouli, or other fragrant essential oil

1½ cups distilled water

In a dark glass jar, combine the essential oil and water. Pour a small amount into a spray bottle to use as needed.


When flies, ants, or moths make your house their house, put the pest-fighting properties of plants to work for you, instead. Basil, black pepper, calamint, clove, eucalyptus, fennel, garlic, hyssop, mugwort, rosemary, sage, southernwood, thyme, and tansy are among the many herbs that contain chemical compounds with insect-repelling properties. Here are a few tried-and-true remedies.

Ants: Defend your home against invading ants by spraying ant trails with equal parts white vinegar and water, mixed with a few drops of eucalyptus oil. You can use the same solution to wash countertops, floors, and other areas where you see ants. Sprinkle freshly ground black pepper in doorways, on windowsills, and around other areas where ants are entering. Sliced, fresh garlic cloves; mint leaves; tansy leaves; and whole cloves are also reported to drive away indoor ants. Try guarding entryways by placing a pot of tansy by the doorway, or grow the herb in a window box. Be cautious: Tansy is invasive in the garden, and when ingested, it can be toxic to people and pets.

Flies and mosquitoes: The chemical compound d-limonene, found in citrus fruits, is used in many commercial fly and mosquito repellents. Grapefruit, lemon, and orange are particularly high in this compound, but basil, hyssop, calamint, fennel, and black pepper also have high concentrations of d-limonene. Citronella oil (steam-distilled from Cymbopogon nardus and C. winte-rianus), popular in candles, contains several other compounds known to repel insects. Diffusing any of these fragrant, insect-repellent oils can make summer evenings on the deck or patio more pleasant.

Clothing moths: Protect clothing from moth damage with pest-repellent Artemisia species (such as mugwort or southernwood), eucalyptus, hyssop, sage, rosemary, tansy, and thyme. Fill small muslin or cheesecloth bags with the dried herbs, and tuck them into drawers or hang them inside closets. Or make natural mothballs: Soak cotton balls in a few drops of the essential oil of one or more of these herbs. Hang bags of the cotton balls, or set them on a shelf in your closet, being careful to keep them from touching your clothes.

Pantry moths: The larvae of several different moths (commonly grouped together as “pantry moths” or “flour weevils”) can ruin stored rice, cereal, flour, birdseed, and more. Keeping cupboards clean and free of crumbs and loose grains, as well as storing grains and seeds in sealed containers, will go a long way toward preventing infestations of these pests. For added insurance, tuck bay leaves inside canisters and other places you store grain products. Bay contains several chemical compounds known to repel insects.

Protect clothing from moths with bags of pest-repellent herbs, such as mugwort, southernwood, hyssop, and tansy.


Scents affect us profoundly. Brushing by lemon verbena or roses in your garden can instantly lift your mood or evoke long-forgotten memories. With potpourris, sachets, and incense, you can enjoy delightful herbal aromas—some pungent, some spicy, some sweet—indoors, year-round.


A potpourri is a mixture of dried aromatic herbs stored in a closed container. When the container is opened, the herbal mix perfumes the air.

What to include: When making potpourri, choose plant materials with fragrance, shape, and color in mind. Also, consider herb and garden flowers that aren’t especially fragrant but that are colorful and easy to dry, such as baby’s breath, calendula, delphinium, elecampane, goldenrod, hydrangea, larkspur, marigold, pansy, statice, sunflower, tansy, yarrow, and zinnia. Small conifer cones, conifer needles, dried fruit peels, flower buds, and whole spices add visual appeal and texture.

Essential oils can intensify or accent the main fragrance of your potpourri. To complement a woodsy blend, for instance, you might add a few drops of bayberry or rosemary oil. Essential oils can also be used to refresh the fragrance of a potpourri when it begins to fade.

Including a fixative, such as orris root, is important to slow the evaporation of essential oils and retain fragrance. Made from the ground roots of Iris × germanica var. florentina, orris root is a commonly used fixative, but it can cause an allergic reaction. Other plant-based fixatives include angelica root, clary sage, oak moss (Evernia prunastri, a lichen), Australian sandalwood (Santalum spicatum), and vanilla beans.

Harvesting and drying herbal ingredients: Cut herbs on a sunny day, working early in the morning, just after the dew has dried. Gather flowers just after they have opened, when their essential oils will be at their peak.

Be sure your herbs are thoroughly dry before you mix them. Gently remove flower petals and strip the leaves from their stems, then spread the leaves on a screen in a warm, dark, airy location. Stir the herbs often. If you are gathering and drying herbs over several seasons, store the dry ingredients in airtight containers until you are ready to mix them.

Mixing: In a glass or ceramic bowl (not metal, which can alter the fragrance), use your hands or a wooden spoon to toss together the ingredients. Stir in the fixative and a few drops of the essential oils, if you are using them. Pour the mix into a large, wide-mouthed ceramic or glass container, then cover it tightly. Store the container in a cool, dark location for about 6 weeks, to allow the scents to blend. About once a week, shake or stir the contents. At the end of the 6 weeks, you’ll have a delightful potpourri for your home or to give as a gift.


Washing Pots in the Rainforest

When you wash dishes today, notice that little scrubber in your hand. Whether it be a nylon pad, piece of steel wool, or brush, the rough edges are essential for removing dirt and grime. While Victorians used metal-tipped brushes, and scrubbing pads were developed and patented in the 20th century, the real inventors of these types of products were preindustrial traditional peoples.

The Maya people of Belize taught me about a plant family (Dilleniaceae) with exceptionally rough leaves, which they have always used to scrub dishes, pots, and other household objects. Spanish-speaking people in this area refer to these forest plants aslava platos—meaning, “wash dishes”—referring to one of their traditional uses. The bushmasters (forest guides) worked with showed me just how tough these leaves are by rubbing them on my skin and scraping a layer right off—hence one of the English names, “sandpaper tree.”

Nature’s scouring pads grow throughout the forest. Parts of certain bromeliads are also used this way: The roots of Aechmea tillandsioides make a handy scrub brush, as do the dried flower stalks of Androlepis skinneri. Many other household items also derive from nature’s diversity of designs and I materials. In the Belizean tropical forest, nature has even provided a horsetail-shaped brush for swatting away flies—fibers from the leaf bases of a large tree, the Attalea cohune palm. The plant world is rich with inspiration and delight for so many of the basic needs of life.—M. J. B.

Floral Bouquet Potpourri

This blend captures the heady fragrances of a flower garden in full bloom.

1 cup dried rose petals

1 cup dried lavender buds

1 cup dried clary sage (leaves and flowers)

1 cup dried rose-scented geranium (leaves and flowers)

1 tablespoon powdered orris root

Few drops of clary sage, jasmine, rose, and/or sandalwood essential oils

Herb Basket Potpourri

Bring the fresh, clean scent of your herb garden into your kitchen or bath.

1 cup dried rosemary leaves

1 cup dried peppermint leaves

1 cup dried lavender buds

1 cup dried lemon verbena leaves

Handful dried rosemary or peppermint flowers

Handful dried calendula petals

Several sprigs dried sweet Annie (Artemisia annua) foliage

1½ tablespoons powdered orris root

Few drops essential oil of the above herbs and/or basil, geranium, or thyme

Walk in the Woods Potpourri

The perfect winter scent; set the container near a fireplace and enjoy the earthy aroma as it wafts through the room. Whole dried cloves, allspice berries, and cinnamon sticks are sold as kitchen spices. (Note:As a precaution, wear gloves when handling the oak moss. Some people experience an allergic skin reaction upon contact with this botanical.)

2 cups dried bayberry leaves

1 cup dried rose hips

½ cup dried miniature pinecones

½ cup dried pine or fir needles

½ cup dried cut oak moss

1 tablespoon whole dried cloves

1 tablespoon whole allspice berries

Few cinnamon sticks, broken

Few drops bayberry, cedar wood, juniper, and/or winterberry essential oils


Dream pillows are similar to sachets and potpourris, but the herbs are chosen to help you fall into a pleasant, fragrant slumber. Some claim they can even induce more vivid or lucid dreams (sweet ones, of course!). Make the pillow from a natural fabric, such as cotton or silk. Slip it inside your pillowcase, right above your regular pillow. Dream pillows make great gifts, too.

Materials: 2 pieces of prewashed fabric, each 9 x 9 inches; sewing machine or hand-sewing supplies; ¼ cup dried hops flowers; ¼ cup dried lavender flowers; ¼ cup dried mugwort leaves; ¼ cup lemon balm or catnip leaves; 1 teaspoon powdered orris root; few drops essential oil of lavender and/or rose; cotton batting; optional Velcro strips

1. Make the pillow: If your fabric has a “right” side, layer the two pieces with their right sides together. Using ½-inch seams, sew along three sides of your pillow. Leave one side open. Turn the pillow right side out.

2. Fill the pillow: In a glass or ceramic bowl, mix together the hops, lavender, mugwort, lemon balm or catnip, and orris root, then stir in the essential oils. Fill the pillow with the herb mix, then add a handful or two of cotton batting for comfort.

3. Close the pillow: Sew the remaining side of the pillow, or fold the raw edges to the inside and follow the package directions to attach Velcro strips (if using) so that you can replenish the herbal filling when the fragrance fades. Pleasant dreams!


Depending on the type of scent you want (earthy, spicy, floral, or a combination), you can make potpourri with seeds, bark, leaves, roots, flower petals, or fruit peels, along with essential oils to enhance and complement the main fragrance.









Sweet woodruff





Angelica root












Clary sage

Hops flower






Scented geranium (rose)





German chamomile


Lemon balm


Lemon thyme

Lemon verbena


Scented geranium (lemon)

A smudge stick or smudge bundle contains various dried herbs tied with string, made into a small bundle, and lighted with a flame until it smolders, giving off an aromatic smoke used to cleanse the home or other living areas.


Long before incense became popular in the 1960s, people of many cultures burned plants to scent their homes, keep away disease, and perfume their clothing. Early physicians advised their patients to inhale incense for medicinal purposes. The word “perfume” means “through smoke,” suggesting that burning incense was probably one of the first ways people used fragrances.

Incense is quite easy to make with powdered herbs, a binding agent, and water. Kits also are available.


Makko (incense powder) is made from the bark of the tabunoki tree (Machilus thunbergii), an Asian evergreen. It works as a binding agent to hold the other ingredients together. You can buy makko from natural foods stores and specialty herb suppliers. This recipe makes about 12 cones.

MATERIALS: 1 teaspoon frankincense powder; 1 teaspoon myrrh powder; 1 teaspoon cardamom; 2 teaspoons makko powder; 5 to 10 drops cypress or mandarin essential oil

1. Mix the ingredients. In a mortar and pestle, grind together the frankincense, myrrh, cardamom, and makko. Stir in the essential oil. Slowly add warm water, a few drops at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition until the mixture is soft and pliable—but not runny or crumbly.

2. Form cones. Make small, ½-inch-diameter balls, then shape one side of each ball into a point and flatten the opposite side. (Each cone should be about 1 inch tall and ½ inch across at the base.)

3. Dry the cones. Set the cones upright on waxed paper, and allow them to dry. When the sides of the cones feel dry, turn them over to dry the bases. Total drying time will be about 1 week. To use, set a cone upright on a ceramic plate. Light the top of the cone, and allow it to burn naturally. Store cones in a cool, dry location.


The word incense is derived from the Latin incendere, meaning, “set on fire.” The practice of burning plants to release their fragrant smoke can be traced back to the earliest history of religion. For some species, the leaves and stems were burned; for others, the resin or hardened sap was burned. The smoke that wafted into the air aided meditation, freed the mind, pacified the spirits, and warded off evil.

Scientists have recorded nearly 400 species of plants used as incense around the world. To mourn the loss of his wife, Emperor Nero of Rome (37–68 CE) ordered thousands of tons of frankincense and myrrh to be burned.

The very sacred Native American practice of smudging involves burning plants such as sage, sweetgrass, and other species during prayer and for purification. The dried plants are not burned to produce a flame, but only to release smoke, filling the air with the plant’s aromatic essential oils. It is thought that from our earliest days, as people watched smoke ascending to the heavens, they considered this a link between earth, its people, and the world above.


Herbs are more than just practical plants: Their rich colors, textures, and fragrances can add natural beauty to your home. You can use herbs to create living works of art, such as a topiary or living wreath, fresh or dried arrangements, botanical prints, and much more. And the pleasure is not all in the final result; you’ll find the process of making art with herbs is itself relaxing and fun. Each piece becomes a personal, local, and distinctive expression of nature’s beauty. Here are a few fun and easy projects.


If you enjoy the simple pleasure of caring for plants, you’ll enjoy making and maintaining an herbal standard—a simple decorative form that consists of a single straight stem and a head of smaller stems and leaves. Using a perennial herb with pliable stems, you can create a kind of living sculpture by training and pruning the growing sprigs. Good choices for this technique include bay laurel, French lavender, lemon verbena, scented geraniums (especially ‘Little Gem’ and ‘Toronto’), rosemary (especially ‘Arp’, ‘Ken’s Prostrate’, and ‘Tuscan Blue’), and thyme (especially ‘Argenteus’, also known as silver). In general, the smaller the herb’s leaves, the smaller the standard should be. A silver thyme standard might be 6 inches tall, for instance, while a large-leaved bay standard could be several feet tall. As with bonsai, the routine care is a pleasant way to relax. A potted herbal standard makes a beautiful and fragrant centerpiece or patio accent.

Rosemary is an easy plant for beginners to work with. Start with a 3- to 4-inch-tall plant that has a single, straight stem. Mail-order herb suppliers will send a suitable plant if you tell them you’ll be training it as a standard.

MATERIALS: 3- to 4-inch-tall rooted rosemary plant; 3- to 4-inch-diameter pot; 5- to 6-inch-diameter pot; light potting medium; wire or bamboo stakes; green floral tape; garden twine or old pantyhose; pruning shears

1. Pot, prune, and stake. If the rosemary isn’t already potted, plant it in the center of the 3- to 4-inch pot. Prune away any side branches so that you have a single, straight stem. For this first potting, the stake should be 8 to 10 inches long. If you’re using a wire stake, wrap it with the green floral tape. Insert it into the soil, pushing it to the bottom of the potting medium, about ½ inch away from the stem.

2. Secure the stem. Secure the stem loosely to the stake at one or two places—be careful not to damage the tender young stem. As the plant grows, add additional ties to keep it growing straight. Loosen the ties if they appear to be constricting the growing stem.

3. Repot, restake. When the stem reaches the top of the stake, repot the plant into a 5- to 6-inch-diameter pot. Remove the ties and existing stake and replace the stake with a sturdier one that’s 12 to 15 inches long. Insert it into the soil about 1 inch away from the stem and push the stake to the bottom of the potting medium. Loosely secure the stem, at about 1-inch intervals, with the ties.

4. Clip to form the “trunk.” When the rosemary reaches the height you want the standard to be, pinch off the tip (called the leader). Also prune away the stems and leaves from the bottom two-thirds of the main stem. (For example, if the plant is 6 inches tall, remove the bottom 4 inches of leaves.) This pruning will encourage strong, bushy growth at the top of the stem.

5. Shape the head. Over the coming months, more top growth will appear. Gradually form the round, globe shape by clipping new growth—twice a month during the growing season, less often during fall and winter. Continue to remove growth from the lower stem. Try to maintain a 2:1 ratio of stem length to head, for pleasing proportions.


Living wreaths are like having an herb garden on your wall, door, or tabletop. Start them in spring, when small plants are readily available at the garden center or from your renovated outdoor plantings. Good plant choices for living wreaths include lavender, marjoram, oregano, prostrate rosemary, sage, scented geranium, and thyme (especially creeping wooly thyme). The wreath will be fully covered with herbs about 6 weeks after planting.

MATERIALS: Sphagnum moss (coarse textured, not milled); 12 x 30-inch rectangular piece of chicken wire (½-inch mesh); small, rooted herbs—some with creeping stems about 6 inches long

1. Prepare the moss. Soak several handfuls of sphagnum moss in water until thoroughly wet, about 15 minutes.

2. Make the planter. Bend the long sides of the chicken wire so they curl up to form a 30-inch-long trough. Squeeze enough water out of the sphagnum so that it remains wet but isn’t dripping, and pack it tightly into the trough. (A good dense mass of sphagnum will give the plants a firm base and will hold water well.)

3. Form the wreath. Form a cylinder by bending the top edges of the trough together until they overlap slightly. Fasten the edges together by bending the loose prongs (they’ll be sticking out where the mesh was cut) to form little hooks that catch in the mesh holes on the opposite side of the seam. Do the same with the ends of the cylinder, connecting them to form a wreath.

4. Plant the herbs. Poke through the wire to make seven little wells in the sphagnum, spacing them evenly about the wreath. Plant a young herb in each, anchoring wayward runners with hairpins, if necessary.

5. Hang the wreath in strong but indirect sunlight. When the moss starts to dry out, soak the whole wreath for 15 minutes in a basin of water that has a few drops of fish emulsion in it. Prune back or wire wayward stems as the plants grow.


By drying the cut stems of many herbs, you can create beautiful arrangements with echoes of summer: clumps of golden or burgundy blooms, tiny blue petals, silvery foliage, dark brown seedpods, and much more.

The easiest way to dry herbs and flowers is just like Mother Nature does: Provide warm air, a light breeze, and a couple of days for it to happen.

How to Air-Dry Herbs for Arranging

Air drying is the simplest way to preserve herbs and flowers for arranging, but you must choose plants that will dry easily with this method, and you have to pick them at the proper stage.

• Goldenrod, pokeweed, and safflower: Cut stems before the flowers fully open.

• Chives, echinacea, lavender, mint, rosemary, sage, and witch hazel: Cut just after the flowers have opened.

• Tansy and yarrow: Pick only after the flowers have become very dry on their stems.

• Rue seed heads: Gather them either green or dry.

• Hops: Gather the female cones when they are still green.

• Artemisia species: Harvest and air-dry the silvery green foliage, which makes great filler, almost anytime.

• Bayberry, bay laurel, boxwood, juniper, and sage: Harvest the foliage sprigs anytime and use them as neutral accents or background.

If you plan to use only the flowers in your arrangement, strip the leaves from the stems before you dry them: The less plant material on each stem, the faster it will dry. Tie 8 to 10 stems in a bundle and hang them upside down in a dark, well-ventilated area. Air movement is key. During summer, flowers dry in about 10 days. As soon as the flowers are dry, pack them in labeled boxes (one type per box) until you are ready to use them.

How to Dry with Desiccants

Use a desiccant for drying finicky flowers such as carnation, delphinium, forget-me-not, hollyhock, larkspur, marigold, rose, and zinnia. Desiccants are moisture-absorbing materials such as sand, borax, and cornmeal. You can use pure, clean sand; borax mixed with sand (use a 2:1 ratio); or cornmeal mixed with borax (equal parts). The process usually takes 1 to 4 weeks, depending on the type of flowers you’re drying and the humidity level in your home.

Silica gel, another desiccant, is a chemical compound that resembles sea salt. Compared to other desiccants, silica gel works faster (in about 3 to 5 days) and preserves colors better. The fine granules are also less likely to damage delicate leaves and petals. Silica gel is reusable and widely available at craft stores. Wear a dust mask and gloves when working with it, and never use it to dry culinary herbs.

Here’s the basic drying process when using a desiccant.

1. Pick flowers when they’re not quite fully open. Cut off the stem right below the blossom.

2. Poke a piece of florist’s wire into the center of the flower. Then pull it through to form a wire stem. Bend one end of the wire into a little hook so it won’t pull out. (It’s important to do this now; the flowers will be too fragile to wire after they’re dried.)

3. Cover the bottom of a wide, low container. Use a 1-inch layer of the desiccant, then nestle the flowers into it. Don’t let the blossoms touch. Gently pour in additional desiccant to completely cover the flowers with another 1-inch layer. Cover the container tightly, and store it in a warm, dry location.

4. Gently remove the flowers. The time to remove them is when they’re still colorful but not so dry that they fall apart. If you’re using silica gel, check the flowers in 3 days; wait 1 week to check flowers dried in other desiccants. Flowers with thin petals will dry faster than those with fleshier petals. If a petal breaks off, reattach it with a spot of white glue.

Arranging Dried Herbs and Flowers

Here’s how expert florists make beautiful, long-lasting arrangements with dried flowers, foliage, and herbs.

1. Work with dried plants on a dry day. On rainy days, the plants can absorb moisture and become difficult to handle. If you find the arrangement “wilting” as you put it together, just turn up the heat in the workroom, or set the herbs in silica gel for several hours, overnight, or until they recover.

2. Consider plant shapes and colors. Vary the shapes. To achieve arrangements of rich texture, use some dried flowers that are spike-shape (like mints or lavender); some that are round and fairly large (like yarrow); and some small, dainty flowers (like safflower).

Choose two or three shades of the same color. For example, use a red and a pink, or three flowers of various shades of yellow. That range will make the colors seem richer.

3. Fill the containers with sand. This will hold the flowers and give them some stability. For little finger vases, use plugs of florist’s foam.

4. Arrange from the bottom up. Begin working with the low core of the arrangement. Dried flowers are fragile, so you don’t want to reach among the tall stems any more than necessary. Since dried flowers don’t have the substance of fresh flowers, make a fairly dense mass at the base for a more dramatic effect, perhaps with a lot of goldenrod or artemisia. After constructing a dense core for the arrangement, insert airier plant material higher up.


Your imagination and flower supply are your only limitations in making this wreath. To vary the look a bit over the season, wire in several florist’s tubes so you can replace faded herbs and flowers with fresh ones.

MATERIALS: Straw or Spanish moss wreath base (available at garden centers or craft stores); florist’s wire and tubes; selection of dried herbs and flowers

1. Choose a “base” plant. This should be something you have in quantity and that will go well with the other flowers you intend to use. ‘Silver King’ artemisia, for example, makes an excellent background. Insert it in the wreath base, stem by stem, until the whole wreath is covered.

2. Add the accents. These could be little bunches (about 3 inches across) of colorful dried flowers; use florist’s wire to make bunches of the smallest blooms. Space them around the wreath, alternating with larger spaces of a more neutral color. For best results, keep the composition simple, using no more than three main colors, such as gray (artemisia), purple (lavender), and pink (rose).


Using plants to create printed impressions—sometimes called nature printing—combines scientific practicality with decorative art. Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) recorded the process in his manuscript Codex Atlanticus (ca. 1500), which includes a print of a sage leaf. In the 18th century, Ben Franklin, a printer by trade, printed leaves on the back of currency to deter counterfeiting. The unique pattern of their veins made them almost impossible to duplicate by hand.

Today, herbs can be used to make beautiful botanical prints for display on walls, fabrics, or note cards—or to record your own botanical observations in a study journal. You can experiment with all kinds of herbs and herb parts—flowers, foliage, and roots. Before inking thick sprigs (like thyme) or feathery leaves (like yarrow), press them in a book for about an hour to get a more even printing surface. With practice, you’ll learn to adjust the amount of ink and pressure you use depending on the plant. Don’t be surprised if the ink picks up delicate features that you missed with your eyes!

MATERIALS: Water-soluble pigment or block-printing inks; palette; soft wedge sponge (or dabber); fresh herbs; tweezers; print-making paper, art paper, or note cards

1. Apply ink. Put a small amount of ink on the palette. Dip the bottom of the sponge into the ink several times, until the base is evenly covered. Use the sponge to gently ink the part of the plant you wish to print.

2. Make the print. Using the tweezers, gently position the herb, inked side down, on your paper or card. Cover the herb with a piece of newspaper or waxed paper. Hold the paper in place with one hand, and use your other hand to gently press over the entire area of the herb.

3. Dry. Remove the paper and use the tweezers to carefully remove the herb. Allow the print to dry undisturbed overnight.


Nature provides beautiful living color in thousands of hues, ranging from vibrant reds to soft golden yellows to tranquil azure blues. With herbal dyes, you can surround yourself with the colors of nature. Processing the leaves, flowers, roots, bark, or fruit of many plants unlocks hidden pigments that you can use to dye yarns or fabric.

People began making and using dye for textiles thousands of years ago. Written records show that plant dyes were used in China as early as 2600 BCE, and tests revealed the use of a pigment from madder in the Egyptian King Tutankhamen’s (ca. 1341–1323 BCE) tomb. Indigo was also used in ancient Egypt—possibly as early as 4,000 years ago. By the late 16th century, three inexpensive dyes were commonly used in Europe: yellow from the foliage of weld (Reseda luteola), red from the roots of madder (Rubia tinctorum), and blue from the foliage of woad (Isatis tintoria). In North America, Native Americans used plants such as bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), mountain alder (Alnus tenuifolia; A. incana; A. viridis ssp. crispa), and sumac (Rhus species) for red or orange dyes; honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium) for yellow dyes; and pokeweed (Phytolaccaspecies) and mulberry (Morus species) for blue or purple dyes. Most plants yielded multiple hues depending on the part used and the processing method. In 1856, the English chemist William H. Perkins accidentally discovered how to make a synthetic dye, and interest in natural dyeing waned over the next 100 years. In recent years, though, interest in natural dyes has returned as artisans have rediscovered the rich range of color possible from herbs.


When using dyes for fibers and textiles, you’ll want to consider using mordants—fixatives—to help set color so that it won’t fade or bleed. Mordants also help the color adhere to the yarn or fabric, and they may affect the hue. A few plant dyes (such as black tea and turmeric) don’t require a mordant to hold their color. These are called substantive dyes. But even with these dyes, using a mordant can be helpful because it often allows a greater range of potential shades. Mordants are usually applied before dyeing by simmering the yarn in water combined with the mordant. Our ancestors used salt, vinegar, baking soda, wood ashes, tannic acid (from sumac or oak leaves), cream of tartar, and alum—as well as blood and even urine—as mordants.

Today, dyers still use some of these agents, but they also use the highly toxic metals chrome, copper, and tin. You can achieve good results using just alum, cream of tartar, or, in some cases, iron.

Alum (potassium aluminum sulfate), which is also used in baking powder, is considered the most stable and one of the least-toxic chemical mordants. You can buy it at a pharmacy. Pickling alum, available at the supermarket, isn’t considered as effective but can be substituted.

Cream of tartar not only fixes color, but also brightens it. It’s also sold at the supermarket.

Iron (ferrous sulfate) grays or darkens the color of yarn (called “saddening”) after it’s been dyed. You can buy it online.

You might also try adding some copper pennies to the dye bath as a less-toxic alternative to copper mordant. Or experiment with old rusty nails in place of ferrous sulfate to sadden colors. Some dyers dye in an iron pot to achieve the same effect.

Safety note: Although alum, cream of tartar, and iron are much less toxic than other mordants, it’s best to be cautious when using them. Wear gloves, a respirator, and goggles throughout the entire mordanting and dyeing processes, and store unused powdered mordants and used mordant baths in a safe location. Reserve your dyeing equipment for this use only; don’t use the same pots to prepare food.


You can dye wool, cotton, linen, or silk fibers, but wool is easiest. Most, but not all, dyes require a mordant to help set the color (see “Using Mordants in Dyeing”). Some herbs—such as safflower, turmeric, and tea—do not need a mordant, but using one can increase the range of shades possible. Changing the pH of the water by adding vinegar, lemon juice, or baking soda to the dye pot can greatly affect color, too.

Making herbal dyes is both an art and a science, and many excellent books are available on the topic (see “Resources”). Here’s a basic step-by-step process for dyeing wool yarn in an herbal dye bath heated on the stove. Allow 4 to 6 hours, start to finish, if you’re working with flowers, foliage, or berries. For bark and roots, the process takes longer because you must presoak these tough-textured herbs the night before you dye the wool.

Note that the herb quantities are approximate; the amount may vary depending on the plant you use. In general, fresh herbs produce the best results. For the dye bath, many dyers prefer to use soft rainwater or distilled water because the mineral content and pH of some tap water can affect the dye color.

MATERIALS: 1 pound (four 4-ounce skeins) undyed wool yarn; 20-quart or larger stainless steel or enamel stockpot; cotton thread; mild soap; large towel; 1-quart stainless steel or enamel pan; plastic or wooden stirring rod; 4 ounces alum; 1 ounce cream of tartar; insulated rubber gloves; respirator mask; safety goggles; plastic bag; herbs for dyeing (per pound of yarn, use about 8 quarts fresh flowers or foliage, or 1 pound bark or berries, or ½ pound roots); large sieve; ½ ounce iron; 1 additional ounce cream of tartar (optional for saddening); and nonreactive container

Goldenrod flowers are a natural source of golden yellow for dyeing.

1. Wash the yarn. To keep the yarn from becoming tangled while it’s washed and dyed, first wrap the skeins with cotton thread in a figure eight pattern. Keep the thread loose enough to allow the dye to flow around the individual yarn strands. Wash the skeins for several minutes in warm water (95°F) with mild soap to remove all traces of dirt or oil that would repel the dye. Rinse with warm water, gently squeeze out the water (don’t wring or twist), and then roll the skein of yarn in a towel to absorb more moisture.

2. Mordant the wool. To help set the dye color, simmer the wool in a mordant bath. Heat 4 gallons of water in the large pot. Meanwhile, heat 1½ cups of water in the 1-quart pan over medium heat. While wearing safety goggles, a respirator, and gloves, dissolve the mordant—in this case, alum and cream of tartar—in the smaller pan of hot water. Stir the solution into the larger pot. When the water in the larger pot is lukewarm, add the yarn. Slowly increase the heat level to bring the water to a boil, then lower the heat and let it simmer for 1 hour. Let the mordant bath cool, then remove the wool. Place the wet yarn in a plastic bag until you’re ready to add it to the dye bath. Discard the mordant bath, or save it for reuse. If you save it, store it in a labeled, covered, glass container.

3. Prepare the herbs and dye bath. Depending on the plant you are using, either chop the leaves, stems, and roots; mash the berries; separate the petals from the flowers; or break up the bark. (If you’re using tough-textured roots or bark, presoak them overnight.) After you prepare the plant material, add it to the large pot, along with 4 gallons of fresh water (some dyers prefer soft rainwater). Over high heat, bring the water to a boil, and then reduce the heat and let it simmer for 30 to 60 minutes, until the herbs have released their color. Use the sieve to strain out the herbs. Allow the dye to cool to a lukewarm temperature (90° to 110°F).

4. Dye the wool. Place the dye over low heat and then add the skeins of wet yarn. (The yarn must be wet to absorb the dye.) Slowly raise the heat level until the dye reaches a simmer. Slowly lift and turn the yarn with the stirring rod; don’t stir or agitate it, which could mat the fibers. The yarn should be covered by the bath but move around freely on its own. Simmer for about 1 hour, until the yarn is the color you want—or slightly darker. (The color lightens as the yarn dries.) Dyes made from flowers might take only half an hour; those made from roots or bark could take 2 hours.

Optional (to sadden the yarn color): Remove the yarn from the dye bath. Dissolve the iron and cream of tartar in 1 cup of boiling water in a nonreactive container, then stir the liquid into the dye bath. Put the yarn back into the bath and let it simmer for 20 to 40 minutes.

5. Rinse and dry the yarn. Fill a large clean bucket, utility tub, or laundry sink with warm water (90° to 110°F). Transfer the yarn from the dye bath into the rinse water. Gently lift and turn the skeins to release excess dye. Drain the water, then repeat the process two or three more times, using successively cooler water until the rinse water looks clear. Roll the skeins in a towel, then gently press out the water. Finish drying the yarn in the shade.


These are just a few of the many plants that will yield colorful dyes. Using different parts of the same plant, along with different mordants, can result in very different colors.





Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria)

Brassy yellow

Leaves, stems


Betony (Stachys officinalis)




Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)




Calendula (Calendula officinalis)




Chamomile, Roman (Chamaemelum nobile)

Bright yellow



Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Soft yellow






Deep yellow



Dock (Rumex spp.)




Dark green






Elder (Sambucus spp.)

Soft yellow






Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)




Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)




Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)

Mustard yellow



Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria)


Fermented leaves


Madder (Rubia tinctorum)




Nettle (Urtica dioica)

Greenish yellow



Plantain (Plantago major)

Dull gold



Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)

Pink to red



Pomegranate (Punica granatum)

Yellow to brown



Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)


Leaves, flowers


Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius)

Pink-red or yellow



Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum)







Turmeric (Curcuma longa)

Golden yellow



Uva-ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)






Alum and iron

Woad (Isatis tinctoria)





With solar dyeing, there’s no need to stand over a hot stove for several hours and no need to pretreat the wool with a mordant bath. The sun’s heat does the work, gradually releasing the plant pigments over several days. This method works best with delicate flowers, leaves, and berries, sometimes producing brighter colors than the stove top method does. You can dye 8 ounces of yarn in a 2-gallon glass jar with a lid (available from restaurant supply stores or online).

MATERIALS: 8 ounces clean wool yarn (to clean, see Step 1 in the stove top method, this page); 2-gallon wide-mouth glass jar with lid; 4 to 5 quarts fresh flowers, leaves, or berries; 1-quart pan; 4 teaspoons alum; 2 teaspoons cream of tartar; stirring rod

Presoak the wool in warm water for at least 1 hour. Meanwhile, add the prepared herbs to the jar, then add lukewarm water to cover the herbs. In a 1-quart pan, heat 1½ cups of water over medium heat, then dissolve the alum and cream of tartar in the hot water. Add the water to the jar, and use the stirring rod to stir. Add the wet wool to the jar, then add more warm water to within 1 inch of the top of the jar. Stir gently. Cap and set the jar in the sun for several days or as long as a week, shaking the jar daily, until the wool has reached a shade you like. Remove the wool carefully, squeeze out the water, then rinse several times in lukewarm water. Squeeze and blot dry. Finish drying the wool in the shade.


Just as we use herbs to enhance our own lives, we can do the same for our four-legged family members—our pets. A growing number of veterinarians take a holistic approach to health care for animals, and that includes the use of herbs to promote wellness and increase the quality and length of our pets’ lives. At home, you can use herbs to supplement your pet’s diet and make healing preparations for them. But remember: Always work with a veterinarian who is trained in the use of herbs for pets.


The holistic approach to pet health begins with a healthy and balanced diet that provides essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. In the wild, our pets’ ancestors got protein and fat from meat, calcium from crunching on bones, and vegetables from the digestive tracts of their prey.

The commercial pet foods we feed our pets today often lack nutrients that cats or dogs need to be healthy at different times in their lives. Or they contain meat by-products or vegetable sources of protein, which aren’t always easy for pets to digest. Commercial foods may also contain things your pet doesn’t need, like preservatives and coloring agents. After consuming a steady diet of packaged food for several years, dogs and cats frequently begin to show signs of poor health, such as bad breath, itchy skin, intestinal gas, and dull or dry coats.

Often, simply giving your pet a more balanced natural diet is enough to reverse skin problems, digestive disorders, kidney problems, depression, and other conditions. While commercial natural foods are preferable to their mainstream counterparts, many holistic veterinarians recommend bypassing commercial foods altogether and making your pet’s food at home, using the freshest, most wholesome natural ingredients. Whole foods, such as uncooked meats and plants, come much closer to the diet our pets’ ancestors consumed, and herbs can play an important part in your pet’s natural diet.

The most important step in planning a natural diet is to make sure you’ll provide the right mix of nutrients. For adult dogs, that usually means one-third protein, one-third vegetables, and one-third grains. Cats need more meat protein: Their diets should include 50 to 80 percent meat, with the balance made up of vegetables and grains. Of course, every pet has different needs (puppies and kittens need more protein, for example), so it’s a good idea to discuss these proportions with your vet. Here are the basic ingredients of a natural diet for dogs and cats.

• Meat: Holistic veterinarians recommend beef, poultry, lamb, pork, venison, and occasionally seafood to provide the protein and fats that all dogs and cats require. Some holistic vets favor fresh, raw meat because cooking can destroy healthful proteins, bacteria, and enzymes, and it can make meats harder to digest. If you’re concerned about salmonella or other pathogens, lightly steam or boil the meat. Always cook pork or fish, which could contain harmful parasites. To ensure that your cat receives enough of the critical amino acid taurine, include small amounts of raw poultry heart, mackerel, or clams in her diet. But limit her intake of tuna—an all-tuna diet can lead to a deficiency of vitamin E.

• Vegetables and fruits: Cats and dogs get vitamins, minerals, fiber, and immune-supporting antioxidants from plant foods. Good choices include carrots, celery, broccoli, zucchini, cucumber, leafy greens, and bean and alfalfa sprouts. Go easy on the spinach; it contains oxalic acid, which can bind with calcium and cause bladder and kidney stones. Unsalted pumpkin seeds and peanut butter, as well as apples, oranges, bananas, and watermelon are also good dietary additions. You don’t need to cook the vegetables or fruits—grate, puree, blend, or juice them. Never feed them avocado, chocolate, garlic, onions, grapes, macadamia nuts, green potatoes, and green tomatoes. These foods can cause serious problems or even death.

• Grains: Unless your pet has a known grain allergy, whole grains are good to include because they are a natural source of the carbohydrates needed to fuel your pet’s brain and muscles. Dogs and cats don’t digest grains as easily as they do meats, so be sure to cook grains to unlock their nutrients.

• Calcium: A homemade natural pet food must provide calcium, either in the form of steamed bonemeal (human food quality) or baked eggshell powder. To make eggshell powder, bake eggshells in a 400°F oven for about 5 minutes, then use a rolling pin or mortar and pestle to crush the shells into a fine powder. Dark leafy greens, such as kale and chard, are also good sources of calcium.

• Herbs: Many herbs are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids. Adding these nutritive herbs (see “Nutritive Herbs for Pets”) to your pet’s daily diet will help ensure that he receives all of the nutrients necessary for a long, healthy, active life. Herbs supply nutrients in an easy-to-assimilate, natural form without stressing your pet’s liver or kidneys and without creating imbalances the way megadoses of vitamins and minerals can.

As a dietary supplement, herbs especially benefit older dogs and cats. Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), which supports the immune system and increases vitality, is a good general tonic for older animals. Nettle (Urtica dioica), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), and parsley (Petroselinum crispum) benefit senior pets’ kidneys, livers, and digestive systems. For older animals who show symptoms of nervous system impairment, your holistic vet might suggest ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), gotu kola (Centella asiatica), peppermint (Mentha × piperita), or oat straw (Avena sativa). To support your older pet’s heart, hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and ginkgo can be used. Dandelion leaves (either minced or made into a tea and added to food) are very effective for removing excess fluid from the body, associated with congestive heart failure.


Instead of buying dog and cat treats with questionable ingredients, you can make your own natural biscuits and cookies for your pet. Experiment by adding or substituting some of the nutritive herbs found on this page. Use a cookie cutter to make fun shapes.

Cheese and Herb Dog Biscuits

1¾ cups all-purpose flour

1 cup rolled oats

1 cup finely grated cheese

3 tablespoons ground flaxseed

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley

1¼ cups water

1. Preheat the oven to 300°F. Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray.

2. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, oatmeal, cheese, flaxseed, and parsley. Pour in the water and mix thoroughly to form a dough. Flour a clean surface and roll out the dough on it. Cut the dough into shapes using a floured cookie cutter. Use a spatula to transfer the biscuits to the baking sheet. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes, until the biscuits are lightly browned. Cool the biscuits on the tray, and store them in an airtight container.

Nippy Kitty Cookies

1 tablespoon ground flaxseed

3 tablespoons water

1¼ cups all-purpose flour

¼ cup milk

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

2 tablespoons molasses

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon fresh (or 1 teaspoon dry) chopped catnip (Nepeta cataria)

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray.

2. In a small bowl, combine the flaxseed with the water, and let the mixture sit for 2 minutes. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, milk, parsley, molasses, oil, and catnip, then stir in the flaxseed mixture. Flour a clean surface and roll out the dough on it. Cut the dough into shapes with a floured cookie cutter or knife. Transfer the cookies to the baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes. Cool the cookies on the tray, and store them in an airtight container.


Even with a healthy diet and regular exercise, your cat or dog could be plagued by parasites, be stung by a bee, or could develop an acute or chronic disease. A holistic veterinarian might treat the problem in a variety of ways, but the treatment will likely include the use of herbs. Here are a few of the most common problems dogs and cats experience and the herbs used to treat them. Work with your vet to determine the best preparation and dosage for your pet. To find a holistic veterinarian in your area, contact the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association ( Many of these practitioners use herbs as part of an integrated approach to pet health.

Allergies: Allergies result when the body’s immune system becomes overactive in response to an allergen. Besides identifying and avoiding the triggering substance, treatment could include the use of herbs that help the body filter toxins, such as burdock (Arctium lappa) and dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) root. Diuretic nettle (Urtica dioica) and dandelion leaf help rid the body of waste. (Nettle also has antihistamine properties, making it useful against seasonal allergies.) Immune system modulators, such as astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), can also be helpful. Also, be sure your pet is receiving adequate amounts of essential fatty acids, found in flaxseed and borage seed oil.

Anxiety and nervous disorders: For acute anxiety, such as may be caused by travel, for instance, your pet’s practitioner might recommend Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), or valerian (Valeriana officinalis) to help the pet relax. If anxiety and nervousness are chronic, work with your vet to determine the underlying causes. Adaptogenic herbs such as astragalus can help a chronically anxious pet manage stress. Use sedative herbs, such as valerian, only occasionally—not routinely.

Arthritis: The pain of joint degeneration and the inflammation that accompanies it can be eased with anti-inflammatory herbs such as boswellia (Boswellia serrata), licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), and alfalfa (Medicago sativa). Nettle, dandelion, and burdock help rid the body of toxic wastes. Dogs may also benefit from a warm compress of comfrey (Symphytum officinale) leaves or yarrow, applied externally to sore joints.

Digestive troubles: Recurrent diarrhea and vomiting can be symptoms of other, more serious conditions, such as pancreatitis, liver disease, or cancer. To relieve occasional colon pain and spasms (colic) and eliminate excess gas, try fennel seed (Foeniculum vulgare), chamomile, dill (Anethum graveolens), peppermint (Mentha • piperita), or marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis). For a bout of diarrhea, gentle astringent herbs, such as chamomile, slippery elm (Ulmus rubra), or plantain (Plantago major), or mucilaginous marshmallow root, are helpful. For constipation, dandelion root or marshmallow root are effective.

Don’t be surprised to find your cat napping after an active play session in the catnip.

Ear mites: Ear mites and bacterial or fungal infections of the ear can be treated with oil that’s infused with garlic (Allium sativum) or calendula (Calendula officinalis) or mullein (Verbascum thapsus) flowers. Apply three to seven drops of the oil into the ear canal daily for up to 4 weeks.

Fleas and ticks: If your pet suffers from fleabites despite having a healthy diet, supplementing his diet with a small amount of dry or blanched nettle leaves could help reduce the severity of his allergic response. Besides being nutritious, nettle has antihistamine properties. To remove fleas indoors, vacuum frequently and wash pet bedding. Use a flea comb on your pet. Be sure to use the kind sold in pet supply stores.

As a preventative, treat your pet with an herbal spray that contains natural insect-repelling compounds. (See “Fleas-Be-Gone Spray or Shampoo.”) If your pet already has a flea problem, you can use the same formula to make a flea shampoo. Do not use products that contain pennyroyal or pyrethrins, which can be toxic to pets—especially cats.

Urinary problems: Antimicrobial and soothing to irritated mucous membranes, marshmallow root tea (given in very small quantities) is a good treatment for urinary tract infections, kidney stones, and inflammation. Immune-stimulating and antimicrobial echinacea (Echinacea spp.) can help reduce or prevent infections. Nettles, dandelion, and goldenrod (Solidago spp.) will stimulate urine flow, and gingko improves blood circulation in the kidneys. If your pet’s kidneys have been damaged by a poor diet, liver disease, or other problems, your vet will probably recommend a reduced-protein diet, as well.

Skin problems: Calendula (Calendula officinalis) flowers prepared as a spritz (an infusion applied as a spray), oil, or salve is one of the safest, most effective treatments for minor skin inflammations, scrapes, itches, and burns. Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) also have skin-healing properties and can be used in sprays, oils, or salves. They also make good additions to calendula preparations. Try aloe juice for burns and fresh yarrow leaves for wounds with minor bleeding. For abscesses or infected wounds that require draining, first apply a poultice of macerated plantain (Plantago major) mixed with a bit of olive oil or witch hazel; after the wound has drained, apply calendula oil or salve.


The following herbs are excellent daily additions to your pet’s diet. Finely mince the fresh, organic herbs and sprinkle them over food just before serving. Grind the seeds into a powder and add just a pinch to food before serving. Decoct (simmer in water for 10 to 15 minutes) the burdock root, and pour some of the liquid over your pet’s food.


(Petroselinum crispum) leaves

Supplies protein; also rich in vitamins A and C, calcium, riboflavin, potassium, iron, magnesium, niacin, and phosphorus.


(Taraxacum officinale) leaves

Rich in protein, potassium, vitamin A, iron, manganese, and other trace minerals; supports the liver.


(Urtica dioica) leaves

Rich in protein, phosphorus, iron, magnesium, and potassium, as well as vitamins A, C, D, and B complex. (Note: Nettle leaves must be dried or cooked to destroy the plant’s stinging qualities.)


(Portulaca oleracea) leaves—

An excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, as well as vitamins A and C and the minerals iron, magnesium, and calcium.


(Borago officinalis) seeds, evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) seeds, or flax (Linum usitatissimum) seeds

Provide essential fatty acids, necessary for the development and maintenance of the brain, liver, heart, and immune system.


(Arctium lappa) root

Abundant source of calcium, phosphorus, and thiamine; excellent liver tonic, cleanses the body of toxins.

Fleas-Be-Gone Spray or Shampoo

Any combination of the following herbs totaling 2 tablespoons fresh or 1 tablespoon dried:

Rosemary leaves (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Oregano leaves (Origanum vulgare)

Lemon verbena leaves (Aloysia citriodora)

Lavender buds (Lavandula angustifolia)

Spearmint leaves (Mentha spicata)

Calendula petals (Calendula officinalis)

2 cups boiling water

1 tablespoon baby shampoo or liquid castile soap (if making shampoo)

Place the herbs in a medium pot or heatproof bowl. Cover the herbs with the boiling water, and let them steep until the tea has cooled. Strain out the herbs.

For a repellent spray: Fill a spray bottle with the herbal liquid. Spray your pet, rubbing the liquid into her fur. Begin using this spray at the beginning of flea and tick season, and repeat several times each week.

For a shampoo: Combine the shampoo or liquid castile soap with the herbal liquid. In a bathtub filled with warm water, massage the shampoo into your pet’s damp fur and lather well. Wait 10 minutes, then rinse with water. The shampoo will cause fleas to jump off and drown in the water. Reapply once or twice each week until the fleas are gone.

Some insect-repelling herbs make effective and fragrant flea treatments for pets.