Gardeners can grow their own medicine

MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERSApril 3, 2014 

I've got foxglove, source of the powerful prescription heart medication digoxin, and angel's trumpet, a notoriously toxic hallucinogen. I just like 'em for the flowers (really!). But, yeah, I do keep my stoner feline supplied with catnip.

Many more plants are nothing but good for you, says Mary Jim Skipper - "Skipper" to her friends. Skipper is 90 going on 40-something, a gardener who worked as a registered nurse for more than 50 years. She learned about the healing powers of plants and minerals from her grandfather, whose free remedies, passed down from his American Indian great-grandmother, sustained many an impoverished neighbor through the Great Depression.

"Everything we need, God put here in this perfect aquarium," says Skipper, whose only medication is one baby aspirin a day - two when she overdoes it in her West Tampa garden. Peppermint aids digestion; rose hip is loaded with vitamin C; lemongrass cleanses; ginseng works miracles, she says.

Back in the day, when many of her friends turned to surgery for relief from severe perimenopausal problems, Skipper opted for ginseng.

"Ginseng is mentioned many times in the Bible, so I read up on it," she says. "I decided if it was good enough for all those women in the Bible, it was worth a try." In less than six weeks, she was back to normal.

"God put everything on this Earth that we need to heal," she says. "Sunshine, water, fresh air, and after 40, red wine."

Some Tampa Bay, Fla., gardeners' favorite healing plants:

ALOE ARBORESCENS

Annie Sprague, Mitch Armstrong Nursery (HeyPlantMan! blog), St. Petersburg

Lots of readers recommend aloe vera. It's easy to grow and great for burns. Annie says Aloe arborescens is even better.

"It is AMAZING how fast healing the inner sap is!" she says.

She and Mitch sell it, but they also keep one for themselves.

"We're always getting cuts in our business, and I suffer from cracked cuticles from schlepping plant pots."

Put it in a pot or in the ground in full sun. It requires little water.

Pull a leaf from the bottom, slice the edge and fold it open. Apply the jelly liberally to any skin problems.

PARSLEY (FLAT LEAF ITALIAN OR CURLED LEAF)

Becky Perry, longtime member of the Fern Garden Club, Odessa

Parsley is good for fighting colds, and it's packed with nutrients, Becky says.

"I use it in a broth elixir when I feel a cold coming on," she says.

Her elixir, served hot, includes chicken broth, garlic, lemon, carrots, cayenne and parsley.

"I go heavy on the garlic and parsley to fight any viral or bacterial (or vampire) invasion going on."

Parsley, an annual, requires well-drained but moist soil, and full sun.

MEDICINAL ONION (PREGNANT ONION), ORNITHOGALUM CAUDATUM

Linda Harcrow, Dunedin gardener

"My great-grandmother brought medicinal onion bulbs from Germany when she immigrated here in the 1890s," Linda says. "My grandmother always had several pots and used it on her nine children and numerous grandchildren. We pass down the bulbs to each new generation."

A slice of the leaf smashed onto a Band-Aid and placed over a cut speeds healing, Linda says. It's also a soothing pain reliever.

The plant isn't a true onion. Its bulbous base stores water and it multiplies by producing little "onions." Just pick them off when they sprout leaves and plant.

"They're easy to grow," Linda says. She keeps hers on her porch, out of direct sunlight.

FAMILY DOCTOR MEDICINE PLANT, CALLISIA FRAGRANS

Tanja Vidovic, urban edibles gardener, Tampa

There are 200 medicinal uses for family doctor medicine plant, says Tanja, a paramedic married to a nurse.

"One of my favorites is chewing the leaves for headaches," she says.

An old pass-along, family doctor is a tender perennial that likes full to part sun. It can grow as a groundcover, but some gardeners warn it's invasive. They keep it in hanging pots.

LEAF OF LIFE, BRYOPHYLLUM PINNATUM

Pat McGehee, Town 'N Country gardener

"In Panama, Indian women place a large leaf on a fork and heat it over the stove until the juice inside is warm," says Pat, who lived in the Central American country for years.

They squeeze out the liquid, mix with honey and ingest a spoonful to relieve congestion. In other countries, it's used for headaches, hypertension, as a pain reliever for kidney stones and topically for inflammation.

This succulent likes sun to part shade. It reproduces prolifically in Florida (it's also called "mother of millions"), so grow it in a container, preferably indoors.

Penny Carnathan writes a column for the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times.

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