Casual Gardener: The medicine cabinet in your garden
The pandemic has prompted increased interest in medicinal plants...
LAST year at the height of the pandemic, I was contacted by someone who believed they had potentially found a cure for Covid – or at least something that significantly reduced the likelihood of catching the virus. It wasn't a drug they had developed over many months in a lab, nor had there been clinical trials conducted to test its efficacy. The magic remedy they had discovered was in their vegetable rack, none other than the humble onion, a crop whose properties are at the root – pun intended – of many an old wives' tale.
As far back as the 16th century it was claimed that placing a cut raw onion in rooms could protect its occupants from contracting bubonic plague. While onions do indeed have many antimicrobial properties, their ability to stem the spread of contagious diseases is somewhat exaggerated.
Yet people seem to love the notion that despite the pharmaceutical industry investing billions every year in pioneering new drugs, there are remedies, cures and treatments to be found in many everyday plants. The idea isn't without foundation, of course, as the ingredients in lots of medicines, including aspirin and digoxin, which is used to treat heart failure, are derived from plants – spirea and digitalis respectively in this case.
Around the same time I received my call, it was reported that interest in plants with medicinal properties had exploded.
Online retailer Gardening Express saw "sales increase by as much as almost 3,000 per cent" (checks notes) on certain varieties last autumn.
It would appear the plants were being used more for medicinal rather than ornamental purposes.
"It seems like customers are looking for natural ways to boost their immune system and remain healthy as lockdown restrictions continue," said Chris Bonnett from GardeningExpress.co.uk.
Echinacea, gingko, Sambucus (elder) and green tea plants were the big sellers
Echinacea, typically with flowers of pink cones surrounded by purple petals, is a great ornamental but in my experience temperamental. Medicinally, it has been used to ward off flu, with the roots and leaves used in herbal tablets. Not a bigger selling point in Ireland, but apparently echinacea is used in the treatment of snake bites.
Ginkgo is a long-lived, large deciduous tree, replete with antioxidants. Its unusual spring foliage is light green, turning to a dazzling yellow during autumn. It works well as a backdrop to a herbaceous border if kept in check with pruning.
The green tea plant (Camellia Sinensis) has attractive slender stems, in spring covered by masses of white flowers with huge yellow stamens. It is treasured for its readily infused leaves, which are said to boost the immune system, lower the risk of heart disease and even reduce bad breath.
Sambucus, my own favourite, is packed with vitamin C and if you're on top of your game, you'll have already made a cordial or champagne in early July from the sweet, white flowers of the elder.
It's the berries turn over the coming weeks. They too are packed with antioxidants and vitamins which can give your immune system a boost. Other suggested benefits include easing inflammation, reducing stress and protecting your heart.
The native elder grows freely in hedgerows and on ditches but there's also the more striking Sambucus 'Black Lace', which has dramatic, almost black leaves with creamy pink buds and flowers from May to June. In the autumn, the plant is adorned with blackish, red berries.