Agatha Noveille is an herbalist, author, and educator at the Herbal Academy. The Academy offers online herbalism training programs including courses for beginner, intermediate, and advanced level students.
Perennial plants can be thought of as a gardener’s best friend. After an initial planting, they come back year after year, largely fuss-free, so you can focus on enjoying your garden rather than cultivating and maintaining it. By planting perennial herbs, you can enjoy their beauty and their practical uses to support your health! Most herbs are even hardier than the average perennial once they are established, making them a fabulous choice for the perennial garden. As a bonus, pollinators and butterflies adore most herbs so you won’t be the only one enjoying your perennial plantings.
Herbs can adapt to a wide range of climates, and many aren’t even very particular about soil requirements. Here’s a quick guide to 11 medicinal herbs that grow back year after year, and just might be a perfect match for your garden.
This cheery member of the sunflower family prefers sun and a rich, moist soil. Elecampane has naturalized in parts of North America, but is native to southern Europe and parts of Asia, and has been a cherished herb for the lungs and digestion since ancient times. Elecampane’s yellow, daisy-like flowers bloom in the late summer. True to its sunflower family roots, this herb can grow to 6 feet in height, so be sure to give it plenty of room. You can divide elecampane roots in spring or fall to increase this herb’s presence in your garden, if desired.
Most wild yarrows have white or pink flowers, but garden hybrids may have many shades of pink or red. Achillea filipendula is a variety with yellow blooms. The leaves of yarrow form a dense mat or mound, and the flower umbels bloom on a stem that is about one foot in height. Creeping roots and self-seeding proficiency mean that this herb can become invasive in some settings, especially the wild varieties, but if you are going for drifts of natural-looking plantings there’s no reason to worry. If you prefer a more formal garden layout, garden hybrids tend to be somewhat better behaved. This herb is native to Europe, Asia, and North America. Yarrow likes a hot, dry habitat with full sun and is quite happy in poor but well-drained soil. Besides it’s feathery foliage and cheerful blooms, yarrow was cultivated in herb gardens as a wound plant and fever aid.
The polite way to describe lemon balm is “vigorous.” This bushy herb is in the mint family and can grow to 12-32 inches tall. By midsummer, lemon balm’s amazing fragrance will be at its most well-developed, and you can enjoy this herb as an iced tea and culinary herb as well as for its traditional uses for uplifting the mood. This is a wonderful family herb, and is safe for all ages, although you may want to use lemon balm sparingly if you have thyroid problems. Not the least bit picky, lemon balm will make itself at home in almost any garden and can crowd out more timid neighbors. You can keep it under control using a root barrier or by growing the herb in pots that have been sunk into the soil. Lemon balm will thrive in either part shade or full sun. Traditionally used as a bee plant, pollinators love this herb.
A very hardy mint family plant, horehound is about two feet tall when fully grown. Its downy leaves are a soft, green gray color and whorls of small white flowers appear in the summer. Native to Europe, Northern Africa, and Asia, this herb has naturalized in other areas. Horehound prefers a sunny spot, but isn’t picky about soil. Traditionally used as a digestive bitter and also as a lung remedy, you may have come across traditional horehound candy at an old timey-general store.
Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea spp.
Although most herbalists turn to E. purpurea or E. angustifolia to make their teas and extracts, there are a number of native echinacea species and also showy hybrids that are often available at garden centers in the summer months. Choosing a native species over a hybrid helps conserve native biodiversity, and they are just as beautiful! Echinacea can grow up to four feet tall and has purple daisy-like flowers with brown, prickly centers. These brown, prickly cones give the plant both the common name “coneflower” and the binomial “Echinacea”, which is Greek for hedgehog. This plant is a prairie herb, so it needs well-drained, rich soil and sun or partial shade. You can cut it back as the flowers fade to encourage a second blooming. Echinacea is well-known herb for immune system support.
The flowers of valerian are white and vanilla-scented. The root, which is used medicinally, has a musky smell that people either love or hate! This herb can grow up to five feet tall and loves damp, fertile soil, but can adapt to drier areas. Valerian grows very easily from seed in the spring, or can be propagated by root division in spring or fall. Traditionally, valerian was used as a sedative, for headaches, and for anxiety.
Monarda didyma; M. fistulosa
Bee balm is a plant in the mint family with gorgeous, showy red or lavender blossoms. The leaves and flowers can be made into a delicious tea and the dried leaves can be used as an oregano substitute. Sometimes called bergamot, bee balm has a complex sweet and citrusy taste with oregano undertones. Bee balm likes damp, rich soil in partial shade but can tolerate full sun with enough watering. Bee balm has been used historically for digestion, fever, and burns, among other things.
Feverfew is a bushy plant with white, daisy-like flowers. Native to southern Europe, this herb will adapt to most soil types as long as it is dry, well drained . . . and poor! Feverfew really doesn’t need to be pampered and is drought-resistant. It can be started from cuttings, divisions, or seed in the spring and is usually easy to cultivate from any of these methods. Feverfew has been used for migraines, menstrual problems, and rheumatic pains.
The root and leaf of marshmallow were traditionally used to soothe inflammation of the gums, mouth, throat, and digestive tract and as a cough remedy. This herb grows 3-4 feet tall and blooms with pale pink flowers in summer. It’s related to hollyhocks, and although it is less showy than its cousin it is still pretty. Marshmallow does best with moist to wet soil, and is very happy in a sunny spot. Germination can be difficult, and it is best to sow seeds in the fall to overwinter. Once marshmallow is established in your garden, you can divide plants in the fall to cultivate more.
Licorice grows to around four feet tall and sports small violet blooms that look like pea flowers. Licorice is, in fact, a member of the pea family. Originally from China and the Middle East, this herb needs deep, moist soil, and sun. The roots can be divided in the fall or spring if you’d like to increase your plantings, but germination of the seeds is very slow. Pinching back the flowers will encourage stronger roots. Licorice root was a traditional remedy for the lungs, digestive problems, as a decongestant, and to soothe sore throats, but licorice may increase blood pressure and potassium levels in some people.
With a fondness for growing beside a water source, meadowsweet prefers moist or even wet soil so it may be a perfect herb for a problem boggy spot in your garden. Meadowsweet can handle sun or partial shade, but dislikes acidic soils, so be sure to check your soil pH before introducing it to your garden. Meadowsweet is a very pretty herb with drifts of fluffy, cream-colored flowers in the summer, and the plant can reach three or four feet in height. Native to Europe and Asia, meadowsweet has naturalized in some areas of North America. A few of the historical uses for this herb include alleviating heartburn, gastric ulcers, arthritis, rheumatism, pain, and supporting urinary tract health.
Perennial herbs can be beautiful, useful additions to your garden – both as hardy, fuss-free landscaping, pollinator-friendly habitat, and as a homegrown resource for our physical well-being. These hardy plants can truly grace both our gardens and our health! Happy gardening!