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Natural Awakenings Metro Phoenix & Northern Arizona

Growing Herbs in the Desert

Mar 02, 2013 07:34AM ● By Madalyn Johnson

Our beautiful desert landscape is full of medicinal herbs growing naturally in the wild or organically in our backyard gardens. Just think about our desert that is loaded with chaparral (creosote bush), rosemary, wild sage, aloe vera and so much more. Everyone is familiar with the smell of our desert rain. Don’t you wish you could bottle that scent? Well, that smell is produced by the chaparral bush, and chaparral is one of our most healing herbs. It is used for myriad issues, but historically has been used for blood cleansing, anti-tumor effects, skin sores and wounds, arthritis, colds and urinary infections, and is known to have analgesic qualities, as well as anti-inflammatory properties. The list goes on and on. Chaparral leaves can be made into a tea or made into a salve for topical use.

Also growing abundantly in our Southwest desert is the aloe vera plant, which is frequently used in commercial lotions, lip balms and creams, due to its soothing, moisturizing and healing properties. It is also an effective treatment for wounds, speeding up the rate of healing and used largely for its pain-relieving benefits on first- and second-degree burns. This is a wonderful addition to anyone’s garden, as it is impossible to kill. Ignore it and it will grow stronger.

Don’t forget our culinary herbs that love the desert sun. Cilantro, mints of many varieties, basil, lavendar and stevia all grow well in Arizona and have many wonderful healing properties. Cilantro is a great chelator of heavy metals. Besides being wonderful in salsa and many Mexican dishes, it can be used in your morning juice. Just a handful daily goes a long way to keep your system clean of heavy metals.

Many varieties of lavender (lavandula angustifolia) grow in the desert and make your yard look and smell wonderful. Lavender can be used in many applications: as an essential oil for headaches, on your baby’s pajamas for a restful night’s sleep or to use the dried flowers in a wonderful lavender lemonade on a hot summer day.

Peppermint (mentha piperita) is another herb that grows plentifully, is known to have a calming and numbing effect and might cause a slight tingling sensation. Peppermint is used as a flavor enhancer in toothpaste, gum and soap. For many indigestion issues, peppermint relaxes the stomach’s muscle tissue, allowing bile to flow easier; this same relaxation allows gas to pass through the digestive system easier, reducing bloating and gas.

The menthol found in peppermint loosens congestion, rendering it an effective decongestant and expectorant. Topically, peppermint is calming and soothing to skin irritations such as poison ivy or hives. To make a nice topical salve, harvest four cups of peppermint leaves and dry wilt them. Put these leaves into a jar, cover with oil (olive oil, grapeseed oil, jojoba, almond or any oil of your choosing). Let sit in the sun for three to four weeks. When the oil is ready, strain through cheesecloth and measure the oil. For every one cup of oil, add a quarter-ounce of beeswax (more or less, depending on how hard you like your salve). Heat on low over stove until beeswax is melted. Pour into small jars and label. This also makes a wonderful gift.

Stevia (stevia rebaudiana) is a wonderful container plant. Put it in several pots around your yard and it will supply you with abundant sweetness for a very long time. Stevia is a natural, zero-calorie sweetener, many say sweeter than sugar. The list of medicinal benefits is long, including antibacterial, antiseptic, antimicrobial, anti-glycemic and antihypertensive, which may help with hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, chronic fatigue and on and on.

A simple way to make a stevia version of a simple syrup would be to harvest a bowl full of stevia leaves. A home dehydrator can be used for drying, but here in Phoenix, where we have warm afternoons, lay them out in your yard and let the sun do its thing. They will dry quite nicely in 12 hours (depending on sunlight). To release the sweetness of stevia, crush the dried leaves with a mortar and pestle or in a coffee grinder. Add a cup of warm water to about a quarter-cup of crushed stevia leaves. Let this mixture sit for 24 hours and then refrigerate it. This can be used in your lavender lemonade or many other recipes that call for liquid sweetener.

So, give it a go. If you love herbs and love gardening, these two worlds can meet and produce a wonderful result. Happy harvesting!

Madalyn Johnson is co-owner, with Herbalist Kathleen Gould, RH (AHG), of SW Herb & Gathering Place, 148 N. Center St., in Mesa. Contact her at 480-694-9931 or

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