I find the world of medical herbs fascinating. We had such a cornucopia of medicines all around us for thousands of years – Mother Nature's touch of magic to help keep us healthy and happy. Then, because of our own stupidity, we lost many of them.

We lost the plants and we lost the knowledge of our ancestors. Many are regaining interest in these natural curers; some still look upon it as superstitious nonsense but even our 'superior' modern research cannot deny the evidence. Many common herbs are full of well-documented goodness. I use the term 'herb' here in the broadest sense – a plant that is useful and not purely decorative; this can encompass anything from lichen to giant trees.

We're putting together, at the Garden Centre, some little known herbs that are giants in keeping us healthy and curing ailments. Small pots but big power. We'll be starting off with a range of six of the best, but we will add into our herbal magic corner. Here, in a two-part feature, are the six.

Aloe vera, syn. aloe barbadensis, also known as the Healing Plant, Wand of Heaven.

Aloe verais one that many will recognise. It is believed to have originated in Africa. Like most aloes, it likes plenty of sunshine and little water. It can be damaged by freezing temperatures, snow and ice. The fleshy leaves grow in rosettes with a yellow candelabra flower. Young plants, known as 'pups' grow around the base of the mother and can be detached and planted to increase stock.

Medically: man is known to have used aloe vera for 5000 years. The ancient Chinese and Egyptians utilised this remarkable plant for a multitude of reasons but especially in embalming mummies (for its preservative properties) and against tuberculosis and other respiratory problems. It contains over 200 active components; it is one of very few plants that contain vitamin B12, amongst many others, and some 20 minerals. It is hardly surprising that it is used for a wide range of ailments such as: stomach irritations, digestive problems, ulcers, gastritis, constipation, nausea, asthma, diabetes, epilepsy, osteoarthritis; it helps blood circulation, detoxes, and reduces cholesterol. It is a great disinfectant and is antibiotic, anti-microbial, anti-bacterial, antiseptic, anti-fungal and anti-viral. It reduces inflammation of painful joints. It is probably most known for its ability to soothe and heal all types of burns, rashes, bites and stings. Wounds heal quicker and scarring is reduced, skin complaints such as eczema and psoriasis are eased. Even Cleopatra used it as part of her beauty regime – it helps towards beautiful skin and hair and slows down the aging process.

Externally: Cut a lower, more mature leaf and rub the interior gel onto the wound/burn. It soothes instantly. A leaf sliced open can be bandaged on a wound.

Internally: Take 1 tablespoon of the gel daily – it can be blended with juice. Aloe veraalkalises the body. This creates an environment where disease cannot grow – even cancers.

Contradications: most ancient cultures recognise the principal of taking a 'medicine' when it is needed. Daily, every day, is not the way. Let your body tell you.

also known as Mother of Thousands, Alligator plant or Mexican Hat plant.

Kalanchoedaigremontianais native to Mexican. The climate there is desert-like, thus plants will grow happily in hot, arid situations. It will not survive prolonged freezing temperatures. It is a quick grower and rapidly creates young plantlets on the borders of its leaves.

Medically: k.daigremontiana is used for all types of cellular damage, and especially cancer, tumours, abscesses, inflammation, rheumatism, deep wounds and gangrene, hypertension, renal problems and psychological problems such as schizophrenia, irrational fears and panic attacks.

Externally: mash the leaves and apply to the damaged area of skin. Juice of the leaves can also be mixed with oil to aid application.

Internally: 30g of fresh raw leaf daily, preferably in 2 x 15g takes. The leaves can be chopped and added to salads; they have a slightly bitter taste but are not objectionable. Or blend a dessertspoon of leaf with water and drink three times a day.

Contraindications: Should not be taken when pregnant as it can stimulate the uterus. Do not take if you have any heart condition. Do not take in a continuous form over large periods of time. This leaf is better used as a treatment rather than preventative. The plant – as many others – can be toxic when taken in very large quantities or over a prolonged period. Clinical tests have shown no toxicity up to 5g daily per kilo of bodyweight which is at least 10 times the suggested dosage here.
Kalanchoe is not a miracle performer on its own. To cure cancer you need to change habits of a lifetime. Exclude toxics from your diet, your home, your lifestyle. It's us that can create the miracle.

Stevia rebaudiana,also known as Sweet Herb, Sweet Leaf.
Native to Paraguay where it has been known since time immemorial by the Guarani Indians as a natural sweetener. The plants are adaptable but will not tolerate waterlogging or freezing conditions. Perennial, three crops per year are possible in Mediterranean Spain. Plant 0.5m apart and pinch frequently to encourage bushiness. To harvest, cut the plant down to 10cm above ground and hang the bundles in a light and airy place. The sweetness is greatest just before flowering, triggered by shortening autumnal days. Dried leaves can be crumbled into stevia powder and used in place of sugar. Fresh leaves can also be used.

Medically: Many studies have shown that stevia tea regulate blood sugar levels in almost all type II cases of diabetes and in a high percentage of type I too. It stimulates pancreatic activity, reduces high blood pressure, improves digestive health, reduces fat in cases of obesity, and reduces anxiety. It is an antioxidant, a diuretic and has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. Chewing on fresh stevia leaves is said to avoid teeth cavities.

Fresh: 4 leaves taken before or during breakfast and again at dinner time.

Dry: 2g of dried leaves soaked in boiling water for 10 mins twice a day, once in the morning and one in the late evening.

Contraindications: If you have diabetes, monitor your glycaemic levels to correctly balance your intake of stevia and medication. Medication levels are usually greatly reduced thanks to stevia.

Disclaimer: Please check with your doctor before embarking on any course of treatment.

Lorraine Cavanagh owns the specialist garden centre ViverosFlorena, Competa, Malaga (garden centre, designers & landscapers) and is author of the best-selling Mediterranean Garden Plants and Citrus, The Zest of Life.

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