Perennial Plants for Health

Perennial Plants for Health…more awesome plants to grow for food and medicine…

Incorporating perennial plantings into your annual gardens opens up an array of vegetable, fruit, and herb crops to benefit your health as well as the health of your garden. From attracting beneficial insects, to improving soil structure, extending your food harvest to offering medicinal properties, perennial plants can become your garden’s champions. Let’s check out some of these staple perennial crops that you all can grow for food and fun…

I’d like to share some of my experiences with plants that are a little more off the beaten track…but easy to grow… and give you some more options for your gardens…wherever they are…pots, patios, raised beds, back yards, front yards or the lower 40.

Define terms…annual and self seeding annual, biennial, perennial…tender and hardy, herbaceous and woody.

So whether a plant is perennial depends on where you live and the weather…and how you define it! Today we are going to be talking about “useful plants”… for food and medicine…that come back year after year…but sometimes with some “reasonable accommodations”! Veggies, Fruits, Herbs and Flowers that are Nourishment for the Body and Soul!!!

Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) Despite its name, the Jerusalem artichoke is not from Jerusalem, and is not a type of artichoke. It is a species of sunflower native to eastern North America and first cultivated by Native Americans long before the arrival of Europeans. A high-yielding, carefree crop producing potato-like tubers. They store well and can be eaten raw or cooked. The tall, 6-8′ plants with bright yellow blooms make an attractive windbreak. Flowers in July and ready to dig in fall. Hardy perennial. This tuber contains about 10% protein, and a surprising lack of starch. However, it is rich in the carbohydrate inulin (76%). Tubers stored for any length of time will convert their inulin into fructose which is healthier for type 2 diabetics. The tubers can be used as a substitute for potatoes, and raw have a similar texture, but a sweeter, nuttier flavor… great thinly sliced in a salad. They tend to be soft and mushy if boiled, but better if steamed. Jerusalem artichokes can be used as animal feed and pigs can even forage them directly from the ground.

Garden Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) Asparagus is a hardy perennial growing 3-4’ tall, with stout stems turning into much-branched feathery foliage. Native to the Mediterranean, asparagus produces both male and female plants (both edible).   Harvest fresh spears in the spring of the second year and from then on for many years to come. Spears are excellent when eaten raw, or lightly steamed. Asparagus may also be counted among the spring tonics, as it clears the urinary tract of winter’s toxins.    ‘Mary Washington’ is the open pollinated variety easily grown from seed.  Add organic mulch seasonally to build the bed and discourage weeds.

Lovage (Levisticum officinalis) Very hardy herbaceous 3’ tall perennial.  The leaf stems and leaves, harvested fresh and chopped, make a fine celery substitute, especially nice in potato-leek soup.   It may also be dried and screened to create seasoning flakes to use through the winter.  The root of this tasty herb is proestrogenic, and may be appreciated by the women.  The plant prefers full sun to part shade and moist garden soils. Another flower enjoyed by the beneficials as well.

Daylily (Hemerocallis spp.) The daylily is often called “the perfect perennial,” due to its bright colors, hardiness, and generally requiring very little care. Daylilies thrive in full sun but will tolerate partial shade. There are thousands of hybrid varieties and then there is the introduced Tawny Daylily (called the roadside lily, outhouse lily and so on) Daylilies originally came from Asia, and are used in Chinese cooking all the time. Euell Gibbons and other old-timers taught us about their many edible features. Saute the unopened flower buds with a little butter or oil and salt… Delicious…kind of a green bean flavor with a hint of radish. I’d serve this as a side dish any day. The stalks…not as good. More like a bland, tough scallion. The flowers are just OK…more for color than flavor. That leaves the little tubers that look like fingerling potatoes and taste like a sweet, raw potato. Saute in butter, with salt and pepper and bingo awesome tubers…and very often for free! Make sure you get your daylilies from a location that is free of pesticides and noxious auto exhausts.

Garden Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) Hardy herbaceous perennial.  This is the very fast growing plant producing relatively sweet, fat, green or reddish stems from the first year.  Rhubarb thrives in full sun and compost enriched soil. Grown from seed or division. The flowers are very showy but keep them cut to produce more edible stems.

Strawberry ( Fragaria × ananassa) These are the widely grown hybrids eaten fresh , in preserves, pies, and of course dipped in chocolate! Plants are propagated from runners, and cultivation follows one of two general models—annual plasticulture, or a perennial system of matted rows (which we like)

Alpine strawberries (Fragaria vesca) The first strawberry species… cultivated in the early 17th century. The small, pointed berries have an ambrosial flavor that really is memorable. This hardy perennial is started from seed, easy to grow in sun or light shade, and unlike other strawberries doesn’t send out runners but grows in a mound, the plants as attractive as the berries are delicious..

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) Herbaceous hardy perennial found native world-wide. In the early spring find Nettles along with the other great spring tonic plants. Used as spring vegetable or tea, the fresher the better, it cleanses and builds the blood. Nettles are especially rich in trace minerals, potassium and chlorophyll. Cut only young shoots, once they get older they are inedible. Lightly steam to disarm their stinging hairs .Stinging nettle soup is delicious! Plant grows 4-5’ tall in moist soil in sun or shade. Seeds prolifically!!

Perennial Onions That You Need In Your Garden…Wild onions were a staple in diets for thousands of years in central Asia, and India. Over time, they became domesticated and were popular because they were easy to grow in a variety of less-than-desirable soil conditions and were less perishable and more transportable than other crops. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans revered them and used them extensively for many purposes. Although onions have a fascinating global history, today we mostly use them in salads and cooking. Usually these are the common biennial onions. However, they do have some drawbacks. First, growing by seed takes a long time and once you harvest the onion plant, it’s gone. So why not consider some less common perennial onions. They’re easy to grow and come back year after year, so you don’t have to continue buying seeds every year. Egyptian, or walking onions, are hardy perennials. They form clusters of small onion bulbs at the top of the stem which eventually causes the stem to bend to the ground. The bulbs root and produce new shoots, starting the process over again. You can also remove some of the bulbs and plant them where you’d like the next crop to grow. Onions planted in early fall should be ready for harvest the next spring. Potato onions are milder and sweeter than most onions. They grow like tulips, when you plant a bulb, it eventually divides into several new bulbs. Typically, the larger bulbs are eaten and the smaller ones are used for replanting.

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) The smallest species of the edible onions. A perennial plant, it is the only species of Allium native to both the New and the Old Worlds.Easily started from seeds but larger plants sooner by dividing the clump.

Garlic Chives (Allium tuberosum) Thin, flat leaves with delicate garlic flavor.Attractive white flowers in midsummer. Both chives flowers are edible…pick apart the blossoms for a nice delicate garnish.

Garlic (Allium sativum) Native to central Asia, and used as both food and medicine in many cultures for thousands of years. It is easy to grow by planting individual cloves in the ground in the fall, harvested the next summer, although it can become naturalized (perennial) if you don’t dig it all each year!! Likes well drained soils and sunny locations .Garlic flower scapes are removed to focus all the garlic’s energy into the bulb. These interesting scapes can be eaten raw or cooked. One of the oldest uses of garlic is as an antibiotic. It kills a range of microbes, including viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites. Also used to lower cholesterol and blood pressure.

Horseradish (Cochlearia armoracea) Hardy herbaceous perennial. Grated fresh horseradish with a little vinegar and salt…one of my favorite condiments… Very helpful for sinus infections and has a mild natural antibiotic effect! Such an easy plant to grow preferring full sun and well drained garden for formation of long, healthy roots. Started from root pieces and divisions of the crown.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa)  Turmeric is a tender herbaceous perennial in the ginger family. Native to tropical India. Grown for its  rhizomes, and propagated from those as well.  It is dried and ground into an orange powder commonly used as a spice in Indian cuisine and to impart color to mustards. In India, turmeric has been used traditionally for thousands of years for its antimicrobial property. The active compound curcumin is believed to have a wide range of biological effects including  anti-inflammatory,  antioxidant, antitumor, antibacterial, and antiviral activities.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) Ginger cultivation began in South Asia and has since spread to East Africa and the Carribean. It is a tender perennial so we grow it in pots to take in during the winter. It is grown from the fleshy rhizomes and they are harvested for many culinary and medicinal uses.  It may provide relief of nausea and is used in treating pain from arthritis, and joint and muscle injury. Tea brewed from ginger is a common folk remedy for colds. Ginger ale and beer is also drunk as stomach settlers. And what would the holidays be without gingerbread cookies and houses!

Key lime (Citrus aurantiifolia) This is a tender perennial, small, thorny tree that must be grown in a pot for bringing indoors in winter. The fruit is 1-2” and yellow when ripe. It is valued for its unique flavor compared to other limes. I had 60 limes on my one tree this year. The flowers are fragrant and white with a purple tinge on the margins. It can be easily propagated from seed and will grow true to type. Of course you can use it for pies, on seafood, in drinks of all kinds…

Fire Cider is a traditional folk medicine using many of these plants. The tasty combination of apple cider vinegar infused with these powerful immune-boosting, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, decongestant, and spicy circulatory movers makes this tangy and sweet recipe easy to incorporate into your daily diet to help boost the immune system, stimulate digestion, and get you warmed up on cold days. Because this is a folk preparation, the ingredients can change depending on when you make it and what’s growing around you. Our standard base ingredients are apple cider vinegar, garlic, onion, ginger, horseradish, cayenne peppers and lime. Grate or chop ingredients, place in vinegar, let infuse for a month in cool dark, strain and use as needed or daily 1-2 T. Oh…yeah

Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) Perennial, deciduous, native, large shrub to small tree .  The berries are very tasty and are rich in anthocyanins, bioflavonoids, vitamins and antioxidants. The syrup or tincture of these berries is excellent for treating the common cold and for overall increase in immunity.  The fresh green leaves may be infused in olive oil to make a salve for treating sunburn, rough skin, age spots, and/or diaper rash. The flowers which can be used for making tea and wine,and if left turn rapidly into heavy clusters of fruits.  Elderberries are best grown as an understory plant in part shade, and planting 2 plants for pollination will produce better crops of fruit than a single plant.

Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) Hardy herbaceous perennial originally native to a wide band of the central US, but currently uncommon in the wild. Widely cultivated. Does well in pots and likes full sun. This is the species best suited to varied growing conditions. It is easy to grow from seed. The herb works best as a tincture of the fresh root, used at first sign of any kind of infection.  It stimulates the immune system and should shorten the period of infection, or may keep you from getting sick. There are several other native species available and all are used interchangeably.

Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima) Hardy woody deciduous perennial native to Eastern US and found growing in sun or shade most often near streams. It spreads by rhizomes to form colonies and is propagated by division. It contains the alkaloid berberine, which has a number of traditional and contemporary uses for medicine as an anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial,astringent, and antibiotic. Often called poor man’s Goldenseal, this is not Goldenseal…but is used in a similar way, for infections, colds, flu, sore throats, mouth sores, colitis, stomach problems. This is one of my absolute favorites! Make a decoction, let set overnight, strain, bottle, refrigerate, then take (mixed w/orange juice)…I take a pt to qt a day as needed.

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) Hardy herbaceous perennial. Native to the Mediterranean, Russia and Middle East. This is a classic medicinal and soothing, refreshing tea herb. Also easy to tincture. It is claimed to have antibacterial and antiviral properties. It is also used as a mild sedative or calming agent. Lemon balm has been shown to improve mood and mental performance. It has exceptionally high antioxidant activity. Easily started from seed and grows just about anywhere…it is a mint after all. Harvest leaves before flowering and use fresh or dried.

Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) Hardy perennial ground cover. Native to Europe. Cultivated worldwide. Plants grow thickly to interlock, forming an aromatic lawn. A nice place for an afternoon nap and happy dreams! Plant prefers full sun.  If not mowed, the chamomile will go up to flower at about 12 inches or so, aromatic and pleasant, worthy of tea, but not as prolific as German Chamomile with which it is medicinally interchangeable. Chamomile teas and tinctures are used for stomach troubles and colds, as well as the usual anxiety and sleeplessness.

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) Hardy herbaceous perennial. Native to Europe and Asia.  One of the strongest herbal sedatives and is used for sleeping disorders, restlessness and anxiety. All parts of the plant are active, but the tincture of the fresh root is the most common form.  Prefers full sun to part shade and moist but well-drained soil and adapts well to a wide range of conditions.  3-4’ tall honey scented white flowers enticingly scented on a warm afternoon.  It is enough to give even the bees a buzzzzzz.

True Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) Hardy herbaceous perennial native to Europe.  This is the purple flowered type that grows true from seed…compared to the Bocking 14 cultivar (Symphytum x uplandicum),the Russian Comfrey, which must be propagated from cuttings. Comfrey prefers full to part sun with rich, moist, but well-drained soil.  If you don’t want the plants to spread, then cut them back when they flower, and mulch the crowns with the leaves.  This will keep the seed from maturing and dropping, and will quickly improve the soil and contribute to the formation of large, healthy and happy plants. Comfrey has been used throughout time to treat a wide variety of ailments ranging from broken bones, sprains, arthritis, severe burns, acne and other skin conditions. The roots and leaves contain allantoin, a substance that helps new skin cells grow, along with other substances that reduce inflammation and keep skin healthy  This is the major ingredient in lots of great healing salves. Use internally with proper caution

Aloe (Aloe vera) Tender perennial succulent native to North Africa and one of the most common Aloes worldwide.  It thrives in the shade outdoors or in almost any window, waiting patiently for someone to need the cooling, soothing gel which may be squeezed from the leaf.  Used for cooling burns, treating sunburn and chapped skin, and may be taken internally where its mucilage soothes the digestive tract, reduces pain of ulcer, and speeds healing. Propagate by separating off little plantlets. Protect from frost by bringing in for the winter.

Peppermint (Mentha piperita) Hardy perennial cultivated worldwide.  They do spread vigorously, so keep in a pot if you don’t want a big patch.  Prefers full sun to part shade and moist soils spreading joyfully, delighting the palate, and uplifting the spirit…for the bees as well! A most excellent tea herb.  Cut during early flowering stage, bundle, hang, and dry, strip the leaves and flowers, and store in jars for year round enjoyment. Peppermint from seed produces highly variable offspring, so propagate the good ones by cuttings.

Tulsi , Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum) Growing these tender perennials is easy from seed and you can experience the beauty, aromatic, medicinal and spiritual attributes of these excellent sacred plants. There are several strains, Krishna, Rama, and Kapoor among them, for making wonderful teas and tinctures. Tulsi is considered to be adaptogenic and among the many uses are the following: stress reduction, immune enhancement, promoting longevity, increasing endurance, fighting infections, and improving digestion. They’re also a rich source of bioavailable vitamins and minerals.

Of course we’re using organic methods for growing these plants and for me it starts with the following…Good cultural practices…!!! Soil building! Yearly crop rotations! Attracting beneficial insects! Protecting resources!

For growing plants, there’s nothing better than good compost…we call it Black Gold! …and on a large or small scale, worms do the best job of turning kitchen scraps, coffee grounds and shredded newspaper into the best fertilizer available.

We are firm believers in the beneficial effects of sea products…especially kelp!

You see, I really believe that one of the most important things you can do for your health…your children’s , parents, friends, and customer’s health…is to grow more or your own food and medicine!

Just remember, it all starts with planting that seed or plant! The most important thing to do…is to just get started!

One of our favorite sources of information…National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service…

One of our great regional resources…Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project…

There’s so much you can learn from good seed and plant catalogs…see list below…
If you’d like more info feel free to contact me at Western Piedmont Community College…where we’re learning to grow more food and medicine and will make any excuse to go to the garden!!!

Some Favorite Seed and Supply Sources

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
2278 Baker Creek Rd. Mansfield, MO 65704
Phone 417 924-8917

Fedco Seeds
PO Box 520 Waterville, ME 04903
Phone 207 873-7333

Fifth Season Gardening
45 Banks Avenue
Asheville, NC 28801

Horizon Herbs
PO Box 69 William, OR 97544-0069
Phone 541 846-6704

Johnny’s Selected Seed
RR 1 Box 2580 Albion, ME 04910
Phone 207 437-4395

Richters Herbs
357 Highway 47 Goodwood, ON L0C 1A0 Canada
Phone 1.905.640.6677

Seed Savers Exchange
3094 North Winn Rd Decorah, IA 52101
Phone 563 382-5990

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
PO 460 Mineral, VA 23117
Phone 540 894-9480

Interesting and Useful Websites for Organic Crop Production

Journey to Forever…WOW…incredible resource…check out the Small Farm Library

Soil and Health…because good health begins with the soil… FREE Digitalized library of some rare books

National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service…wealth of information and publications

Appalachian Sustainable Ag Project…one of the most important marketing tools in our region

OGS is a great connection for lots of sustainable/organic farmers and folks…the best, affordable events

Important regional sustainable/ organic organization…great annual conference in Oct/Nov.

This is the NCSU research/ demonstration farm in Goldsboro

Jeanine is a great connection with NCSU ..check out the links to NC Specialty Crops and NC Herb Assoc.

SARE…Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (check out the grants)

Debbie Roos and Chatham Co Coop Ext…excellent sustainable ag resource

The USDA National Organic Program…the National organic certification

Certified Naturally Grown …a grassroots certification alternative

The Rodale Institute…lots of goodies

Western Piedmont Community College Sustainable Ag and Horticulture Programs- Chip Hope

Author: Jenn Cloke

Jenn Cloke, originally from Atlanta, has lived in Western North Carolina for since 2006 and wears her Appalachian mantle proudly. Jenn was the Communications Coordinator for Organic Growers School from 2012 to 2014. She and her family run a small farm at the foot of Cold Mountain.

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