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Window Box | the medicine box

January 5, 2012

Part five of my window box diary, which I’m currently keeping for the Guardian.

All is currently quiet in the world of my window boxes so it seems sensible to start the new year fantasizing about other options.  ‘Tis the season of colds and flu and I’m dreaming of potent plants that have healing powers.   If I had a window box planted with such things, I could pluck myself a cure as soon as my throat began to tickle and my nose to dribble.  Or at least harvest leaves that would taste delicious in a therapeutic winter roast or stew.

I first met Mala Bissoon in the summer, on a guided walk during which she revealed that humble herbs are capable of great things.  Mala is a medical herbalist and knows a thing or two about home grown remedies.  I asked her what I should grow in a living medicine chest for winter ills and she suggested a combination of thyme, sage and chilli.  We debated whether a chilli plant would survive outside and decided it would probably be alright if it was in a warm spot.

Mala explained that thyme is antiseptic, and a thyme tea or syrup is useful for coughs.   Gargle then swallow sage tea to treat a sore throat, or simply chew on a leaf when you feel a tickle.  Sage is also very good for general oral hygiene.  Happily, my picnic basket planter is already hosting purple leaved sage.  A small chilli plant would be decorative, and the fruits help promote circulation and clear catarrh.  All would be fine within the confines of a sheltered window box.

Mala also thought hardy peppermint and lemon balm would be useful.  A tea using both helps clear the head in the early, feverish stages of a cold.  Both aid digestion too.  Lemon balm comes highly recommended – the 16th Century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus declared it to be the ‘elixir of life’.

My favourite medicinal plant is pungent garlic, which is anti-infective and full of vitamins.  It was first cultivated in the Middle East and Muslim myth has it the smelly bulb sprang from Satan’s left footprint. Chaucer called it ‘poor man’s treacle’ and, after recently roasting some huge cloves in their skins, I can see why – the slow cooked, soft flesh oozed a sticky sweetness that was better than anything out of a red Tate and Lyle tin.

While you would be running late, it is still possible to plant some cloves now to harvest leaves and bulbs in spring and summer.  For the last two years, I’ve grown garlic in a deep pot on my rooftop and I’m now wondering whether it would grow in a window box.  There’s currently some space in my salad box after some serious leaf eating, so a clove of garlic from my store cupboard has been duly sunk into the soil.  We shall see.

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