Herbs have been grown for apothecary applications and beauty preparations since at least 5000 years before the birth of Christ. In the fourth century, the Greek physician Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine”, recorded herbs for their fragrances and healing qualities. In monasteries across Europe, right up to the 15th century, early manuscripts, herbal and distillery books bear witness to the widening use of herbs to provide solutions to many skin ailments and to promote good health and mental wellbeing.
Botanically, a herb is a plant that has fleshy rather than woody stems – hence the term herbaceous – and many of the herbs historically used as medicine can be identified today from their Latin species name, “officinalis”. These herbs have active principles, either toxic or non toxic. The non toxic active principles include bitterness, essential oils, mineral salts and tannins.
Bitter herbs - stimulate appetite and are tonics.
Essential oils – can be germicidal, antioxidant, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and disinfectant and aid digestion.
Mineral salts – aid resistance to disease
Tannins – astringent and help healing
When creating soaps, bath salts, essential oils and botanical hydrosols it’s important to consider which herbal properties are most important for good skincare. The most common herbs used for these properties are those whose roots, stems, leaves, flowers or seeds can provide the essential ingredients that cleanse, tone, moisturise, heal and calm skin.
In our organic walled herb garden we grow plants for making botanical macerations, tonics, essential oils, hydrosols and skincare teas.
The soil is prepared well in advance, ensuring that all weeds are removed and the planting beds covered with cardboard and matting so that weed seeds do not germinate. The walled garden is run along permaculture lines, with a holistic approach to sustainability, biodiversity and resilience. No-dig-gardening is practiced, so that the soil structure is not disturbed and plenty of compost and leaf and bark mulches are created from the estate waste matter.
We rake the planting rows and mark rows for sowing. Hardy annuals are sown to a depth twice the size of the seed. If the ground is dry, we water the rows before sowing.
We sow the seed carefully and thinly, every 2-4 cm and then rake the soil to cover and firm with the back of the rake. We water gently if the weather is dry but not too often as this does not encourages the roots to grow deep into the soil structure, looking for water. A good tip is to leave some pebbles and stones in the soil - they are so good for retaining moisture and helping to heat up the soil in spring, which speeds germination.
Rows are staked with bamboo canes because when the plants grow you want as little of the material to touch the ground and get dirty. We need to distill clean plants because if you have to wash stems, leaves and flowers the water will ruin the formulation as water attracts bacteria. The plant matter needs to be dry and clean.
When creating the layout of the Farm Soap Co. herb garden we planned rows of alternating plants, with pathways wide enough to enable hoeing and seasonal, cut and come again harvesting and succession planting. No chemicals are used – by creating biodiversity and looking after the health of the soil with compost, manure and wood bark mulches, plants grow healthily with natural resistance to disease and pests. Most of the herbs are grown without worry of disease and pests - they are quite hardy and are also companion plants, able to attract an abundance of hoverflies, ladybirds and pollinating insects.
Here is a list of plants particularly useful for skincare applications:
Achillea millefolium - yarrow – creates an astringent tonic that helps to clean and tone the skin
Aloysia triphylla - lemon verbena – cultivated for its use in perfumery, soothing and uplifting to ease stress and tension
Borago officinalis - borage – high in Gamma-linolenic acids, Omega 6 fatty acids, highly moisturising and anti-inflammatory
Chamaemelum nobile – chamomile - anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties help soothe the skin, reducing redness and blemishes. Relieves skin irritations like eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea. Chamomile tea was used by the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans to treat wounds and promote healing.
Calendula officinalis – pot marigold - stimulates collagen production, antioxidant, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, helps to regulate sebaceous oil production
Hypericum perforatum - St John’s wort has been used as a wound herb since the Crusades. Astringent, anti-inflammatory it makes an effective and repairing skin infusion
Lavandula angustifolia – lavender – takes its name from the Latin word to wash, lavare, and has been used in perfumery for centuries. Soothing and sedative, the essential oil is used for respiratory problems, muscle pain and tension.
Mentha piperita – peppermint oil – contains menthol, omega 3 fatty acids, calcium, vitamins A and C and a selection of minerals. Soothing and cooling properties, helps balance oil secretions
Oenothera biennis - evening primrose - all parts of the plant, native to North America, are edible and used in medicinal preparations. High in fatty acids, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) Omega 3. It is used in anti-ageing serums, naturally anti-inflammatory and skin rejuvenating
Rosa Gallica officinalis - rose oil – high in linoleic and linolenic acids, anti-aging and moisturising
Rosa Macrophylla – rosehip oil - fatty acids and Vitamin A moisturise, promote skin regeneration, and can improve skin flexibility, texture and permeability.
Salvia officinalis – sage – astringent, antiseptic and stimulating, controls dandruff as a hair tonic
Salvia rosmarinus - rosemary - a healing, anti-inflammatory herb with powerful antimicrobial, antioxidant, stress reducing and skin and hair conditioning properties
Symphytum officinale - comfrey – contains the compound allantoin, helps to moisturise and soothe dry irritated skin, promotes rapid skin-cell growth, contributes to skin renewal, protects against bacteria and other microorganisms, reduces inflammation
Thymus vulgaris – common thyme – antiseptic, astringent, antimicrobial, antibiotic, thyme is widely used in aromatherapy and as a topical skin application that is anti-ageing and antioxidant.
Trifolium pratense – red clover – a fast-growing perennial green manure for the herb garden. Fixes nitrogen from the air, suppresses weeds and improves soil structure. Effective in the treatment of eczema, psoriasis and sore skin.