Herbs provide safe substitute for toxics
I would heartily advise all men of meanes, to be stirred up to bend their mindes, and spend a little more time and travel in these delights of herbes and flowers, than they have formerly done, which are not only harmlesse, but pleasurable in their turn, and profitable in their use.
Theatrum Botanicum, 1640
Herbs are generally thought of today as no more than a few dozen seasoning plants. In fact, they include the entire range of plants classified as herbaceous perennials.
herbs have always been sources of medicine. Meadowsweet was the first documented source of salicylic acid, the main ingredient in aspirin. Foxglove gave us digitalis for treating heart ailments.
In days before dry cleaning and deodorants, herbs made life sweeter. A Victorian-era groom would have his suit stuffed with herbs so he'd smell sweet on his wedding day, and his bride would likely place herbs in cloth bags inside her shoes to make them sweet-smelling.
The Shaker communities in the 1800s were avid herbalists. Tied to the bedposts of every brother's and sister's bed you'd find small linen bags of herbal pot pourri mixtures to ward off bedbugs and other pests.
Although some herbs have a toxic effect if ingested, the effect they have growing along other plants or crushed and laid in cupboards or among linens can be pleasant.
As substitutes for mothballs, aerosol air fresheners, harsh cleaners and chemical sprays in the garden they have no serious side effects on the environment. They provide food and shelter to animals and helpful insects, enriching the soil as they decompose at the end of the growing season.
This listing of herbal substitutes should whet your appetite for learning more. Where instructions say to "infuse," pour boiling water on herbs, cover and steep for 30 minutes. Where instruction say "decoct," bring herbs to boil in water, cool, strain and refrigerate the liquid for a few days before using.
Anise -- Use a bait in mouse traps
Artemisia -- Powder or infuse leaves to make moth repellent. Deter onion and carrot flies with branches laid between onion and carrot rows. Mix weak infusion for insecticide on older plants. Grow near cabbages to deter cabbage butterfly and near fruit trees to deter fruit tree moth.
Bay -- Place a few leaves in flour to ward off weevils.
Bee Balm -- Attracts bumble bees.
Borage -- Attracts bees. Plant near strawberries, as they stimulate each other's growth. Plant near tomatoes to control worms.
Catmint -- Attracts bees. Repels rats. Plant near vegetables to deter flea beetles.
Chamomile -- Grow near failing plant to revive it. Infuse and spray on seedlings to prevent "damping off" and on compost to activate decomposition.
Comfrey -- Soak leaf in water for four weeks to make perfect fertilizer for tomato and potato plants, owing to high potash content. Pick leaves, allow to wilt for at least 48 hours, then apply as a mulch.
Costmary -- Repels insects in fabrics.
Chives -- Grow as a deterrent for aphids, apple scab and mildew.
Dianthus -- Provides nectar for bees.
French Marigold -- Exudes secretions that repel nematodes. Grow as protection against most non-cyst-forming eelworms. Will deaden but not eliminate cyst-forming eelworms.
Garlic -- Plant under peach trees to control leafcurl and near roses to enhance scent.
Horehound -- Attracts bees to gardens. Infuse as a spray for cankerworm in trees. Infuse in fresh milk and set in dish as a fly killer.
Horseradish -- Grow near potatoes for more disease-resistant tubers. Infuse, dilute four times and spray apple trees against brown rot.
Horsetail -- Infuse, simmer and strain for metal polish.
Hyssop -- Grow near cabbages to lure away cabbage-white butterflies. Plant near vines to increase yield.
Lavender -- Protects fabrics from moths. Use leaves and flowering stems to make disinfectant.
Lemon Balm -- Plant near beehives and orchards to attract pollinating bees. Add juice to furniture polish.
Marjorams/Oregano -- Attracts bees and butterflies. Add to beeswax for furniture polish.
Melilot -- Attracts bees to gardens. Scatter dried leaves among clothes to deter moths.
Mullein -- Pollen and nectar attract bees to garden.
Myrrh - Crush seed as a furniture polish.
Myrtle -- Add a decoction to furniture polish.
Nettle -- Use dried leaves as a preserving wrap for apples, pears, root vegetables and moist cheeses. Keeps two to three months.
Parsley -- Grow by roses to improve health and scent.
Pennyroyal -- Strew in cupboards and beds to deter ants and fleas. Disturb leaves occasionally.
Pyrethum -- Sprinkle dried, powdered flowers to deter all common insect pests: bedbugs, lice, cockroaches, flies, mosquitoes, aphids, spider mites and ants. Note: It also kills helpful insects and fish.
Rosemary -- Simmer leaves and small stems for disinfectant. Strain and use to clean bathrooms, sinks. Add dishwashing detergent for degreaser. Keeps in refrigerator up to one week.
Rue -- Place sprigs on shelves to deter ants and disturb leaves occasionally. Hang to deter flies.
Sage -- Put dried leaves among linens to discourage insects. Burn on embers or boil in water to disinfect a room. Smoke deodorizes animal and cooking smells.
Santolina -- To deter moths and other insects, lay in drawers and under carpets, hang in closets and distribute among books.
Sorrel -- Use juice of leaf to bleach rust, mold and ink stains from linen, wicker and silver.
Spearmint, Peppermint -- Grow near roses to deter aphids. Scatter fresh or dried leaves around food to deter mice.
Sunflower -- Burn and scatter as potash fertilizer.
Sweet Joe Pye -- May drive away flies and wasps if burned in a room.
Sweet Cicely -- Crush seed for wood furniture polish.
Sweet Woodruff -- Put dried leaves under carpets and among linens to deter moths and other insects.
Tansy -- Grow near fruit trees to repel insects. Hang indoors to deter flies. Lay in cupboards to deter ants and disturb leaves occasionally. Dried leaves repel insects and mice.
Thyme -- Leaves and flowering stems can be used to make disinfectant.
Valerian -- Boosts growth of nearby vegetables by stimulating phosphorus and earthworm activity. Infuse root and spray on ground to attract earthworms.
Winter Savory -- Provides nectar for bees.
Yarrow -- May help nearby plants to resist disease. Deepens their fragrance and flavor. Infuse as a copper fertilizer.
And where the marjoram once, and sage and rue,
And balm and mint, with curled-leaved parsley grew,
And double marigolds and silver thyme,
And pumpkins 'neath the window used to climb;
And where I often, when a child, for hours,
Tried through the pales to get the tempting flowers;
As lady's laces, everlasting peas,
True-love lies bleeding, with the hearts at ease;
And golden rods and tansy running high,
That o'er the pale top smiled on passer-by;
Flowers in my time which everyone would praise;
Through thrown like weeds from gardens nowadays.
SOURCES: Lesley Bremness. The Complete Book of Herbs. London, Viking Penguin, 1988. Arabella Boxer and Phillppa Back. The Herb Book. London, Octopus, 1980.