The fall season has readied and guided us in the art of rest so we can harmoniously welcome the stillness of winter, when the sun is the farthest from the Northern Hemisphere. This is a time when indoor gatherings become more frequent than outdoor gatherings and if you are spending time outdoors, you’re either bundled up or around a warm fire.
A Time for Fire
The energy and warmth that the fire offers us in the colder months can symbolize renewal in many ways. Fire fully transforms matter and for much of the medicine we make, fire is needed to release the medicinal constituents. This season is a great time to honor the natural element of fire by appreciating the importance of its many roles in our lives. A winter contemplation can also stoke the fire within as we gaze at the embers and blazing flames that entice a special kind of meditative reflection.
A Time for Reflection
Outside, once-cultivated paths now become hidden by fallen branches, leaves, seeds, frost, snow, and reoccurring bouts of ground growth from the most viable of seeds and fungi. This symbolization of paths becoming buried can serve as a guide to ignite inner reflection on the paths we create and continue to cultivate within our own lives.
Winter gardens go to sleep, yet their lives below the soil level are still active — growing, connecting, and expressing their network of communities that support their resiliency. There is much happening within the stillness of winter; it’s just quieter in its expression. Winter offers us the opportunity to align with the inner reflection that stillness can offer us, especially in and around the gardens we tend.
For some warmer growing zones, winter offers another round of planting opportunity. Whenever possible I advocate for incorporating native species into one’s garden as they help build balanced ecosystems. The plants highlighted below are not native, but they can be found in excess in many places and sometimes without even knowing it, they can even be growing right before our very own eyes. These plants were specifically selected so that even if you don’t have access to a “garden,” you still have the opportunity to experience some of these plants outside of a garden.
A Time to Harmonize with Stillness
As we close our windows and doors and turn up inner warmth, balancing our exposure with outdoor natural elements is key to practicing winter wellness. Being active and breathing in our natural surroundings as much as we can helps avoid the seasonal stagnation that this time can induce. Even looking outside from a sunlit window can help welcome in more seasonal wellness.
All of the herbs I mention below help with moving stagnation in various ways, both physically and energetically.
A Time to Let the Season Lead
Out of all the seasons, I believe winter offers us this deep moment of reflecting upon what will be needed of us in the seasons to come to ensure bountiful harvests. As the season turns and the light returns, these inward reflections infuse themselves into the ecosystems we create and grow.
Observing and considering nature’s cycles ensures a harmonious approach with a gardener’s surrounding environment. This is an approach that really allows a gardener to let the garden go to sleep without worries, only dreams of what the next growing season can offer.
For example, watching and honoring how the other guardians of the garden — like the birds — are still tending when we are not can bring solace to a gardener. As the birds venture out to feast on the bounties of seed that fall has left behind, they in turn help sow seeds through their process of traveling, gathering, and consuming.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
Speaking of seeds, we’ll start with highlighting a seed that can come to your aid during a season of gatherings that are usually filled with food, beverages, and other delights: fennel. Fennel is native to the Mediterranean and is a flowering short-lived perennial. The plant is used both in the kitchen and in the apothecary; in this highlight we will focus on fennel’s seeds, which are commonly used for their effectiveness in relieving digestive complaints associated with bloating and gas.
This herb is an opportunistic plant and therefore you may find fennel lining local trails and covering hillsides, making it difficult for native plants to spread. People can volunteer with local, nature-based non-profits to help eradicate introduced species like this and in turn put the plant to good use. If you take this approach because of the wild abundance around you, there really is no need to plant extra in your garden.
I would especially advise to not plant fennel if your yard is close to the wild, as you could introduce a large population without even knowing it. There’s plenty of fennel in the wild that will continue to reproduce because of the abundance and vitality of seed. There’s lots of local sources, too, from apothecaries to grocery stores, if you are not up for the research and action of ethical wild gathering.
Having a jar full of fennel seed during winter is now a staple in our home apothecary. Simply taking a few teaspoons from the jar and grinding them in a pestle and mortar to release their oils before infusing them with hot water is a go-to for relieving cramping caused by bloating from gas. Sometimes I also add ginger to help increase overall circulation, especially if extremities are cold on a person that usually runs warm. Adding a little honey makes for a really tasty herbal infusion that offers quick relief. The best way to enjoy such a beverage is before, in between, and even after meals to avoid digestive discomfort.
Fennel is also popular for helping increase breast milk that then helps babies with colic. Fennel really helps keep the flow going!
Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus)
It’s hard to not notice the resilience of rosemary during the colder season, with all the pretty purple flowers that this pollinator-friendly perennial displays. The amount of bees the herb attracts during winter when other flowers are scarce serves as a great seasonal support for pollinators.
Rosemary is a common Mediterranean herb with various uses in the home apothecary, not just the kitchen. One of my favorite herbal remedies to make with rosemary during the colder seasons is a triple-infused oil that I apply externally. An infused oil of rosemary rubbed into the entire body really helps with blood circulation and overall warmth.
I also enjoy gathering rosemary during this season for footbaths and head steams. In head steams, you’ll find that rosemary is helpful to break up lung congestion. The herb also does this when prepared correctly in cuisine to maintain active constituents. Releasing rosemary’s volatile oils by crushing the leaves before adding them to your meal right before it’s done helps retain flavor and healing properties.
Rosemary’s no fuss growing attitude is what encourages me to ensure there is always space in the garden for this resilient plant. Give the plant a good amount of sunshine and soil that drains easily and you will have a thriving shrub. The herb is also a great potted plant option that can bring some green cheer indoors during the winter season.
Myrtle (Myrtus communis)
When I first started removing our lawn, I questioned replacing a long hedge that acted as a property divider. But before making my decision, I knew I had to first identify the plant and then research it. I came to find out it was myrtle, a common evergreen used in landscaping. After learning about myrtle’s long history of culinary and medicinal usage, I decided to keep it and to continue learning about the herb.
Myrtle is also native to the Mediterranean region. The medicinal use of the herb dates back to northern Africa, as with much natural medicine, where it is used internally for respiratory conditions and to topically treat muscle discomfort. The leaves and berries are used medicinally and in traditional cooking, the branches are used to flavor meats with their smoke.
If you haven’t experienced the scent of myrtle, it is extremely aromatic and carries a green, earthy scent with notes of spice. It is popular in skin care, making it one of my favorites to distill for a hydrosol. It’s one of my go-tos for balancing facial oils and for its overall brightening energy; it really awakens and refreshes the senses. It’s also commonly used as an eye wash thanks to the cleansing properties myrtle carries.
After identifying the plant, I then began to see it everywhere, especially used in hedges around homes, making it accessible. Many people are not even tending to it and therefore the plants are not as exposed to chemicals or pesticides as a lawn would be.
Citrus Including Tangerine (Citrus reticulata), Orange (Citrus x sinensis), Lemon (Citrus x limon)
The big and bright yellow and orange fruits that resemble the sun surrounded by dark green foliage are joyful reminders of the winter season where I live. Here in California we are known for citrus and in many towns you can still see the remnants of old groves. The most ancient of citrus is said to have come from India and it is noted that many citrus varieties are native to the tropics and subtropics of Asia and Australia. Through migration and trade routes, many citrus cultivars were created. This is also another plant/tree that can easily be grown in a container.
Recently, there has been a growing threat of citrus trees becoming infected with the Huanglongbing disease that is spread by the Asian citrus psyllid. The disease happens when eggs hatch and eat the young leaves and shoots. This activity can also cause deeper issues for the tree by the spread of a toxin that affects new growth. The best way to prevent the spread of this pest is to ensure isolation if you see signs of the disease. Most citrus in the area that I live have now been quarantined by zip codes. If I notice any eggs on the leaves of our Meyer lemon tree, I trim that area off and luckily I have not had to deal with the disease.
I look forward to gathering from our citrus tree during this season for all sorts of culinary and medicinal uses. Of course, I enjoy using the juice of the citrus fruit but I also like saving the peels for future use. Dried citrus peels used in herbal infusions can be beneficial for moving liver stagnation that can set in during colder months; they also add great flavor to your warm beverage. Citrus can help move excess heat out of the body in a more comfortable way than say, sweating at night.
When eating fresh citrus, I like to leave some of the white pulp on because it works synergistically with the vitamin C the fruit offers that can help strengthen blood vessels, which helps blood circulation.
When the tree is in flower, I gather blossoms to dry for infusions and syrups. They offer a nice calming affect that can, of course, be experienced by simply smelling them while blooming on the tree. When using the peel or flowers in a recipe, I don’t overdo it because both carry high amounts of volatile oils, requiring little usage.
Note: Those pregnant or planning to become pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking other medications should always consult with a professional health practitioner before taking herbal medicine.