Drink mint tea and you may slow the aging process, says botanist James Duke. Add some basil to a bean dish to minimize intestinal gas, advises nutrition writer Jean Carper.
Scientists are proving in the lab what grandmother knew all along: Herbs are potent medicine. And that's good news for summertime gardeners who often end up with an abundance of basil, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.
You're doing yourself a favor when you add fresh herbs to food, insists Ms. Carper, whose latest book, "The Food Pharmacy Guide to Good Eating" (Bantam. $13.50), is full of research on the subject and more than 200 recipes using nature's pharmacopoeia.
Consider this, says Ms. Carper: "Aspirin is a type of salicylate. Salicylates are found in high doses in dill and thyme, and researchers theorize that they may act in food somewhat the same way they do in aspirin to protect against heart disease, stroke and possibly colon cancer."
The coneflower that's a favorite with wildflower enthusiasts is actually an herb we export to Europe to be used medicinally, notes Mr. Duke, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Research in Germany shows the root of coneflower can boost the immune system. "Dig them up, keep them in the refrigerator and suck on the root like a lifesaver," he says.
Mr. Duke, who has a 40-by-40-foot herb garden at his own home, is a strong believer in their power. "I have a slipped disc and take a lot of anti-inflammatory drugs, so I use licorice root to make an herb tea to prevent ulcers," he says. (The black twist candy we call licorice is mostly anise, he warns, so don't think eating candy dTC will do the trick.)
A tea made from a mix of mints, with some lemon and sugar added for flavor, is another Duke favorite. "Mints are imbued with antioxidents and research has shown that antioxidents can prevent some of the damage associated with heart disease, cancer and cataracts."
Rosemary and sage are also high in antioxidents, adds Ms. Carper.
While most herbs are harmless, sample them judiciously in case of any possible adverse reaction, Mr. Duke advises.
You can buy fresh herbs at farmers markets, but it's more fun to grow your own. And you don't need a yard, either. Herbs grow well in containers on terraces, and even in pots on a sunny windowsill, says Martha Kraska, author of "Burpee American Gardening Series: Herbs" (Prentice Hall. $8).
If you're lucky enough to have a garden, choose a sunny spot with good drainage. If drainage is a problem, create a raised garden with railroad ties, Ms. Kraska advises.
A 3-by-5 plot is a good size for starters. You can weed and harvest without walking on the plot and compacting the soil, says Ms. Kraska, who is the head gardener on a Long Island estate. Before planting, check the pH level of the soil, she suggests. A level of 6.5 is good for herbs. Do the testing with a do-it-yourself kit from a garden store or send a sample to your county extension office to find out what should be added to the soil for growing herbs.
Good herbs for beginners, Ms. Kraska believes, are dill ("it's very ornamental and easy to grow from seed; plant it in the back of the plot because it grows tall"), chives, oregano, parsley ("it makes a nice front border, because both cascade and soften the front of the plot") and basil ("mix green and purple varieties for a pretty effect").
Herbs grown in containers on a terrace or windowsill need to be watered more often than those in the ground, so check the soil frequently, Ms. Kraska advises.