I am continuing my series on the medicinal benefits of the different plant families. This is something I explored whilst studying herbal medicine. It helps to give you the general characteristics of the plant families. Not everything will be applicable to each and every plant, but will relate in general to the medicinal species found in the group.
The mint family is a favourite of mine, my garden contains: peppermint, spearmint, applemint, pineapple sage, garden sage, purple sage red deadnettle, lavenders, rosemanry and lemon balm. all of which belong to this delightful plant family. The Lamiaceae is a family of flowering plants (mostly herbs and shrubs) that comprises over 240 genera and 6,500 species worldwide.
The original family name is Labiateae, so given because the flowers typically have petals fused into an upper lip and a lower lip. Although this is still considered an acceptable alternative name, most botanists now use the name “Lamiaceae” in referring to this family.
The plants are frequently aromatic in all parts and include many widely used culinary herbs, such as basil, savory, marjoram, oregano, hyssop and thyme. Many members of the family are widely cultivated, owing not only to their aromatic qualities but also their ease of cultivation: these plants are among the easiest plants to propagate by stem cuttings. Why not have a go yourself – if you have friends, family or neighbours who have these herbs in their garden, why not ask if you could have a stem cutting? You can place it in water to see if it roots, or use root hormone powder, or just place it in some mud/compost and leave it for several months to root itself. Either way you could grow your own herbs for free due to kindness and sharing.
There are several plant characteristics which define the fact that a plant belongs to this family. This is the botany of the plant families.
The mint family have square stems, you will notice that the leaves are attached to flat edges not corners. The leaves are often simple in shape (no lobes/edging etc), the leaves are also in opposite pairs at right angles to pairs above and below them on the plant stems.
There are no Stipules.
You will also notice (especially on closer inspection that the plants are hairy, this can include the leaves and other parts including flowers. Can you see the hairs on the sage above?
Flowers from the lamiaceae family bloom in nodes with at least 4 different flowers; some form 2 dense opposite inflorescences like whorls; may form end spikes: sometimes with ‘a protective throat of hairs’ The petals of the flowers are irregular in shape generally with 5 united petals, two of which are usually lipped. The petals can also be tubular.
On inspection of a member of the mint family in flower you will find 2 pairs of stamens at base of petals, 1 pair longer than the other. Once the flower has been fertilized 4 distinct chambers develop containing four fruit/nutlets/seeds. The style arises from the base of the ovary between the 4 chambers (the style is the male sex organ of the flower which is essential in reproductive pollination.
The constituents of the Lamiaceae Family
As with several of the herbs I grow in my garden, they are aromatic. Hairy glandular trichomes produce and store essential oils also known as volatile oils. These volatile oils are very light and therefore easy to evaporate, they can pass through the blood brain barrier and also through skin and are therefore used in the therapy aromatherapy. Essential oils probably work at least partially via stimulation of the sense of smell, and subsequent activation of the limbic system.
Volatile oils are made up of monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes and the phenylpropanoids.
Because of their small molecular size, many monoterpenes are volatile and are the principal components of volatile (essential) oils, occurring to varying degrees in practically all essential oils. Whilst they do have significant therapeutic effects on a phytochemical level they are not classed as aromatic and rarely contribute much to the odours and tastes of the volatile oils. Hydrocarbon monoterpenes tend to be weakly antiseptic, bactericidal, stimulating, expectorant and slightly analgesic. They are often mild skin irritants. Some are antiviral and others break down gallstones. Monoterpenes provide the ‘high notes’ that dominate citrus and needle oils, such as eucalyptus.
In general, sesquiterpenes in essential oils are slightly antiseptic, bactericidal, slightly hypotensive, cooling, anti-allergy, and anti-inflammatory; calming some are analgesic and/or spasmolytic. Their properties are less influenced by functional groups than with monoterpenes. Sesquiterpenes are more viscous than monoterpenes, less volatile, often yellow or brown. The total essential oil content of plants is generally less than 1%.
Within the plant, essential oils are stored in special plant cells, e.g. glands, glandular hairs, oil ducts and resin ducts. They may be found in any part of the plant, including flowers, fruits, leaves, roots, wood, bark and saps. Most oils are a complex mixture of compounds, which vary according to the season, time of day, growing conditions and even genetic factors. Therefore, different examples of the same botanical species may produce widely differing oils. These different oils are known as chemotypes. Aromatherapy distilled the volatile oils out of plants using several methods including enfleurage and steam.
General Medicinal Uses of Essential oils include:
Antiseptic – this can be a local effect on the skin or internally in the digestive system, or systemically by a reflex action benefiting organs such as the lungs. Sage is an example of a local antiseptic herb, and thyme a systemic antiseptic.
Carminative – mint, rosemary and lemon balm all have calming effects both physically and emotionally.
Anti-catarrhal – mint and hyssop both support the reduction of catarrh within the body.
Common medicinal uses of the lamiaceae plant family:
- Preheat the oven to Gas Mark 7. Sift the flour and baking powder together. Run the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles breadcrumbs.
- Stir in the sugar and lavender, reserving a pinch to sprinkle on the top of the scones before baking them.
- Add enough milk to make a soft, sticky dough. Bind the dough together, then turn it out on to a lightly floured surface.
- Shape the dough into a round, gently patting down the top to give 2.5cm depth. using a floured cutter, stamp out 12 scones.
- Place on a baking sheet. Brush the tops with a little milk and sprinkle over the reserved lavender. Bake for 10-12 minutes until golden brown. Remove from the oven and leave to cool slightly. Serve with warm jam and clotted cream.
Lemon Balm Syrup
200 grams sugar
237 ml water
24 grams lemon balm (loosely packed fresh, leaves)
Fresh lemon balm to garnish
- Stir together first 3 ingredients in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, and boil 1 minute or until sugar is dissolved.
- Remove from heat, and let stand 30 minutes. Pour liquid through a wire-mesh strainer into a cruet or airtight container, discarding lemon balm leaves.
- Cover and chill 4 hours. Garnish, if desired.
- Syrup may be stored in refrigerator up to 1 month.
There are numerous recipes out there that incorporate the culinary herbs. Peppermint is great for IBS and digestive issues. Thyme is anti-viral and can help to shift a cold. Sage can support and darken hair, improve memory and reduce infection. I would love to know your favourite recipes using this plant family.