Growing Medicinal Herbs: Know Your Plant Lifespans

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Some herbs need to be planted anew each year, a few live on a specific two-year cycle, and others will outlive you, all of which depends on your zone and freezing temps.

What are Plant Lifespans?

Annual Plants

  • Dies after frost or setting seed. Replant or let self-seed.
  • Examples include calendula and dill.

Perennial Plants

  • Returns each year. Most herbs are perennial, including lemon and bee balm.

Biennial Plants

  • Produces only herbaceous growth the first year, flowers and fruit/seed the second year, then dies.
  • Examples include burdock, mullein, and the deadly foxglove.

Tender Perennials

  • Survives winter only in warm climates, otherwise treated as an annual or brought indoors in cold climates.
  • Examples include lemongrass, lemon verbena, gotu kola, bacopa, ashwagandha, and rosemary.

Short-Lived Perennials

  • Dies off easily or within about 3 years.
  • Examples include artichoke (in warm climates), Korean mint, St. John’s wort, and some mallows.

In It for the Long Haul: Some Medicinal Plants Take Longer to Establish

Most of the plants discussed in Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies by Maria Noël Groves  can be harvested the same season you plant them, but a few take longer to get established. This might be a deciding factor for whether or not you want to grow a particular plant, especially if you want to make medicine pronto or don’t anticipate being in the same place for very long. In some cases—like wild cherry bark and birch—you can usually find established wild trees to prune instead. Generally speaking, while you could harvest the roots of most perennial plants within the first year or two of planting, some take longer to “ripen.”

It can take several years for shrubs and trees to begin producing flowers and berries. This will depend on the age of the plant you planted as well as the species and growing conditions. (Pay more for an older tree, and it may produce more quickly than a spindly bare root sapling.) Most will grow faster and produce more flowers and fruit with full sun, good soil, and regular moisture.

Medicinal Plants That Take Longer to Mature

Here are a few examples of popular medicinal herbs that take more time to mature.

Garlic

  • Planted in fall, harvest the following summer.

Biennial Roots

  • Fall of first year or spring of second (before it flowers). 
  • Examples: mullein, burdock.

Most Perennial Roots

  • 2–3+ years (but if you’re weeding babies out, use ’em).
  • Examples: yellow dock, marshmallow, valerian, elecampane.

Echinacea Roots

  • 3–4 years

Black Cohosh Roots

  • 3+ years

Mimosa Bark/Flower

  • 2+ years

Roses/Hips

  • 3–5 years

Elderflowers/Berries

  • 3–5 years

Hawthorn Flowers/Berries

  • 3–10 years

Linden Flowers

  • 5–10 years

Most Bark

  • 2–5 years (or as soon as they’re big enough to prune).
  • Examples: cramp bark, wild cherry, mimosa, birch.

 

Sources: 

Excerpted from Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies © by Maria Noël Groves. Used with permission from Storey Publishing.

Contributor: 

Maria Noël Groves, RH (AHG)

Maria Noël Groves, RH (AHG), is the best-selling, award-winning author of Body into Balance: An Herbal Guide to Holistic Self Care and Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies. Maria’s a registered professional herbalist with the American Herbalists Guild and a graduate of the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine and Rosemary Gladstar’s Sage Mountain. Learn more about Maria and herbs at Wintergreen Botanicals.