Growing plants for novel uses

Growing plants for novel uses
Whilst we have a good picture of the uses of food crops grown by our members, some of the more novel, non-food uses have not been so well documented. There are many uses for plants that extend beyond food that are often overlooked by gardeners. These include health, dyes, materials and general household use. Many of these plants had been used for centuries and until comparatively recently were commonplace in the household. For example there are records from Medieval times that mention use of herbs such as lavender, chamomile, rose petals, marjoram, basil, mint, violets, sage, and fennel being sprinkled onto floor materials to keep away unpleasant odours.

We also shouldn’t forget that the majority of modern medicines owe their origins to compounds found in plants. Whilst we can’t vouch for the efficacy or safety of home-made natural remedies, we should remember that they were commonplace before the advent of the National Health Service in 1948. A survey carried out by Kew1 found that over 250 species of plants were used for selfremedies in the UK alone over the 20th Century.
Many of these uses are part of our cultural heritage. Whilst there have been other surveys done on traditional uses of plants, we think that it is important to raise awareness of these uses amongst our members and supporters. In 2017 we sent out a survey to gather information on the uses of these plants.
Members were sent out a questionnaire which they could either complete online or using a
paper form. They were given the opportunity to complete records for as many plants as
they wished. The questions asked about each plant included:
  • How they used the plant?
  • How long they had been using it for?
  • How often they used it?
  • Where they had found out about it?
  • Were they likely to recommend to anybody else?
  • The effectiveness of its use.
Uptake and response
We are grateful to those that completed the questionnaires. The questionnaires that were filled out provided an interesting range of plants and their uses, with information that will be useful to Garden Organic.
The uptake rate for this experiment was low compared to other Garden Organic Members experiments with 37 people signing up and 19 questionnaires completed. This compares with numbers of 106 and 111 sign ups for the other experiments offered in 2017 (responses not completed yet). Many of the participants provided information on a number of plants, so the total number of records was 56.
Range of plants grown
A total of 45 different species of plant were recorded. Nettle (Urtica dioica) and Comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) were the most popular plants recorded by 5 participants. It is interesting that nearly all the plants, for which people had found novel uses, are species commonly found in British gardens. Each plant species was categorised according to its common use and the novel uses listed in the survey.
The most popular types of plants were herbaceous ornamentals and shrubs. This highlights that many of the commonly grown plants for ornamental use have underused potential for other novel purposes such as dyes or to benefit health. Plants normally considered as weeds made a significant contribution (18%) to the list of species with novel uses, with nettles being the most popular example, but horsetail (Equisetum L.) also being popular.

Range of novel uses
Participants categorised novel uses of plants as Health, Dyes, Materials, Ceremonies, Horticultural, Household and other. After analysing the data, the ‘other’ category was further divided into ‘Cosmetic’, ‘Culinary’.
Horticultural use (novel uses of plants in gardening)
This was the most popular category and a diverse range of novel uses for plants in the garden was recorded. One example was chamomile extract being used as a spray for preventing damping off in seedlings. Damping off can be caused by a number of different fungi and can kill off small seedlings. This use of chamomile is consistent with a number of studies that have shown that it has anti-microbial properties. The exact action is not clear but it may be that the high sulphur content could act as a natural fungicide.
One participant recorded that they harvested their own canes from bamboo. This is easy to do and could be done more widely to avoid importing bamboo canes. It is important to choose a non-spreading variety. A clump forming type such as Fargesia rufa is suitable. It will still spread slowly if not contained. Alternatively try using a native alternative such as hazel sticks to support climbing plants. Two participants used prickly or spikey plants such as rose twigs, cotoneaster, holly and cordyline leaves to deter cats from digging and defecating on freshly dug soil. The uses of nettle, comfrey and moss to make plant feeds were recorded in by a few participants, and these have been documented widely elsewhere.
This was another popular category. Nettles were the most popular plant and had a number of uses listed including drinking a tea to ward off hayfever and bathing hands in a nettle infusion to help circulation and help wounds to heal.  Nettles have been used traditionally to treat a wide range of medical conditions including anaemia, excessive menstruation, haemorrhoids, arthritis, rheumatism and skin complaints and are considered a highly underused plant.
Other participants used basil leaves and tomatoes fruits to rub on wounds to ward off infections. Basil leaves contain high amounts of thymol and camphor which could account for its healing action, although there is little scientific evidence to show that this is its active ingredient. The high lycopene content of tomatoes might contribute to wound healing, but again there is not a large amount of evidence to support this.
A couple of participants used aloe vera or sempervivum as a treatment to apply to burns. The use of aloe vera is well documented and it has has been recorded as having 75 active components including vitamins, enzymes, minerals and sugars that are implicated in healing action. Flowers from the lime tree were used to make a calming infusion, which would be consistent with its reported mild sedative effects. It is important to use fresh flowers, as older dried flowers can produce hallucinogenic effects.
Material use
One resourceful participant used brambles to make their own plant ties. The thorns can be removed by pulling them through the lid of  a jar with a hole in it. Both honeysuckle and periwinkle stems were dried and used for basket making. An attempt was also made to make fibre out of nettles. This involved allowing the stems to partially rot in the dew on wet grass, a process known as ‘retting’. The fibre is then worked and drawn through a series of combs. The quality of fibre can be very good and has been used by several ethical clothes companies.
One participant applied calendula extracts as a cream against athlete’s foot. The effectiveness of this treatment is backed up by several studies demonstrating its antifungal properties. Calendula petals were also used as a natural colouring for hand-made soaps. Another participant made a tea from boiling up cleavers and applying it as a post shampoo rinse. Again, there are likely to be benefits to the skin and scalp as cleavers have been shown to have many medicinal properties for internal and external treatments including treating skin complaints such as eczema, psoriasis and dandruff.
Although the focus of this survey was on non-food uses, some people submitted interesting novel uses used as flavourings or to make drinks. The most interesting of these was using an infusion of gorse flowers to give a pineapple / coconut flavour to drinks.
A huge number of plants can be made into natural dyes, and a number of plants were mentioned including woad, coreopsis, onion skins, persicaria and dyers chamomile. Coreopsis was a popular plant for dying as it is easy to grow and it produces a high yield of flower petals. The colour of the dye can be altered between yellow and red by changing the pH with lemon juice or baking soda. Woad is easy to grow and has historically been used as a highly steadfast blue dye for centuries. However, extracting the dye is quite an intricate process involving heating and rapid cooling to a set temperature. Those interested in getting actively involved with local dying and weaving groups could contact the ‘The Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers’ ( which has a network of over 100 groups around the UK.
Two people use horsetail as scouring scrubbing brush. Parts of it tend to break off, so it is best used for cleaning pots outside rather than clogging up the kitchen sink. It is a good use for those unfortunate enough to have a plentiful supply of this plant. The flowers of the lime tree were found to be effective as a cleaner for garden tools when mixed with water. Many plants contain natural saponins which act as a soap for use in cleaning products. The flowers of the ceonothus bush or the leaves of soapwort are two examples of plants that can be used in this way.
One participant used bog myrtle berries to make candlewax. They boiled the berries in water and skimmed off the fat. It makes a pleasant aromatic wax, but the amounts of wax obtained were small for the amount of work involved. A number of people used lavender bags as an air freshener and one person used eau de cologne mint as a scent for washing water and bath water.
Ceremonies/Religious purposes
One participant used rushes to make a ‘Brigidine Cross’ to keep away evil spirits. This is traditionally placed above the door of a house to ward off evil and harmful events such as fire. This practice has been carried out for centuries and has been shown to be a pagan ritual predating Christianity.
Knowledge base
The majority of people sourced their information either from friends (31%) or researched it themselves (31%). Only 7% sourced the information from their family, so the proportion of information passed down through generations was only small. The remainder of people had obtained the information from self-sufficiency books or learnt the techniques at workshops.
Most people thought that their uses of plants were effective, with 64% of participants stating that their use was very effective, and 34% quite effective. Consequently, 81% of participants were very likely to recommend their use to others. The general picture of satisfaction amongst the users of plants for novel purposes suggests that many of these uses deserve to be better known.
The number of years that people had been using the plants for varied widely. 30% of participants had used them for 5 years or less whilst 23% had used them for 20 years or more. A majority of people (62%) used the plants regularly, with 30% using them occasionally, and 8% having tried it once. The fact that many people have been using the plants regularly and for a long time implies that they find many of these alternative uses genuinely useful.
This study shows that a small but significant and enthusiastic minority of our members have researched and regularly grow plants for novel and alternative uses. Even though almost a quarter of the people had used them for 20 years or more, only a small proportion of people learnt the alternative uses from their family. A wide range of uses and plants were highlighted in the study. It was interesting that the majority of plants were species that would be commonly found in a British garden. This gives out an important message that you don’t need to grow specialist or unusual plants to find alternative or novel uses. In fact, most of us will already have a plant growing in our garden that can be put to an interesting use.
Further information – information on dying and making your own fabric and materials. – Plants for a future database. Information on multiple uses of plants.