Kids naturally love fragrant plants, so exploring herbs is great fun for even preschoolers. These aromatic plants played even more vital roles in earlier times than they do today, and kids will get a kick out of learning about their usefulness. In many cultures, herbs and spices were considered more valuable than gold, and people took risky journeys to find and trade them. After all, it was the desire to find shorter routes for trading valuable spices that motivated New World explorers like Columbus to journey from home. What made early peoples revere these strong-smelling plants?
Imagine how people coped hundreds or thousands of years ago without drugstores, grocery stores, sanitary facilities, cosmetic stores, or adequate clean bathing water. What might they have done when they had a headache, for instance? Through trial and error, people discovered that certain plants could be used to treat illness and injury. There was no refrigeration to prolong food storage, so the aromatic qualities of herbs helped disguise the odors and tastes of spoiling food.
The fragrances of many of these plants were also used to keep homes and bodies smelling fresh in the form of potpourri, perfumes, and lotions. During the medieval period, freshly cut herbs were actually strewn on floors to scent air and repel pests.
While you might not want to encourage your children to do like their ancestors did and sprinkle herbs on the floor, there are many ways kids can have fun with herbs. Here are some suggestions:
1. Visit gardens and garden centers so kids can see, smell, and touch a variety of herbs. Then they can include their favorites in their own gardens.
2. Mint tea is popular with children, and they can make it easily by picking several leaves, crushing them to release the essential oils, and steeping them in hot water for several minutes. Peppermint and spearmint are good choices.
3. Tiny herb flowers, such as violas, can be frozen in ice cube trays to cool down a glass of iced tea or lemonade. These are as fun to make as they are to use.
4. If your children are fond of the fragrance of roses, they will enjoy splashing on rose water after a bath, or even adding it to bath water. To make it, add fresh or dried rose petals to a stainless steel or enamel pan, barely cover them with distilled water, and simmer for 20 minutes. Then strain the scented water and bottle it.
5. Make fragrant sachets, small cloth bags filled with herbs and other flowers that you can put in a drawer next to your clothes or hang in a closet to help make your clothes smell good. You can make bags with drawstrings so you can empty and refill when the fragrance is gone, or you can make little pillows by sewing together all of the edges of your sachet. For a strong, spicy fragrance, mix together dried leaves of basil, sage, lemon verbena, and thyme. Floral scents can be made by mixing together flower petals from carnations, gardenias, geraniums, lavender, jasmine, roses, orange blossoms, and sweet peas.
6. Calendula flowers contain healing properties that make them helpful in treating mild skin abrasions, sunburn, and chapped hands, among other conditions. Kids can make healing calendula oil by picking fully opened flowers during the heat of the day (when they contain the most resin). Submerge the flowers in olive oil for 4 to 6 weeks, then strain and bottle the oil.
Photography by National Gardening Association