By Donna Kamann

In general, our bodies are strong, resilient, and self-healing. With adequate nutrition, fresh air and exercise, loving relationships and restorative sleep, we are practically bulletproof (mostly). Quality sleep is one of the most important parts of this. While we sleep, we are recovering from all of the energy, stress, and demands of the waking hours. Our muscles, organs, brains, nervous systems, and spirits are replenished while we sleep. 

If we lived closer to the natural world, we would spend more time sleeping during the winter months because our sleep cycles are governed by the darkness of the night sky. There is a tiny light-sensitive gland in the center of the brain called the Pineal gland, and it makes melatonin, a hormone that supports deep sleep. Artificial light interferes with the production of melatonin; we also produce less melatonin as we age.

Our sleep can also be mucked up by stress, caffeine, alcohol, and screen time. Poor sleep patterns can be very difficult to change, so many folks turn to medications and supplements to support sleep. Most sleep medications are helpful in causing drowsiness, but they can leave you feeling groggy the next day and they can be habit forming. Common over the counter sleep aids include benadryl (found in Tylenol PM) and synthetic melatonin. Many sleep aids require a prescription, and clinicians are understandably reluctant to prescribe potentially addictive medications.

When I started studying plant medicine, my teacher began with herbs that support the nervous system, understanding how important these herbs are to our exhausted culture. Although I cannot explain why plants synthesize chemicals that help humans sleep, as someone who has suffered from chronic mid-night insomnia, it has been a pleasure to experience their impact on my quality of sleep.  Many of the nervine herbs relax the mind without causing drowsiness or other irksome side effects, and for the most part, they aren’t habit forming. Here are 3 lovely, common flowers that promote restful sleep.

  • Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) – this sweet, tiny flower is easily grown by casting seed into healthy soil in a sunny location, and watering regularly. It will self-seed every year, making itself at home in even the little sidewalk cracks. I pick the flowers as they bloom, gathering a handful every day for most of the summer. They make a delicious tea when fresh or dried, and a teaspoon of the dried flower steeped for 5 minutes in a cup of boiling water is enough to help me sleep through the night. Chamomile is slightly bitter, which supports digestion – so it’s nice after a heavy meal, and it’s gentle enough for colicky babies. It also calms the nerves and reduces nightmares/night terrors.
  • Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) – this exotic beauty provides a slightly more potent sleep medicine than Chamomile. She grows in southern climates as a perennial, but for the past 3 years, this flower has flourished in my garden as an annual, climbing gracefully up the tripod, producing an abundance of medicinal flowers and leaves that can be harvested every several days at their peak. Passionflower soothes my busy mind without reducing the clarity of my thought, and I have the most amazing dreams when I sip a cup of this tea at bedtime.
  • Linden flower (Tilia spp.) – a generous gift of the American Basswood tree, Linden flowers bloom all around Winona in June. Once you recognize the fragrance, you won’t miss this powerful plant. The trick is harvesting the flower at her peak, which is short and varies from tree to tree. I caught our tree in perfect bloom at the end of a long cranky day last summer; I made myself climb the ladder to harvest, and after 10 minutes inhaling the flower, I found myself relaxed, centered, and wondering what I had been fussing about. The euphoria lasted well into the evening and I ended up making a gallon of Linden flower cordial to share with the neighborhood. In tea or cordial, this is a sipping herb – it’s stronger than Chamomile or Passionflower, so go gently and avoid mixing it with other potentially sedating substances. It also has pain-relieving qualities.

Although I have highlighted these 3 flowers for their sleep qualities, they also have other medicinal properties. If you enjoy learning about plant medicine, read more about them. Herb Mentor is a great website for beginning herbalists, and there are numerous herb books at the public library.

Typically, flowers and leaves can be steeped into a lovely tea by adding 1 tablespoon of fresh herb or 1 teaspoon of dried herb to a cup of boiling water for 5 minutes. Cover it, to keep in all the goodness, then strain and enjoy plain or with honey. Compost the spent herb, to complete the cycle of life.

While herbs are a wonderful ally for our health, they are no replacement for healthy lifestyle choices or for lifesaving measures in an emergency.