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HEAL:  What is  Herbal Medicine? - Part One

HEAL: What is Herbal Medicine? - Part One

Herbal medicine is seeing a revival of interest and use but there is a soooo much information and misinformation on what it is, how it is used, what it can and can't do. The internet is home to some of the most ridiculous and misleading statements and claims about what a plant, as a supplement, can do. But there is also an abundance of good information on the web but you have to know the basics of herbalism to begin to understand how botanical medicine can be effective and to critically examine claims.

This post offers a succinct overview of plant-based medicine: philosophy, principles, global systems, medicinal preparations, cautions and contraindications.


The most basic definition is the study and use of plants for medicinal purposes. Herbalism is considered a traditional healing system and has been used for thousands of years by almost every culture on the planet. Until the 1800s, it was the primary healing system for most humans throughout the world.  Animals also employ plants for medicine, and one theory suggests that humans learned to use plants medicinally by watching animals treat themselves.

Historically, herbalism is the traditional approach to wellness and it irritates the heck out of me that it is called alternative medicine. Herbalism has a long history - thousands of years of use - while modern medicine is has less than 300 years of implementation. Modern medicine has some amazing advantages and certainly has contributed the increased longevity of humanity. But, in the United States, it has become a profitable industry that benefits from people being chronically sick. The approach of “one pill fits all” has created a disempowered citizenry, who often experience unnecessary health complaints and a decrease in quality of life. Herbalism offers a different perspective and empowerment to take back your health. Read on!

Herbalism includes the following philosophical beliefs:

  • Traditional healing systems treat the individual person, not the disease.

  • Individuals have differing constitutions (or physical states).

  • Symptoms are clues to underlying conditions.

  • Healers treat conditions, not causes. They treat what they can “see.”

  • The human body possesses a powerful physiological system that is generally capable of healing itself. Plant-based medicine supports the body’s efforts.

  • Lifestyle factors and practices are the foundation of wellness.

  • Human bodies have evolved with the synergetic effects of plants.

  • Matching herbal actions to the individual’s physical state forms the basis for understanding herbal medicine.


This meme has been around the web for a while and though funny it’s not that far off from how the work of an herbalist is sometimes perceived. PHOTO CREDIT: MEMES PIC 2019

This meme has been around the web for a while and though funny it’s not that far off from how the work of an herbalist is sometimes perceived. PHOTO CREDIT: MEMES PIC 2019

The beliefs of somebody who is educated about using plant as medicine differs dramatically from the approach and beliefs held by modern medical practitioners. These paraphrased excerpts from the book, Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine, offers a succinct depiction between the two realms of healing.

Healer as A Mechanic

Western modern medicine is based on the belief that humans are separate from nature and like the [modern] world, the human body is like a machine with parts that can be dismantled. Reality is tangible only if it can be measured, quantified and analyzed. In Western culture, scientific thinking replaced other ways of understanding the world. Western medicine is the study of how the human machine works and the doctor/healer is the mechanic who may do occasional routine maintenance but mostly intervenes to execute emergency repairs...p.19

Healer as A Gardener

Most traditional herbal systems are based on the belief that all life occurs within the circle of nature. All of nature is interconnected and mutually dependent; humans are part of nature. Rooted in the agriculture that sustained life, most traditional/ancient cultures lived within nature (through seasons, rhythms and patterns) was understood broadly, defining the whole being with the social and natural order...what is good for nature is good for humanity...when people are like gardens, then doctors/healers are like gardeners...p.30

We should tend to our bodies like we tend to our gardens.

We should tend to our bodies like we tend to our gardens.


When properly used, herbal medicine can be highly effective with chronic health problems, infections and basic first aid. Unlike many pharmaceuticals, most herbal remedies are not toxic to human organs. (EX: Daily use of OTC pain-relieving NSAID over a long period of time can cause significant kidney damage.)

Plants are allies in healing; they support the body’s systems natural ability to heal itself.

Plant medicine is affordable and empowering. It does require some basic knowledge of both the human body and the plants but it allows you to be in charge of your health. A healthy lifestyle is the center of herbal healing; diet, movement, reduced stress and rest are equally important as healing herbs.

Medicinal herbs and their preparations can be used to address on array of health concerns:

  • Poultices, compresses and salves for healing cuts and wounds, rashes & reducing inflammation of affected areas

  • Tinctures, herbal washes and teas can fight infections internally & externally

  • Teas and tinctures can assist the body’s ability to regulate the body’s systems

  • Teas and herb capsules can increase vitamin and mineral intake

Herbal salves are one kind of herbal preparations.

Herbal salves are one kind of herbal preparations.


The first written record of medicinal plants was created on clay tablets over 5000 years ago by the Sumerians, in ancient Mesopotamia. Nearly every historical culture used plants as medicine. The World Health Organization states that 80% of the world’s population uses plant-based medicine as part of their primary healthcare.

Most traditional systems are based on many years of experimentation and observation. Since they did not have the diagnostic technology that we have today, healers learned to treat what they can see: conditions and symptoms.

Major Traditional Health Systems

  • Ayurveda – India’s Traditional Healthcare (believed to be the oldest)

  • Traditional Chinese Medicine – One of the most historically thorough and complex systems

  • Western European Herbalism – Started with the Greeks

  • North and South American Indigenous Plant Medicine


Plant-based medicines benefit many chronic conditions but life-threatening emergency care and terminal diseases should be handled using contemporary medicine. Historically, herbal medicine was used by the common folk, who usually did not have access to other forms of medical attention.

  • Not a one size fits all: Individuals are treated singly though common remedies and plant actions guide the treatment.

  • Herbs are not drugs as defined in modern medicine. They are not used in the same manner as pharmaceutical medicine.

  • Herbalists are not regulated or licensed in the United States. This is why there is so much bad information and junk supplements.

  • Herbs are considered a supplement, not drugs by the FDA.

  • Herbs should not be used as a drug replacement unless under medical supervision.

  • Herbs can be powerful and can interfere with pharmaceutical drugs. Some herbs can cause serious reactions.

  • Herbalism always considers diet, hydration, movement, rest and stress management when working with chronic diseases of the modern lifestyle of western culture (heart disease and diabetes).


Herbal medicine-making requires knowledge of plants, botanical nomenclature and harvesting practices.

  • Botanical names matter; not all species in a similar genus or family will offer medicinal properties. In Western herbalism, the species name of officinalis/officinale, indicates a history of medicinal use.

  • Correct plant identification is mandatory; be 100% sure of what plant you are working with and its effects before using.

  • Herbalism uses different plant parts in different ways: roots, fruits, leaves, flowers, seeds, rhizomes and root bark as well as mushrooms, minerals and some animal parts.

  • Wildcrafting is the ethical and sustainable gathering of plants, fruits and fungi from the wild for the purpose of eating and medicine-making. Plant identification is critical.

  • Bio-regional plants – Historically, healers used the plants that surround them believing that the plants match the health needs of the locals. Most of our culinary herbs are European natives but we have cultivated them in the Americas for hundreds of years. Indigenous people of the Americas have/had an extensive use of regional native plants. One of the most memorable examples of this was when I traveled in Ecuador: while we slowly drove up a volcano, our guide pointed out various plants. Once we passed beyond the tree line there was only one plant that continued to grow at such a high altitude. The plant was used by indigenous climbers to help with altitude sickness and modern research of the plant supports this use. As my guide pointed out: the plant was put there to help those who climbed.

Materia Medica

Materia medica  means “healing materials” in Latin.  In practice, it’s a body of knowledge that describes how different plants can be used for healing purposes. In addition to historical materia medica, modern research is developing additional knowledge and in many cases, supporting historical medicinal uses of plants.

What is an Herbal Monograph?

A monograph is a detailed description of a single subject, originating from the Greek words mono (single) and grapho (to write). In a materia medica, an herbal monograph describes the specific properties of one single plant.

The information to compile a monograph in a materia medica can come from a variety of sources, such as:

  • Personal observations and experience

  • Knowledge from other people or herbal teachers

  • Historical or modern herbal texts

  • Scientific research studies

Herbalists use a variety of sources to learn about plants.

Herbalists use a variety of sources to learn about plants.


TEAS -  Teas are made using boiling water poured over fresh or dried leafy parts, covered & steeped for 5-15 minutes.

NOURISHING INFUSIONS -  Infusions are herbal teas that are steeped longer to extract nutritive properties like minerals.

DECOCTIONS – Teas simmered longer because they are made with the tough bark, seeds, twigs, or roots.

TINCTURES/EXTRACTS – Herbs/spices are steeped in alcohol, vinegar or glycerite for a minimum of several weeks. Excellent for long-term storage; used in drop dosages mostly for immediate effect or acute issues.

ELIXIR/CORDIALS – Tincture-like mixture blended with honey or maple syrup; often tasty and useful for immune-supporting herbs.

OXYMELS – Herbs steeped in vinegar & honey; excellent for long-term storage – used mostly for acute care.

INFUSED HONEYS & VINEGARS – Good for long term storage; honey and raw vinegar offer additional medicinal benefits.

SYRUPS – Herbs cooked in honey, maple syrup or molasses; avoid using refined sugar. Short term storage but useful for children. Often both medicinal and nutritional values.

COMPRESSES – Cloth soaked in strong herbal infusions and placed on wounds or sore area.

POULTICES - A mass of plant material, often chewed or steamed, and then applied directly to the body.

LINIMENTS – Herbs steeped in oil or an alcohol base, then applied topically to the body for pain relief.

ELECTUARIES – A ground herb or spice mixed with honey for internal use; Useful for the more unpleasant-tasting herbs!

INFUSED OILS – Herbs infused vegetable oils or animal fat and primarily used for topical application and use in balms/salves; short term and refrigeration may be necessary.

BALM/SALVE – a topical remedy made of infused herbal oils and beeswax.

AROMATIC VOLATILE OILS – Found in many tea and culinary herbs. Provides flavor, aroma and some medicinal properties.

ESSENTIAL OILS – Usually large amounts of plant matter distilled, creating potent volatile oils used primarily for aromatherapy & body care products. Some EOs can have powerful medicinal properties; use should be monitored by professionals.

Chamomile in jar for preparation.

Chamomile in jar for preparation.

Uses and Dosages

CULINARY USES – small doses offering minimal medicinal action; safe for everyone
MEDICINAL USES – Teas, tinctures, capsules taken often taken for acute conditions: Dosages may be larger and taken more frequently. Contraindications should be followed. THERAPEUTIC USES – Large doses of powdered herbs or capsules that should be monitored by health professional.
NUTRITIVE – Preparations used for mineral and vitamin support & safe for everyone but possible effects should be considered.

Cautions and Contraindications

Always practice caution before using or recommending an herb as medicine. Research the plants and understand its actions and any potential side effects. If taking pharmaceutical drugs, be sure to check with your pharmacist before using herbs medicinally.

Contraindications are assigned to plants that have known negative effects for certain conditions.

Pregnant and nursing women should always practice caution and avoid any herbal medicine that they have not properly researched. HERBAL MEDICINE CAN CAUSE PROBLEMS FOR PREGNANT OR NURSING WOMEN.

Many herbs can be used with children but preparation and dosages will vary.

Some herbal preparations can be used with animals but again, knowledge and dosage is critical.

Coming Next:

Part Two - Herbal Energetics

Author: Sue Kusch

Sue Kusch, a former community college instructor and academic advisor, incorporates her experiential wisdom, expertise and science-based research garnered from her three decades of growing vegetables, fruit and herbs into her educational writing about plants and how people use them. In addition to her BA in Social Sciences and Masters in Education, she completed the Master Gardener training in 2011 and two permaculture courses in 2001 and 2014. She has studied medicinal and nutritional uses of herbs including studies at and East West School of Planetary Herbology since 1997. Sue currently serves as President and newsletter editor of her local chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society.  An avid gardener, herbalist, cook, reader, lover of historical and folkloric information, and a promising storyteller, Sue writes about the intersection of plants and people at You can find Sue’s work in at,, Green Living Journal PDX, and Herb Quarterly magazine.

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