Basics of Western Herbal Medicine

st j wort and red clover max patch july 2017

St. John’s Wort and Red Clover in bloom at Max Patch (NC)

This is a handout that I like to give my students at workshops and courses.  I hope that this information helps you navigate the plant world safely!

“Plants are the placenta of animal life… Every carbon atom in our bodies has at one time passed through the chloroplast membrane of a plant.” ~ Dale Pentall, Pharmako

What is Western Herbalism?

To be honest, Western Herbalism is still defining itself.  It has roots in Greek medicine, European folk medicine, Native American medicine, and, increasingly influenced by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda.  What these traditions have in common is the use of plant medicine, constitution types, and assessment tools.  Keen observation is the hallmark of each tradition.

By the 1800s, America had a thriving community of Eclectics, Physio-medicalists, botanical medicalists, and folk and Native American herbalists.  Namely, the Eclectic and Physio-medical practitioners wrote quite a bit of literature that is commonly cited and referred to these days.  With the rise of the AMA in the 1930s, herbalism went underground surviving in remote, rural areas of the US.

In my opinion, the work and enthusiasm of Rosemary Gladstar (along with some others like Michael Moore, Matthew Wood, Susun Weed, and David Hoffman) brought herbalism back into the US cultural vernacular.  Rosemary started her work in the late 60s and she continues to be a trailblazer for herbalism, protection of endangered or threatened plant species, and holistic medicine.

Now, we are experiencing a resurgence of interest in herbal medicine.  Herbs and plants that were relegated to the ghettos of our culture’s mind are coming back into our awareness.  Feathery yarrow, stinky skunk cabbage, tasty chickweed, and deep woods black cohosh are all becoming common words to us again.  To thank, we have many herbalists, botanists, and foragers that braved the all but forgotten realms of the field and forest; many times taking risks to remember what was lost.  As well, there are a handful of unbroken traditions here in the US such a Native American Herbalism, Southern Folk Medicine, and Appalachian Folk Medicine.

What are some key elements that an herbalist works with in Western Herbalism?

Constitution types (names differ by tradition)
Tissue types (muscle, epithelial, connective and nervous)
Tissue states (lax, tense, cold, hot, damp, dry)
Plant energetics (temperature, tissue/organ affinity, taste, action, etc)
Intuition & intellect
Dosage & frequency

Types of herbs:

Nutritive, tonic or adaptogenic herbs
Restorative or alterative herbs
First-aid herbs or acute-use herbs
Poisonous herbs

Basic plant profile sample:

Common Name:  Yarrow
Latin name:  Achillea millefolium
Family:  Asteraceae

Parts used:  leaves, flowers
Tissue or system affinity:  skin, uterus, urinary tract, throat, mucous membranes
Taste:  bitter, astringent
Energetics:  cooling & drying
Actions:  anti-inflammatory, astringent, vulnerary, antiviral, diaphoretic, styptic, hemostatic, febrifuge, antibacterial, aromatic

Uses:  One of the best first aid herbs I know of.  You can read more about it in this chicken healing story.  It will calm inflammation around a wound, tighten the tissues, AND fight off bacteria and infection.  It also happens to be a superior pest deterrent (think homemade bug spray).  You can use yarrow for nose bleeds, wounds, urinary tract infections, strep throat, heavy menses, & fevers/flus (induces sweat, breaks fever; add peppermint for taste).

The Romans used this herb on the battlefield to dress wounds (so you can imagine how effective this herb is for first aid).  Use as a tea or tincture (internally) and as a powder, tea (rinse), or infused oil (or salve), topically.  It has a terrible bitter taste, but it works so effectively…you’ll see right past that.

Extra:  One of my clients own words about using yarrow for UTIs — “One thing you were a huge help with was UTI. I had several and was sent to a specialist, even. They wanted me to take meds everyday from then on. You came to the shop and brought me a bitter tea. The taste is very bitter, but it took away my UTI. After you moved I felt one coming on and used your tea again, and it went away. I have not had any more trouble.”

Extra Extra:  A flower essence of yarrow (or a low-dose of the tincture) is used to help people create and maintain boundaries.  I’ve seen this work very well for people who feel overwhelmed.

Want to learn more?

– apprenticeship programs
– distance learning programs
– workshops and intensives
– conferences
– accredited programs

You can also look into the work and literature of Eclectic and Physio-medical physicians to find out more about plant based medicine. A great resource on-line is Henriette’s Herbal.  There’s also a great webpage citing the work of the late Maude Grieve called  Jim McDonald’s website is also a great resource!  And, then there’s Michael Moore’s site which holds a wealth of herbal knowledge.

“It is becoming evident that in order to survive the multifaceted crisis at hand, humanity must learn some environmental humility, including how to cooperate with nature. Herbalism is a unique and important expression of this cooperation.”
~ David Hoffmann, Medical Herbalism

Reasons to make your own medicine:
• No chance of contamination!
• Connection with source
• Learning to attune your senses to the seasons
• Building self-trust in the process of medicine-making; it’s empowering!
• Learning the art of giving and receiving
• You’ll learn to protect the plants by working closely with them

“Herbalism is based on relationship ~ relationship between plant and human, plant and planet, human and planet. Using herbs in the healing process means taking part in and ecological cycle. This offers us the opportunity consciously to be present in the living, vital world of which we are part; to invite wholeness and our world into our lives through awareness of the remedies being used. The herbs can link us into the broader context of planetary wholeness, so that whilst they are doing they physiological/medical job, we can do ours and build an awareness of the links and mutual relationships.” ~ Wendell Berry

For further reading:
The Herbal Medicine Makers Handbook by James Green
Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Healthy by Rosemary Gladstar
Botany in a Day by Thomas Elpel
The Wild Medicine Solution by Guido Mase
The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism by Matthew Wood
Adaptogens by David Winston
Herb, Nutrient, and Drug Interactions by Mitchell Stargrove
The Fungal Pharmacy by Robert Rogers
Herbal Antibiotics and Herbal Antivirals by Stephen Buhner
Invasive Plant Medicine by Timothy Scott

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