The terminology of herbalism can be overwhelming at first glance. It can seem like a whole new language but I’m going to do my best to keep things clear as we go through this membership. You will also find a terms library in this membership and I will do my best to explain terms as I use them.
To start we will break things down with a quick overview of the main topics of the terminology.
The energetics of herbalism emerged long ago and presents in different ways depending on the form of herbal medicine you study. Energetics is a way of describing energy patterns in the body. Different types of energetics include yin/yang from TCM and the four humors from Greek medicine. Western Herbalism has been said to lack an energetics system but that’s not exactly true.
Energetics itself is a language that helps to describe how the body works in a holistic manner to self regulate and self correct. The terms hot/cold and dry/damp are the basic terms used when talking energetics in Western Herbalism. Hot/cold does not refer to what the thermometer measures but instead the way it makes your body feel despite the actual temperature of your body. Dry/damp terms also refer more to sensations rather than actually being wet or dry. This language has expanded from hot/cold, dry/damp to the action terms we use today.
To deeply understand energetics requires some study but you don’t need to deeply understand energetics to begin using herbs. It is helpful to understand what it means when herbs or ailments are referred to as hot/cold, dry/damp or when actions are called warming or cooling. Understanding that energetics is a language based on the energy patterns in the body and the plants we use is a good start.
If this topic interests you these books can be a good place to start. (Alchemy of Herbs, Practical Herbalism, The Practice of Traditoinal Western Herbalism.)
According to Practical Herbalism there are three main actions of herbs, detoxifying, regenerating and symptom regulating. The action terms fall into these three categories. Our modern look at health leans toward symptom suppression. Allopathic medicine is very focused on this and it leads new herbalists to have the same mindset. Notice however that detoxifying and regenerating are also herbal actions. While symptom regulation can lead to some comfort it rarely ever heals the root cause of an issue.
The beautiful thing about herbs is they can restore or maintain balance through their actions by supporting our body as it heals itself. Much of the home care herbs we will begin with will help with the symptoms but we will also touch on the daily use of herbs to help maintain balance and support the body.
Again I must mention many chronic conditions need a practitioner of herbalism to sort through and build a plan. However learning the actions of herbs and a few very safe herbs to add to your daily life can bring you back to balance from simple things like seasonal allergies, cold and flu, sunburns and ailments such as these.
Action terms under these categories include things such as Alteratives, Cathartics, Emetics, Vulneraries, Styptics, Stimulants. When you see these listed in herb profiles you will know these are the actions of the herbs. As you understand these terms you will be able to place them into the three categories mentioned above. To help you out with this I will attempt to mention the category in the terms library found in this membership. To read deeper into the action of herbs, Practical Herbalism is a great resource.
Constituents are the active ingredients in a plant. They are chemicals that have been defined, and possibly act upon the body. As beginner herbalists these are not necessarily important. These are the bits and pieces found when the plants are broke down but as herbalists we tend to use the whole plant.
The scientific mind may find these interesting, I do to a point. As the pharmaceutical world searches for the perfect constituent for the perfect pill they only hit walls. Pulling the plants apart to use only one constituent tends to cause trouble because whole plants tend to also contain constituents that can combat certain side effects of the constituent they are focused on. Mouth full I know.
Just because a plant contains a constituent that holds certain properties when it stands alone, does not mean that the properties of the plant are the properties of the constituent.
An example from the Herbal Handbook, (a good resource if you would like to dig deeper into the constituents) Salicylic acid is found in many plants. This is the basis of aspirin and other NSAID’s. These medications can cause stomach irritation caused by the salycilates that can lead to haemorrhage. Herbs such as meadowsweet, which contains salycilates, as a whole plant can actually stop bleeding in the stomach.
My personal opinion on constituents is it is interesting to understand the constituents of a plant but we must also remember there is so much we don’t know. (There are many constituents that have not been identified or defined yet.) Remember what we do know, the power of the plants as a whole verse the power of the constituents on their own. Understanding that it’s not so cut and dry and our science may not be wide enough to truly understand the power of plants and the constituents they contain.
Along with the terms of actions you’ll find terms of bodily functions that may seem foreign to you. Even deeper, you’ll find terms of the body systems. The allopathic medical field likes to break down the body systems and focus on them individually. While this is important, we can’t forget that all of these body systems work together as a whole and it must be realized that they connect and work together. One body part imbalance may lead to the imbalance of another.
Understanding the functions of the body systems helps to understand what herbs may be useful. Terms of disease and illness, terms of symptoms and terms of bodily functions can help guide you to the herbs you should use. Emesis to antiemetics, fevers to febrifuge and such. It takes time to become familiar with these terms but you will.
I hope to someday delve into the body systems in this membership but for now I just want you to remember symptoms of a disease or illness are just that, symptoms. They are not the actual problem. A fever is a mechanism used to heat the body to kill off invaders, it is not the problem. Stopping a low grade fever may do more harm than good because the body does not get a chance to fight away an illness using its own mechanisms. (Very simply put.)
Remedies and preparations
The terms used for remedies and herbal preparations can get a bit confusing depending on who you talk to. Isn’t a tea the same as an infusion? Isn’t a tincture the same as a tonic? What is the difference between an essential oil and an infused oil?
Some of these terms can be used interchangeably some are very different. In some cases it really doesn’t matter, in others it does. Make sure to take time to look over the terms library to find the definitions of herbal preparations so you are clear on what you are making and how it should be used. The preparations portion of this intro segment really sheds some light on these terms as well.
In this membership we will be digging deep into each preparation depending on the herb we talk about. You’ll find videos are added all the time that will show how to create different preparations along with why the herbs were prepared as they were.
Aerial parts, above ground parts, leaves, stems and more. When I talk about using the whole plant sometimes I mean from root to flower. Mostly I mean the whole leaf, whole root or whole flower as opposed to breaking it down into its chemical constituents. With most plants a certain part of the plant is regarded as the most beneficial part. As you read about new herbs you’ll learn what parts are used most and what parts should not be used. Sometimes you’ll find conflicting information on the best part to use but in most cases we can all agree on the best part to use.
Each part has its best form of preparation. With many plants you can use the whole plant. In some plants each part does something different. Every part has a season to harvest for the most beneficial amount of properties.
Plant parts terms will probably come easiest because they are by far the most common terms out of all of the terms of herbalism.
Herbalism is big, that’s why I call it a journey. You will never know it all. Each of the above mentioned term segments can be studied deeply if they strike your fancy but you do not have to know every term, that’s why we have resources that we can look to when we hit a wall.
Because this is a journey and we are at the beginning stages, it’s good to have a general knowledge of what each term speaks to but it is not necessary to know everything before you jump in and start using herbs in your life. You will find that as you take it one herb at a time you’ll begin to understand the terms on a deeper level just by associating them with the herb or the ailment.