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The Art and Science of Herbalism

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of excitement toward natural healing. With this resurgence, there is a rise in herbalism, including many people learning the art and science of herbalism.

I believe this resurgence comes from a deep pull within us to reconnect to the Earth and the medicinal plants it has to offer. This pull has led to the practice of herbalism, which is as complex and multi-dimensional as the land we reside on.

Because of its rich complexity, there is much to learn about what herbalism is, the history of herbalism, herbal action terms, common medicinal plants, and so much more.

What is Herbalism?

In its most basic, herbalism is the study and use of medicinal plants and mushrooms for daily wellness, preventative care, and to support specific ailments and diseases. It is both an art and a science.

The art of herbal medicine is the personal relationship one develops with the plants and the natural world. Also, there is an undeniable creative aspect to medicine making and formulation: combining herbs based on their synergistic healing relationship.

The science pertains to understanding the chemical constituents of a plant and how the plant interacts in the body. The beauty of modern scientific discoveries in herbalism is that they shine a light on understanding the traditional uses of plants. For example, black cohosh (Actaea racemosa), a traditional native American remedy for uterine complaints, is now understood to have a balancing effect on the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis, which regulates female reproductive hormones. Through balancing this intricate hormonal communication system, female hormone complaints such as cramping, PMS, and menopausal symptoms are relieved.

The study of herbalism includes learning about medicinal plants and how to properly use them. This study includes reading herbal books, taking an herbalism course, and learning how to identify medicinal plants.

Perhaps most importantly, to understand the medicine of a plant is to experience the plant within one’s own body and to sit with the living plant. Herbalism is experiential, and books about herbalism will only take you so far. Hands-on experience with medicinal herbs is equal to textbook knowledge.

There are many ways to use medicinal herbs, and most can be used internally and externally. However, there are exceptions to this, as some herbs cannot be taken internally. Internal ingestion of medicinal herbs can be through an herbal tea (known as an infusion or decoction), tincture, food, vinegar, or capsule. The external application includes infused herbal oil, balms, salves, poultices, essential oils, and compresses. Below, I’ll give a brief description of what each of these is under the section, Herbal Preparations.

History of Herbalism

To write about the history of herbalism is to write about the history of humanity, as the two are inexorably linked. The use of medicinal plants dates back to the beginning of time, as humans have had to rely on plant resources for medicine, food, and shelter to survive.

The earliest findings of herbal medicine were from around 60,000 years ago when excavators in Iraq found many different medicinal plants in a Neanderthal burial site. Similarly, chamomile, yarrow, and other plant materials were found in the teeth of a Neanderthal man excavated inside El Sidron Cave in northern Spain around 47,300 to 50,600 years ago.

As humanity evolved and formed governmental structures, so too did herbalism evolve. The earliest written account of medicinal plants and their uses was The Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, written around 1550 BCE. Around that same time, the sacred Vedas of India was written. These ancient religious texts and poems contained information and lore about the local medicinal plants of the time.

The use of medicinal herbs throughout the ages was almost always in conjunction with the spirit world. For many indigenous cultures, this is true to this day. Plants were used along with sacred healing rituals, spells, or incantations. Often, illness was seen as a dark spirit attached to the person, and the work of the healer was to rid the body of the evil spirit.

When western medicine began to adopt a more logical and linear perspective on human health in the 1500s-1600s, it began to denounce superstitious and spiritual healing practices. As groundbreaking medical discoveries were made, the “old ways” were looked down on. This perspective slowly gained ground, and by the mid-1800s, herbalism was thrown into the box of old superstitious healing techniques and was outlawed in certain parts of Europe, including France, Italy, and Spain. Conventional medicine had gained a strong foothold, and many sought to establish it as the central medical system throughout Europe. This ambition proved fruitful, as conventional medicine is now the main source of healthcare in all developed countries.

Herbalism Today

The foundation of modern medicine is based on the practice of herbalism and the medicinal constituents found in therapeutic plants. Many pharmaceutical drugs are either extracts of single plant constituents or more likely, synthesized versions of isolated plant constituents.

It is only within the past 100 years or so that herbalism has declined in Western society, as it was the primary source of medicine throughout the world until the rise of synthetic chemical drugs in the 20th century. However, it’s estimated that 80% of the population, specifically in developing countries, still rely on herbal medicine as their primary source of healthcare. Rural communities within developing countries rely on traditional and ancient healing techniques which are given to their community by the main healer or group of healers. This is also in part due to the accessibility of local herbs, the scarcity of conventional medicine in rural communities, and how expensive pharmaceutical drugs are.

Moreover, the detrimental side effects of pharmaceuticals have influenced many people to start looking for safer, gentler, and natural alternatives to daily ailments. There is also something to be said about the overall development of chronic illnesses in the United States, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, and mental health issues. With how innovative modern medicine is, why is there such general unhealthiness throughout the United States and the increasing development of chronic disease?

There is more to health than simply the absence of disease, and holistic healing modules, such as herbalism, teach that we can support our overall wellness and vitality. Herbalism supports our body’s innate healing abilities. By understanding our body’s wisdom, we can prevent the development of disease through daily herbal intake, a healthy diet, healthy community structures, mental and emotional wellness, and spirituality.

Herbal Traditions Throughout the World

As herbalism developed and evolved along with humanity, foundations of healing systems were formed and built upon. Western herbalism, Ayurveda (India’s traditional healing system), and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) are the most well-known in the United States. However, it’s important to note there are many more traditional healing systems throughout the world.

While there are many differences between these traditional healing systems, they all have the same intention of holistic healing: viewing and healing the body as a ‘whole’ rather than its separate parts. All these systems have a way of viewing the body’s overall constitution and a method of describing the state of the organ systems. The method of describing the body’s overall constitution and each organ system is through energetics and the elements.

In Western Herbalism, there is the four tissue states and temperatures. There are the doshas in Ayurveda, and in TCM, there is yin/yang and the five elements. These methods of describing body energetics are each complex and unique, but they have some overlapping tendencies. I am the most familiar with Western Herbalism, so it is through that system that I explore the art and science of herbalism. I invite you to look deeper into these healing systems and learn more about them. If you live in the United States, I would recommend starting with Western Herbalism simply because you’ll have access to local and abundant herbs.

Western Herbalism refers to modern and traditional herbalism in Europe and North America, although there are nuances and specific cultural influences throughout the general ‘western herbalism.’

For instance, herbalism in the United States is a mix between traditional European herbalism and Native American herbalism. Great Britain has adopted many of the native American plants and their herbal healing protocols as well. Throughout Europe, each country and culture has its traditional, native plants along with exotic herbs and healing techniques from elsewhere. All this nuance is summarized in Western Herbalism.

Herbal Action Terms

One of the first things you’ll discover when you begin learning about individual medicinal plants is a list of herbal action terms, also known as medicinal actions. These terms describe the medicine of the plant and how it interacts with the body.

Herbal action terms are great for providing an overview of a plant’s medicinal benefits, but it’s important to always look deeper into a plant's medicine than just its medicinal actions. By understanding the plant’s energetics and how it uniquely affects the body, you can know the depth of a plant’s medicine rather than just surface actions. This is important because you will find that many medicinal plants have the same herbal actions, but how those plants work in the body, or where they work, may be different.

For example, there are many plants with bitter as a medicinal action. However, there is a whole range of bitterness, with some plants being mildly bitter with accompanying warming actions (such as chamomile), and there are intensely bitter plants with very cold energetics (such as Oregon grape root).

Here’s a list of some of the most common herbal action terms and their definitions:


  • Adaptogen: An herb that increases resistance and resilience to stress, enabling the body to avoid reaching collapse because it can adapt around the problem (Hoffmann, 2003).
  • Alterative: Supports the body in healthy cellular metabolism and its natural process of detoxification, cleansing, and elimination; herbs that gradually restore proper functioning of the body, increasing health and vitality.
  • Analgesic/Anodyne: herbs that reduce pain; applied topically or taken internally.
  • Anticatarrhal: Supports the body to remove or prevent the excess formation of mucus in the respiratory passages or other areas.
  • Anti-inflammatory: Also known as inflammation-modulating; helps alleviate inflammation in the body.
  • Antimicrobial: Herbs that can help the body to destroy, prevent, or inhibit the growth and production of a broad range of microbes, including viruses, bacteria, fungi, and protozoans.
  • Anti-spasmodic: herbs that can prevent or ease spasms and cramps in the body.
  • Aphrodisiac: Nourishes, sustains, excites, or elevates sexual or sensual desire.
  • Astringent: Tightens, binds, or constricts bodily tissue.
  • Bitter: Bitter herbs stimulate digestion and the excretion of bile via bitter taste receptors on the tongue; increasing digestive function.
  • Cardiotonic: Herb that has a beneficial and tonic effect on the heart and blood vessels.
  • Carminative: Helps dispel and reduce gas in the digestive system through aromatic plant compounds.
  • Cholagogue: Stimulates the release and secretion of bile from the gallbladder; have a laxative effect on the digestive system.
  • Demulcent: Mucilaginous herbs that soothe and protect inflamed or irritated internal tissue (internal use) or through external application.
  • Diaphoretic: Promotes sweating; opens the blood vessels and helps release internal heat through perspiration; aids the skin in eliminating toxins.
  • Diuretic: Increases the elimination and secretion of urine.
  • Emetic: Induces vomiting.
  • Emmenagogue: Stimulates menstrual flow.
  • Expectorant: Supports the body in the removal of excess mucus in the respiratory system, specifically the lungs.
  • Galactagogue: Encourages the secretion and production of breast milk.
  • Hepatic: Supports, tones, and strengthens liver function and the flow of bile from the liver.
  • Hypnotic: Herbs that promote sleepiness and deep relaxation.
  • Hypotensive: Lowers blood sugar levels.
  • Immune tonic: Strengthens and supports immune function over a period of time.
  • Immunostimulant: Stimulates the immune system, used for short-term infections.
  • Laxative: Promote and stimulate bowel movement and fecal elimination.
  • Lymphagogue: Stimulates lymphatic movement and increases the flow of lymph fluids.
  • Nervine: Herbs that have a beneficial effect on the nervous system.
  • Vulnerary: Herbs that help heal tissue, internally and externally.

Herbal Energetics

If you understand herbal action terms and energetics, it’s easy to form a picture of how a plant works in the body and the situations it is indicated. Understanding plant energetics is incredibly important, as it can make the difference between a formula that provides relief and a formula that aggravates a condition.

Herbs are categorized into temperature: hot, cold, or neutral. They are also categorized as drying or moistening, toning/tightening, or relaxing.

Everyone has a unique body constitution that is a combination of the above energetics. By understanding a person's constitution, you can match the plant’s energetic profile to the person’s energetic profile. This method is also applied to specific organ systems and conditions.

For example, if you need to make a formula for a urinary tract infection, you’ll want to provide herbs that will relieve the energetics of that condition. Urinary tract infections are irritated and inflamed conditions, which are hot energetics. So, you would want to use herbs that are cooling, moistening, and toning to provide relief and healing.

Plant energetics are part of the comprehensive study of herbalism, and this is only a brief introduction. There is much more to learn about the nuance of energetics that I encourage you to explore.

Herbal Preparations

In this section, I’ll provide definitions for the different methods of preparing plant medicine; internally and externally. These methods are referred to as herbal preparations; however, I will not be sharing how to make these medicines as that is a topic worthy of its own category and would be too much to include in this introductory guide. If you are interested in herbal medicine making, I provide a few medicine-making books and resources below.

Before I get into the different herbal preparations, let’s explore plant constituents and the reason for herbal preparations. Every plant has a chemical profile made up of various constituents. Scientific research has found that different constituents lend different medicinal actions. In other words, scientists have discovered how medicinal plants work in the body by studying their chemical constituents.

Herbal preparations are methods of extracting these medicinal constituents from the plant material. This allows for easy access to the plant’s medicine and for the body to readily absorb and assimilate the active medicinal compounds.

I will briefly note that many scientific studies have been done on isolated plant constituents. While it’s important to understand these different chemicals and their potency, it’s critical to know that the medicine of a plant and how it works in the body is through the synergy of all the constituents that make up the whole plant. An isolated constituent extract would not affect the body the same way as a whole plant extract because when you separate a part from the whole it does not behave the same way as the whole. This is an integral part of herbal medicine that many noteworthy herbalists have beautifully explained, such as David Hoffman and Sajah Popham. Resources for their books are listed below where you can learn more about how medicinal plants work and the synergy of their chemical profile.

Herbal Tinctures

An herbal tincture is an alcohol, vinegar, or glycerine extraction of medicinal plant constituents. Most herbal tinctures are alcohol extractions, as alcohol is very effective at extracting a wide array of potent plant constituents.

An herbal tincture consists of either fresh or dried plant material submerged in a water/alcohol ratio for 4-8 weeks. Over that time, the alcohol/water extracts the plant constituents. Then, the extraction is strained and ready to use.

Because of how potent alcohol extractions are, tincture doses are usually low and can range from 3 to 40+ drops per dose depending on the plant. The advantage of a tincture over an herbal infusion or decoction (tea) is that tinctures tend to extract a wider range of plant constituents than water, especially resins and volatile oils. Plus, it is far easier to take a small amount of tincture over a full cup of tea if the herb you wish to take is unpleasant tasting or extremely bitter. Lastly, alcohol tinctures have an indefinite shelf life and can maintain their potency for several decades (or centuries!) because alcohol is such a strong preservative.

Herbal Infusion/Decoctions

An herbal infusion, also known as herbal tea, is dried or fresh plant material steeped in hot water for 10-30+ minutes. An important aspect of the infusion process is to keep your herbal tea covered while it is steeping. This is because volatile oils, also known as essential oils, found in plant material are very lightweight, so they will rise and evaporate along with the steam. Volatile oils are an important aspect of some herb’s medicinal value, so covering the tea while it steeps will ensure these medicinal oils stay trapped.

A decoction is when you simmer herbs in a small pot on the stove for 30 minutes to several hours. The decoction method is preferred for woody and hard plant material, such as bark, roots, medicinal mushrooms, and hard non-aromatic seeds.

There is something incredibly comforting and powerful about enjoying hot herbal tea. An infusion or decoction is most often how our ancestors would have used herbal medicine, and through this method, we connect to the roots of this ancient healing tradition.

Herbal infusions are advantageous over an alcohol extraction for a few reasons. First, water extracts mucilaginous compounds and minerals much better than alcohol and effectively extracts a variety of constituents. Also, hot herbal tea is the preferred preparation when you need to flush toxins out of your system or break a fever. Finally, some people are unable to take alcohol extractions, making herbal tea a much better choice for them.

External Herbal Preparations

External herbal preparations include herbal-infused oil, salves, compresses, and poultices.

Herbal-infused oils undergo a similar extraction process as tinctures. Rather than submerging the herb in alcohol, it is submerged in carrier oil for 4-8 weeks. Common oils used for herbal oil infusions include sweet almond oil, olive oil, jojoba oil, and sunflower oil.

Often, herbal oils are confused with essential oils, but the two are very different. Essential oils are extracted via a distillation process where the volatile oils are separated from the plant material via steam. Infused herbal oils are dried or fresh whole plant material extracted in carrier oil.

Herbal oils are beneficial as a massage oil on painful and achy joints or to soothe dry skin. They are also used to make herbal salves and balms: a mix of oil and beeswax to form a soft ointment.

A compress is when you soak a cloth in a strong herbal infusion and then apply it to the skin. Compresses are beneficial for burns, inflammation, bug bites, superficial wounds, rashes, and fungal infections. A poultice is when you chew fresh plant material and place it directly on the skin as a treatment for bug bites, burns, or a wound.

Herbal Safety

One of the misconceptions I’ve come across with herbalism and natural healing is the concept that the word “natural” automatically means “safe.” While most medicinal herbs are safe and gentle remedies, they also have contraindications to be aware of.

For starters, many medicinal plants are not safe to ingest during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Nor are many medicinal plants safe to use with certain medications. Furthermore, every plant has an energetic profile, and if the plant’s energetics aggravate an individual's constitution or condition, it can create an unpleasant experience for the individual.

Lastly, some herbs are dose-dependent, meaning they are safe to use only in small doses or for short periods. Most herbal books have a contraindications section for each herb where you can learn about their safety profile. Learning an herb’s contraindications is just as important as learning its medicinal benefits.

Common Herbs for Beginners

One of the best ways to start learning about medicinal plants and incorporating them into everyday life is to identify the herbs right at your feet. Everywhere has local medicinal plants, and the plants we can interact with and view daily are often the ones with whom we form the deepest connection.

A large part of herbalism is the personal relationship you develop with the plants. While this relationship can develop through ingesting and using the herb, the connection deepens profoundly when you can observe and identify the living plant.

Proper identification is extremely important, so go ahead and pick up a local field guide or book about local medicinal plants to ensure you correctly identify them.

Below, I spotlight five medicinal plants that are abundant throughout the United States. These herbs are often considered weeds and a nuisance. However, they each have remarkable therapeutic benefits and can be found right in your backyard!

I highlight their common uses, but there is so much more to the following herbs than what I have included. You’ll find that there is always more to learn and understand about individual medicinal plants - they are as complex and multi-dimensional as we humans! With that, I invited you to check out the resources below so you can dive deeper into the medicinal uses of individual herbs.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Parts Used: Leaves and root

Medicinal Actions: Alterative, diuretic, bitter tonic, cholegogue, mild laxative, pre-biotic

Energetics: Cooling, drying, toning/relaxing

Dandelion is the perfect example of a common weed that is an incredible medicinal herb for everyday health and wellness. Both the leaves and the roots are medicinal; the leaves are often used as a kidney tonic, and the root is used as a liver tonic. As an alterative and diuretic, it effectively cleans the fluids of the body and flushes out toxins through the urinary system. Dandelion, as a whole, is a detoxing and rejuvenating remedy for the liver, kidneys, and digestive system.

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

Parts Used: root, leaves, and flowers

Medicinal Actions: Relaxant expectorant, demulcent, inflammation-modulating, antispasmodic, relaxant nervine, anodyne (flowers), astringent/vulnerary, diuretic (roots)

Energetics: Root - neutral/slightly warming, drying; Leaf - cooling, moistening; Flower - cooling, neutral

Often growing in open fields or along roadways, mullein is a wonderful plant for respiratory health. As a moistening herb, the leaves lubricate the tissue in the lungs and act as an expectorant to help break up mucus in the respiratory system. Its relaxing expectorant/antispasmodic action also indicates it for dry, hacking, spasmodic coughs. Mullein effectively relaxes the smooth muscles lining the bronchial tree and helps relieve irritated and inflamed mucous membranes. The same moistening quality also helps nourish and support the synovial fluids in the spine and joints.

Nettles (Urtica dioica)

Parts Used: Leaves, seeds, root

Medicinal Actions: Diuretic, alterative, nutritive tonic, astringent, rubefacient, inflammation-modulating, stimulant (seeds)

Energetics: Drying, cooling, toning

A highly nutritious plant, nettles straddles the divide between food and herb. It is rich in vitamins and minerals and helps build and nourish the blood through its high iron content. Nettles is often used as a nutrient tonic, meaning it is provided to those who are mineral deficient, malnourished, thin, and weak. As an alterative/diuretic it helps flush toxins out of the system, which makes it an effective remedy for skin issues due to excess toxins in the blood, such as eczema and acne. Dandelion is also used in this way, and together they make an effective liver tonic/detoxifying/nutrient remedy.

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)

Part Used: Aerial portion (leaves, flowers, stem)

Medicinal Actions: Nervine sedative, relaxant diaphoretic, carminative, anti-spasmodic, anti-viral, nootropic

Energetics: drying, cooling, relaxing

One of the first medicinal plants I fell in love with, lemon balm has a delicious flavor and is comforting to the nervous system. As a nervine relaxant, it helps relax an overly tense or excited nervous system, which often leads to symptoms of anxiety and stress. However, it is not overtly sedative, so you can take it throughout the day without growing tired. Its carminative/antispasmodic actions make it well-indicated for GI complaints such as painful gas, bloating, cramps, and spasms. It also has an uplifting quality for the mind, helping one to focus and release scattered anxious thoughts.


Part Used: Aerial portions

Medicinal Actions: Diuretic, demulcent, anti-inflammatory, expectorant, galactagogue, alterative, nutritive tonic, gentle laxative, and vulnerary

Energetics: moistening, cooling

Chickweed, along with nettles and dandelion, is considered a spring tonic as it’s one of the first plants (or “weeds”) to arrive in spring. Through its diuretic, alterative, and anti-inflammatory actions, it cleanses and detoxes bodily fluids and eases inflammation in the digestive system. This is helpful after the winter months when many of us have experienced heavy foods and low exercise, leading to stagnation, inflammation, and build-up of toxicity. As a nutritive tonic, it provides much-needed vitamins and minerals to the body. Because it’s safe for pregnancy and has a mild galactagogue action, it is often used to support milk production and to help remedy postpartum anemia through its high iron content. It can be combined safely with nettles for this purpose. It is also considered a food herb: it can be easily added to meals and taken in large amounts. I love to make fresh chickweed pesto and add it to my salads and smoothies.

Additional Herbs for Beginners

Below, I included additional herbs I recommend learning about. These are some of my favorite medicinal herbs, but this is by no means a comprehensive list. There are many herbs for you to explore and cultivate a relationship with.

  • Calendula
  • Chamomile
  • Black Cohosh
  • Burdock
  • Echinacea
  • Elder
  • Holy Basil
  • Hawthorn
  • Marshmallow
  • Milky Oats
  • Motherwort
  • Mugwort
  • Passionflower
  • Peppermint
  • Raspberry leaf
  • Rose
  • St. John’s Wort
  • Skullcap
  • Valerian
  • Yarrow

Herbal Resources

All of the resources provided below are resources I use/books I’ve read. There are many more herbal resources, but these are a great starting point for beginning your herbal path.

Herbal Books

General Herbal Books:

  • Holistic Herbal: A Safe and Practical Guide to Making and Using Herbal Remedies by David Hoffmann
  • Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine by David Hoffmann
  • Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine by Andrew Chevallier
  • The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicine by Matthew Wood
  • The Earthwise Herbal Volume 1: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants by Matthew Wood
  • The New Healing Herbs by Michael Castleman

Medicine Making:

  • The Herbal Medicine-Makers Handbook: A Home Manual by James Green
  • The Herbal Bath & Body Book by Heather Lee Houdek

Plant-Spirit Connection:

  • Evolutionary Herbalism: Science, Spirituality, and Medicine from the Heart of Nature by Sajah Popham
  • The Secret Teachings of Plants: In The Direct Perception of Nature by Stephen Harrod Buhner
  • Sacred Plant Medicine: The Wisdom in Native American Herbalism by Stephen Harrod Buhner

Online Herbal Courses

Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine

I am in the Herbal Immersion Program through the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine. If you are excited about growing, using, and making your own medicine, this is a great course to enroll in.

The School of Evolutionary Herbalism

I’m subscribed to the Materia Medica program which features in-depth monographs on individual plants. I highly recommend this resource as I have learned so much about herbs through this program.

Other Resources/Websites:

Surprisingly, I have learned quite a bit about identifying wild medicinal plants through social media, especially Instagram. There are many high-quality herbal Instagram accounts to follow that provide informative and easy-to-understand posts about all things herbalism.