Being an herbalist isn’t easy, it takes years of study and practice and you always have to begin somewhere, I always ask my students in beginner classes, “Do you work with herbs?”, one or two people will raise their hand, so I ask another question, “Who here cooks, spices their food, eats, makes tea, etc…?”, at that point everyone raises their hand… that my friends, right there is your first step to being an herbalist… I, like my fellow plant workers will be heard saying, “the best herbalist is not someone who knows 1 use for 100 plants, but 100 uses for one plant.” and that is where I want you to start… but in this case, I am going to offer you ten plants to get to know to get you on your way to working with herbal medicine.
The plants below can be taken as teas, tincture, glycerites, capsules and topically as poultices, compresses or in salves.
Turmeric – Curcuma longa: Native to India and very common in Ayurvedic medicine, or the medicinal tradition of continental India, Turmeric is one of the most common spices found, gracing most dishes. Turmeric is easy to grow if you live somewhere where it never freezes, like I do in Costa Rica. I did grow it indoors in Philadelphia in my bathroom, where the humidity was higher. Medicinally, Turmeric is what we call a warming bitter, meaning it stimulates peptic or digestive juices, while not harming the “stomach fire”, remember, our stomachs are the “hottest” place in our body, with HLC that helps to kill pathogens and break down our food. Turmeric, while being energetically warm, is also a systemic anti-inflammatory, which helps reduce pain, while also fighting bacterial infection and soothing irritated tissues. Internally Turmeric benefits the digestive system and is recommended for most people, especially for those with IBS, IBD, Crohn’s Disease, Ulcerative Colitis or a familial history of colon cancer. Standardized extracts of Turmeric are indicated for those suffering from joint and tendon inflammation. You will commonly see people saying that you must have Black Pepper (Piper nigrum) with Turmeric for it to be bioavailable. This is not exactly true, Turmeric is bioavailable any way you take it, but in traditional Ayurvedic formulas Black Pepper, Pipli Long Pepper (Piper longum), and Ginger (Zinziber officinalis) are used as catalysts, meaning, they increase circulation to help get the plants to where they need to go. You can also use things like Wasabi, Mustard,
Horseradish, Cayenne or Garlic. One of my favorite fresh tea formulas for minor digestive upset and colds is a hot brew of Turmeric, Lemongrass and Ginger. Topically Turmeric is one of my favorite first aid remedies. Being anti-inflammatory and antiseptic, it is useful in wound treatment as a poultice. I use it for bug bites, infected cuts and scrapes. It is effective along with other antibacterial herbs for early staph infections internally and externally. Turmeric is also traditionally used to clear the skin (because it kills bacteria), whiten teeth (not sure how this works because it definitely stains them yellow when you eat it fresh) and in modern studies has shown to reduce the formation of the neuritic plaques that form in the brain in the case of Alzheimers patients.
When purchasing Turmeric, try to get organic fresh roots, they will last for quite some time outside of the refrigerator and even longer in the fridge. If you can only buy ground Turmeric, remember that it will not be as potent, as the powering process exposes more surface area to oxygen and light, which degrades the active constituents much faster. So make sure it smells strong and keep it in a dark, cool and dry place… this is the rule for all plant storage.
Ginger – Zinziber officinalis: Found throughout the tropical world, native to various parts of Asia, Ginger is one of those spices that everyone seems to know. It can be found in candies and confections, teas, and many different dishes. Ginger is an amazing medicine for fighting off colds and the flu, especially when there is digestive upset. It soothes a nauseous stomach in the case of morning and motion sickness. It also will settle a “sour” stomach and help with menstrual cramps when the bleeding is not too heavy. A wonderful tea for menstrual cramps would include Ginger as well as two other plants on this list… Yarrow and Chamomile. Ginger is also a nice tea for soar throat and a chest cold, mix with other plants on this list, Echinacea and Licorice!
Ginger can be used topically as a compress for sore muscles and bruises or in a bath for the same.
Yarrow – Achillea millefolium: Native to Europe and has been naturalized around temperate regions of the world, Yarrow is often a common garden “weed”. Called by the Roman’s Soldier’s Herb/Plant, it was used as a styptic (stops bleeding) in the field for various injuries. Yarrow has what we call an affinity for blood, an intelligence of sorts, in that is knows how to work with the blood for what it is needed for… meaning, if you have bruises or congealed blood, it will break up the blood and get it moving, OR if you are bleeding and need it to stop, it will stop it up. Therefore, Yarrow can be indicated for a variety of menstrual complaints from a heavy flow to a scanty one. Yarrow is also wonderful for bacterial and viral infection as it helps to maintain a healthy fever while also being antiseptic. Yarrow can be used internally as a tea or tincture, or topically as a poultice or compress.
Chamomile – Matricaria sp.: Native to Europe, this too has been naturalized around temperate regions of the world. Chamomile is anti-inflammatory to the skin and eyes and is an antispasmodic and nervine internally. Chamomile compresses can be used for itchy, irritated eyes (where the person is not allergic to Asters) and in creams and lotions for sensitive skin prone to redness. Internally I love Chamomile for menstrual cramps, gassy belly and nerve pain. Steep like any tea, but use two tea bags and cover for 15-20 minutes. Make sure that your Chamomile is mostly flowers, some places will sell cut leaves in the mix, which dilutes the potency and adds unnecessary weight and cost,
Echinacea – Echinacea purpurea: Native to North American, Echinacea was originally used by the indigenous Plains people to denature the venom of snake, spider and scorpion bites/stings. It wasn’t until much later that the Germans did studies, which found that Echinacea potentiates the immune system. I always use Echinacea in the case of spider, scorpion, ant, bee, wasp and animal bites/stings. I have not had the opportunity to try it out on snake bites, which I would someday like to treat, though I don’t want anyone to get bit. I also use Echinacea in the case of a staph or other bacterial infection. Echinacea always needs to be taken in high doses for shorter periods of time, high dose meaning 2 – 4 tablespoons every few hours for the first day and a tablespoon every four hours for the following days. Echinacea is a threatened species in the wild, so always make sure your source is domesticated and organically grown.
Hops – Hummulus lupulus: Native to Europe but now grown through out North America, Hops is what gives beer its bitter taste, Hops is one of my favorite remedies for insomnia. It will knock you out, so do not take Hops and drive. I typically start dosage at 1 tablespoon to 4 tablespoons, a half hour before bed. It is not a pleasant tea, so I recommend tincture. Hops in high doses can make you groggy in the morning. If you feel groggy when taking Hops, I suggest your morning tea to be Tulsi, also on this list. When someone is fighting a cold or other infection, I often give them Hops so they can get some deep sleep, that is the best remedy after all…
Tulsi – Ocimum sanctum: Native to India, Tulsi, also known as Holy Basil is a delicious, uplifting tea that brightens the mood, relaxes the nerves and eases an upset stomach. Tulsi is a true adaptogen, meaning that it works on the endocrine system, specifically the adrenal glands to help our bodies cope with stress. Tulsi is a great remedy for Cannabis fog and I suggest it above as a remedy for the grogginess caused by Hops, as they are in the same family. In replacement for coffee, I love Tulsi mixed with Yerba Maté. There are many brands putting Tulsi out, one of my favorites is Organic India, which is an organic and fair trade brand sourced by a women’s cooperative. One of my favorite of the blends is the Tulsi Rose, so nice for those blue days. For tension headaches, I love Tulsi, Meadowsweet, Skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia)and Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) in equal parts as a tea.
Oregon Grape Root – Mahonia aquifolium: There are many antimicrobial herbs in out global materia medica, and everyone has their favorite. Mine is Oregon Grape Root, native to the North West part of the United States. Oregon Grape Root is a berberine containing plant, giving it it’s bright yellow color, which is a strong antibacterial to mucus membranes, great for killing staph and strep. It can be taken internally, though quite bitter for those who are not accustomed, used as a gargle for sore throats, in a nets pot for sinus infections and is effective for treating diarrhea. It can also be used topically for acne, and internally in the case of backne.
Licorice – Glycyrrhiza glabra: Native to China, Licorice can be found around the world. Many people do not like Licorice because they associate it with black jelly beans and other artificial sweets, but that flavor is actually Anise, not true Licorice, which just tastes very sweet. Licorice is a demulcent, meaning it moistens and soothes tissue, especially mucus membranes, like the throat and lungs. When I used to go to Burning Man, my favorite tea to drink was Organic India Tulsi Licorice, it kept my throat, stomach and lungs healthy, while helping me to cope with the over stimulation and harsh environment. Licorice is also an adaptogen and helps down regulate hyper immune issues, such as allergies. It also is a great antiviral and can be used for colds and the flu. Licorice is very effective for IBD and GERD, though people who suffer from those dis-eases, will need to take it regularly, bringing up the fact that Licorice can elevate blood pressure, so what is recommended is DGL or Deglycyrrhizinated Licorice, which will not raise your BP, while being as effective as antacids and other pharmaceutical drugs.
Meadowsweet – Filipendula ulmaria: Also native to Europe, Meadowsweet is one of our natural sources of salicylic acid, which is an anti-inflammatory and can actually remove the outer layer of the skin, being used in acne and fungal treatments topically. Meadowsweet is an anti-inflammatory pain reliever and salicylic acid is a metabolite found in Aspirin, but the plant will not thin the blood. It is also used in cases of bowel inflammation and can be used with plants like Ginger or Licorice to bring relief to various ailments of the digestive system.