Five Ways to Understand More About an Herb
A PSA about learning your herbs and five methods you can use to learn more about an herb with which you're interested in developing a deeper relationship:
1. Organoleptics - this is a fancy long word we herbalists like to use for 'using your senses'. Undoubtedly the oldest and still one of the most reliable ways to learn about herbs is through firsthand experience with the raw plant (or any preparation of it - tea, tincture, oil etc...). How does it smell? What does it taste like? What do you notice about its texture or its appearance and habitat or growth patterns? All of these sensory aspects of the experience of a plant offer clues about its qualities and how it functions in the human body. For example, as a rule, bitter tasting herbs stimulate the production of stomach acid and promote healthy digestion.
2. What's in a name? Many of the most historically valued herbs have common nicknames which point to some of their properties and possible uses. Take, for example, one old moniker for ground ivy (Glechoma hederaceae): 'ale hoof', which refers to its historical use in beer brewing (nowadays, hops is used). A common name for lobelia (Lobelia inflata - pictured in this post) is pukeweed, which indicates that it must be taken in very small drop doses (1-10 drops at a time), otherwise it may lead to nausea and vomiting.
3. Get off the internet. This might seem a little counterintuitive considering where you're reading this little nugget of advice, but the truth is that the online sphere is one of the worst (though at times, also the best) place to learn about herbs. SO much of the information about herbs online is copied and pasted in various forms from questionable material, written by ghostwriters who have no actual familiarity with herbs, or either simply scare tactics or marketing ploys with only the most basic understanding/misunderstanding of an herb's actual characteristics. Pull out your trusty herb books and use the indexes to look up reliable information or head to your library and swoop up some good botanical references.
4. Remember that while we love to teach and share, we are very limited in what we can say and often aren't permitted to tell you what conditions an herb might be used for for legal reasons. Rather than relying on us to offer up wisdom like _____ is good for ____, we challenge y'all to do your own research! As a bonus, any information that you learn on your own about how a plant is used is more likely to stick with you if you research it yourself.
5. While our beloved bestselling herbs like echinacea, elderberry, and arnica are always in style and at this point almost household names in certain circles, a good herbal apothecary is stocked with so much more than these old favorites. Some of our lesser known but highly valued medicinal herbs include treasures like ground ivy, liferoot, cleavers, spilanthes, feverfew, kudzu root, lobelia, pedicularis, poke, Solomon's seal, usnea, wild lettuce, and yellow dock. As a challenge to yourself, pick one lesser known herb per week or month and use the methods above to learn more about it and incorporate into you and your family's medicinal materia medica. You may be surprised at how integral an herb like poke or lobelia becomes to your first aid/self-care kit once you learn how multifaceted and versatile it is.