Herbal Basics

From Antivist


Healthcare Systems

Also known as "conventional medicine" in Western societies. Allopathy focuses on treating the symptoms of diseases primarily through prescription drugs. This approach utilizes a process of reductionism (focusing on the symptoms exhibited in a part of the organism rather than focusing on the organism as a whole.)
Ayurvedic Medicine
Literally meaning the "science of life." A 5,000-year-old system of medicine originating in India that combines natural therapies with a highly personalized, holistic approach to the treatment of disease.
A system of medicine founded in the late 18th century in which remedies consist of diluted substances from plants, minerals and animals. It is based on a theory that "like cures like." Remedies specifically match different symptom pattern profiles of illness to stimulate the body’s natural healing process.
A holistic medical system that treats health conditions by utilizing what is believed to be the body’s innate ability to heal. Naturopathic physicians aid healing processes by incorporating a variety of natural methods based on the patient’s individual needs.
Indigenous or Tribal Medicine
A healthcare system that tends to incorporate various methods of botanical and animal medicines as well as specific ceremonial rituals of the culture to cure disease. The medicinal knowledge is passed from generation to generation primarily through oral traditions. The system tends to be unique to each tribe.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
A 3,000-year-old holistic system of medicine combining the use of medicinal herbs, acupuncture, food therapy, massage, and therapeutic exercise. Chinese physicians look for the underlying causes of imbalance in the "yin" and "yang" which lead to disharmony in the "qi" energy in the body. Traditional Chinese Medicine addresses how illness manifests itself in a patient and treats the patient, not the ailment or disease.


This approach uses essential oils extracted from medicinal plants to treat various health conditions. The oils are generally diluted, then used topically, internally, or to stimulate olfactory senses.
Flower Essences
In the 1930s, Dr. Edward Bach developed an approach to healing using "flower essences." Flower essences are made by infusing flowers or other plant parts in spring water and then adding alcohol as a preservative. The essences are used internally or topically to balance emotional states. The underlying philosophy focuses on stabilizing emotions in order to dissipate illness and stimulate internal healing processes.
Herbal Medicine
An approach to healing which uses plant or plant-derived preparations to treat, prevent, or cure various health conditions and ailments. This approach is incorporated into various medical systems. Although herbal medicine does not have a specific point of conception, at present an estimated 80% of the world’s population rely on medicinal plant preparations for their primary healthcare needs, according to the World Health Organization. Despite the extensive use which can be attributed to the use of plants in traditional medical systems, our knowledge of the plants and their values remain largely unexplored.

General Herbal Terms

The two-part scientific Latin name used to identify plants. The first name is the genus and is a general name that may be shared by a number of related plants. The second is the species name, which refers to the name that is specific to that individual plant (i.e., Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustifolia).
Crude drug
Natural products, which are not pure compounds (i.e., plants or parts of plants, extracts, or exudes).
a pure substance or combination of pure substances (isolated from natural sources, semi-sythenthic, or purely chemical in origin) intended to mitigate, treat, cure or prevent a disease in humans (and other animals).
The word herb (sometimes referred to as botanical) has several different meanings depending on the perspective:
  • In commercial terms - herb generally refers to plants used for culinary purposes. Additionally the terminology differentiates Temperate Zone plants from tropical and sub-tropical plants (i.e., spices).
  • In horticultural terms - herb refers to "herbaceous," which describes the appearance of the plant (i.e., a non-woody, vascular plant).
  • In taxonomic terms - herb generally refers to the aboveground parts or the aerial parts (i.e., the flower, leaf, and stem).
  • In terms of herbal medicine - herb refers to plants used in various forms or preparations, valued for their therapeutic benefits, and sold as dietary supplements in the U.S. marketplace.
The study of natural products (i.e., plant, animal, organism, or mineral in nature) used as drugs or for the preparation of drugs. Derived from the Greek pharmakon meaning drug and gnosis meaning knowledge.
Chemical compounds or chemical constituents formed in the plant’s normal metabolic processes. The chemicals are often referred to as "secondary metabolites" of which there are several classes including alkaloids, anthraquinones, coumarins, fats, flavonoids, glycosides, gums, iridoids, mucilages, phenols, phytoestrogens, tannins, terpenes, and terpenoids, to mention a few. Extracts contain many chemical constituents, while chemicals that have been isolated from the plant are considered pharmaceutical drugs (i.e., digoxin having been isolated from the foxglove or Digitalis lanata plant).
Medicinal substances that originate from plants. This may include certain phytochemicals as well as whole plants or herbal preparations.
A type of phytochemical with some influence on the estrogenic activity or hormonal system in humans. This rather broad term does not mean that the plant mimics human estrogen, only acts to affect it in some way.

Plant Parts (crude drug terminology)

Refers to the essential or volatile oil as a distinct aromatic product obtained from the plant.
Refers to a solution of resin and volatile oil usually produced by special cells in some plants.
Refers to the bulb or an underground bud (specialized stem structure) of a plant, from which both a shoot and roots may extend.
Refers to the bark of the plant. Bark can be collected from the root, stem, or branches.
Refers to the flowers of plant usually consisting of a single flower or the entire inflorescences (i.e., head, umbel, panicle, spike, etc.).
Refers to the leaf of plant. Usually the middle leaves of plants are collected.
Refers to the fruit (the ripened ovary of the flower-bearing seeds) or berry of the plant. In pharmacognosy, fructus is not always synonymous with the botanical definition.
Refers to the aerial parts or the aboveground parts of plants which may include the flower, leaf, and the stem of the plant, and occasionally fruits too.
Refers to the wood or the secondary thickening of the stem. This may or may not contain the bark as well.
Refers to the fixed oil preparation pressed or squeezed from the plant material.
Refers to the peel or rind of fruit.
Refers to the tar from dry distilled plant material.
Refers to the root of a plant, though radix is sometimes synonomous with rhizome
Refers to the resin that is secreted by the plant or by distillation of the balsamum.
Refers to the rhizome or a creeping horizontal stem, generally bearing roots on its underside.
Refers to the seed of a plant, usually removed from the fruit, and may or may not contain the seed coat.

Topical Preparations

Salves are healing preparations that are applied to the skin. They are generally thick creams that last a long time on the skin, helping to keep moisture in. Salves have protective qualities that shield the skin from harsh effects of sun and wind. Popular salves are those made with calendula, St. John's wort and comfrey.
A poultice is a traditional preparation of fresh or dried whole herbs. The herbs are mashed into a pasty consistency and applied topically to the affected area. Herbs can be moistened and heated and then applied to the skin. Poultices are the way your great-grandmother would have applied herbs and it's still a useful method today. A crude method, poultices are great for instant use and can use parts of the plant that aren't normally used, such as the root and stems.
A compress is similar to a poultice. Fresh or dried herbs are mashed and combined with water to make a paste. The paste is then applied to the skin or put into a small bundle, often in fabric, to be held against the skin.
Extract of a plant added to either alcohol or vinegar and applied topically to employ the therapeutic benefits.
Infused oils are made by combining herbs with oil, usually extra-virgin olive oil, and heated on a slow heat. The mixture is then steeped for at least two weeks, then strained and put into jars. Oils can be used for skin irritations and is commonly used as massage oil.
Similar to salves, ointments are thicker in consistency. They are used topically on the skin and are particularly good for minor skin irritations and burns.

Ingestible Preparations

Infusions are the most common way that people take herbal remedies. An infusion is a preparation that uses water as a solvent to mix with crude botanicals. The mixture may start out hot or can be a cold mixture. Usually, hot water mixtures infuse the herbs more readily and are therefore made hot and then cooled down for use. The mixture is steeped, rather than boiled. That is, it is let to set in the hot water for a period of time, depending on the type of herbs that are used. Infusions are generally the weakest of the herbal preparations.
A decoction is similar to an infusion because water is used. However, a decoction uses water to boil the herbs and then squeezes them into a container. That "juice" is more concentrated than an infusion and is twice as potent. In prepared decoctions, alcohol is used as a preservative. Otherwise, the decoction would spoil rapidly. Decoctions are often used as additives in prepared foods or drinks.
Similar to decoctions, tinctures are prepared by allowing herbs to sit in liquids for long periods of time to solubilize them. Herbs are stored for weeks to months in dark glass containers containing an ingredient that will make them soluble. That may be water, vinegar, alcohol or glycerine. The herbs break down in the liquid and dissolve. The remaining mixture is strained or pressed. Tinctures are often used added to foods or drinks.
Similar to tinctures, syrups are a thicker liquid. These are most often taken alone as a remedy. Syrups generally have higher concentrations of herbs and care should be taken to follow the directions properly.
There are a number of pre-made herbal teas on the market these days. There are also tea bags that come in a variety of herbal mixtures. These are so common that they are available at any regular supermarket. Tea is actually a form of infusion.
Capsules or Tablets
Next to infusions, capsules are the next most common way to take herbs. Supplements are available in tablet form for almost any herb known. These are ingested in the same way you take aspirin. They dissolve in the stomach and get into your body.

Miscellaneous Preparations

Essential Oils
Aromatic volatile oils extracted from the leaves, stems, flowers, and other parts of plants. Therapeutic use generally includes dilution of the highly concentrated oil.
Herbal Infused Oils
A process of extraction in which the volatile oils of a plant substance are obtained by soaking the plant in a carrier oil for approximately two weeks and then straining the oil. The resulting oil is used therapeutically and may contain the plant’s aromatic characteristic.
A process to extract the soluble constituents of a plant with the assistance of gravity. The material is moistened and evenly packed into a tall, slightly conical vessel; the liquid (menstruum) is then poured onto the material and allowed to steep for a certain length of time. A small opening is then made in the bottom, which allows the extract to slowly flow out of the vessel. The remaining plant material (the marc) may be discarded. Many tinctures and liquid extracts are prepared this way.
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