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Growing and Using Medicinal Herbs

Table of Contents

Medicinal Herbs: The Top 30Growing Medicinal HerbsMaking Plant Medicines

Making and Using Plant Medicines

Let your kitchen be your pharmacy. With a reliable beginner’s guide to home medicine, you will require no equipment other than the pans, measuring utensils, electric coffee grinder, strainers, funnels, mixing bowls, etc.\ probably already resident in your kitchen. If you get excited about the process, you can always add equipment such as presses and distilling equipment for making more sophisticated extractions.

You will be amazed that you can duplicate in your kitchen all the forms in which you have encountered “medicines” in the past: tinctures (based on alcohol, glycerin, vinegar, even wine), infusions (herbal medicines can be as simple as a cup of tea) and decoctions, lozenges, capsules, syrups, salves, and lotions—as well as some that are new to you (but would not have been to your grandmother) such as poultices, fomentations, and herbed water baths.

Be aware that traditional herbal practice almost always features using the whole plant, or extracts therefrom, as medicine. Modern pharmaceutical preference for isolating a single component of a plant as the “active ingredient,” and administering that element in isolation from its hundreds of other compounds—results in the greater incidence of unintended side effects of modern medicines, to say nothing of their vastly increased cost. Not only do the complementary compounds of the whole plant help balance its actions and alleviate possible side effects, there is evidence that some may help “feed” our vital intestinal flora, and thus act as a beneficial (and free) probiotic in the digestive tract.

Safety First

The fact that herbal medicines are “natural” does not mean they can be used carelessly, without regard to possible hazards. Some of our potential plant allies are quite powerful indeed, and can be dangerous if misused. Some can be confused with dangerous look-alikes as well, if we are not careful. Here are some essential but common-sense rules for safe medicinal use of plants.

Know the plant
Proper plant identification is crucial—there is no room for carelessness or guessing games. Fennel is on our “top thirty” list, and closely related species such as parsley, celery, dill, cilantro, and lovage have a long history of medicinal use as well. Two members of this family are deadly poisonous, however—water hemlock and poison hemlock (the plant used to execute Socrates)—and mistakes with these look-alikes can be fatal. This sounds scary, but we need simply to practice the same common sense we use when instructing our children about any hazardous plant in their environment—poison ivy, Jimson weed, lily-of-the-valley.
Know the part to be used
It may be that one part of a traditional medicinal plant is safe to use, while others are off limits. For example, elderberry flowers and berries are safe for the beginner to use (to make medicines for flu and fever), but the bark can have toxic effects.
Know the application
Some plants that can be seriously toxic if taken internally, can be safely used externally. An excellent example is foxglove (Digitalis), which can be fatal if ingested, but can be used to make a “fomentation” to promote wound healing.
Know the dosage
It should never be assumed that “if a little is good, a little more is even better.” Indeed, James Green observes that small doses of German chamomile can provide positive effects for the nervous system that larger doses cannot duplicate. In some cases, the possibility of side effects or toxicity goes up with increasing dosage. Remember that dosage is keyed to body weight as well, so special care must be taken when administering herbal medicines to children.
Though unwelcome side effects are much less common in herbal medicine than in pharmaceuticals, it is wise to “read and heed” herbal literature to minimize possible side effects. For example, herbals high in tannins—such as yellow dock (a liver stimulant and laxative)—can be a problem for individuals with a history of kidney stones.
Remember individual sensitivities
An individual might have an allergic reaction to a traditional medicinal plant safely used by others. When beginning use of a medicinal herb—just as when trying a new food—start with a reduced amount and work up to a normal dose.
Be aware of restrictions on use
Some herbs safe to use by the general patient may not be appropriate for children or the elderly. Most importantly, pregnant women should always be considered a special case. With regard to any plant medicine, the responsible herbalist will consider the issue of safe use during pregnancy, and will err on the side of caution. Some herbs such as black cohosh, comfrey, goldenseal, mugwort, and yarrow should be avoided entirely by pregnant women. Others such as cayenne and ginger might be used, but very sparingly.
Recognize the limits of your own expertise
There are many herbs that are easy and safe for the beginner to use—a good place to start is with herbs commonly used as food and in teas. Others require far greater experience, knowledge, and skill. In the case of elderberry bark, mentioned above, it actually is used medicinally, even for internal applications. However, it is strong medicine indeed, and should be used only by those who know what they are doing. The rest of us should stick with the more user-friendly plants and applications, and seek out a reliable teacher if we want to advance.

The Best Plant Medicine

You may discover as you honor and get to know medicinal herbs, wild and cultivated, that your relationship with these plants grows ever more intimate, more personal. Herbal medicine is not just about using plants as little chemical retorts to synthesize compounds we match one-for-one with symptoms of illness. While the chemicals plants create can indeed be healing, our growing alliances with plants are even more so.

You may find in your walks through wood and meadow that a certain plant “steps out” of the background and presents itself to you in a personal way. Or you may experience as you plant a particular herb a sense of recognition, of kinship. Pay attention to such moments and to such plants—they are offers of alliance, opportunities to heal the rift that has opened between us and the living world. This is the best medicine of all.

Books on Herbal Medicine for Beginners

Growing 101 Herbs That Heal by Tammi Hartung is a good overview of medicinal herb gardening.

The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook by James Green may be the best book for the beginner on making plant medicines in the home.

Making Plant Medicine by Richo Cech is another guide to herbal medicine making, including “A Gardener’s Herbal Formulary” in which many plants are considered in detail with regard to parts used, medicinal applications, typical methods of processing, and dosages.

Planting the Future: Saving Our Medicinal Herbs, edited by Rosemary Gladstar and Pamela Hirsch for United Plant Savers, is a guide for herbalists concerned about over-harvesting threats to some of our most valuable medicine plants.

Growing At-Risk Medicinal Herbs by Richo Cech is a good companion to the UPS book. A guide to the sometimes tricky requirements for growing, and thus preserving, some of the at-risk healing herbs.

101 Medicinal Herbs by Steven Foster is a good quick overview of the more common and accessible medicinal plants.

A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs by Steven Foster and James A. Duke is part of the Peterson Field Guide Series. (This one is for eastern and central North America.) A useful book because of the extensive overlap between wild medicinals (some of which can be harvested without danger to their populations) and those we can cultivate in our gardens.

Herbal Materia Medica by Michael Moore. (A “Materia Medica” is an attempt to give a tightly abbreviated, standardized summary of plant medicine making and usage.)

Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers by Stephen Harrod Buhner is a great resource for anyone desiring to incorporate medicine making and the home brewing of fermented beverages.

The Lost Language of Plants and The Secret Teachings of Plants are two additional books by Stephen Harrod Buhner. I recommend them highly to anyone wanting to explore plant medicine as heightened relationship with the plants, not just use of plant compounds to treat symptoms.