Many folks who want to use botanical medicine in a practical manner are not quite sure how to start. There are so many books and so much social media on the subject that it can be overwhelming and lead sometimes to more questions than answers. Should I buy some encapsulated herbs at the store? Is there a difference between capsules and tinctures? What if I don’t want any alcohol in my tinctures or want to use them for my children? Can I use herbs from my own back yard? If so, how do I go about preparing and using them? Can I make a first aid kit using herbs?
When I first started working with herbs over 30 years ago, I had a lot of these same questions, but there weren’t very many reliable resources to learn about herbs. It seemed like there were at most maybe 100 books about herbs, and dozens of them contradicted each other or were very poorly written. Now there are a lot more learning resources available, but some of the apparent contradictory information, “herban myths” and general unanswered questions that most people have are still the same even to this day.
As I founded my herbalism school almost 15 years later, I was determined that all of our curriculum would be practical and presented in a way that allowed students to gain hands-on experience and confidence at home and even in the field (i.e., wilderness or rural settings) literally starting the first day in any class. One of the ways in which I did this was by creating courses around the concept of “austere herbal medicine.” In other words, always asking the question, “what would you do if there were no higher medical care and you only had herbs to work with?” Asking this question of myself and students created a learning environment where we could throw out concepts and information that either weren’t true or were simply not practical or usable in the field – which also means not practical or usable at home or even in an herbal clinic for that matter. In other words, looking at herbalism through the lens of austere medicine strips a lot of the subject down to what is going to always be the most effective, the vast majority of the time.
Putting it to the test
I put this to the test over 12 years ago as we started our organization “Herbal Medics” in order to be able to help underserved communities by holding week-long free herbal clinics both in the USA and abroad. With students, we traveled into areas (sometimes by foot) where we were able to provide herbal health care requested of us by specific communities. This type of project absolutely demands that every single herb and formula taking up space and weight in a very limited cargo capacity, has to be useful in some way. Among all the other things that planning and leading Herbal Medics projects taught me, one of the most important was a deeper understanding of using the same herb across different organ systems and how to formulate and plan accordingly. All of the work that I did over the years working with this idea of practical herbalism at home and in the field (i.e., wilderness and remote settings) was something I wanted to write about. This even inspired me to organize a large amount of this type of practical information into my book, “Herbal Medic.”
“Top 5 Herbs”
Back then (and still today) one of the favorite questions many students loved to ask was/is something to the effect of, “What are your top five herbs to work with and why?” This is a great question and a great place to start for most people, especially when we are talking about practical herbal medicine both at or away from home. However, not surprisingly this question leads to even more questions around related subjects such as availability of herbs, availability of materials to prepare them or store them with, the most common injuries or illnesses we would expect to encounter, and so forth.
My advice to all beginning students was and still is to base an answer to that question specifically around your own health care situation as it might present itself in an austere medical environment. For me (and many people), it may be most relevant to consider acute illness and injury first and foremost. This consideration for me actually changed for several years when my elderly mother-in-law lived with us who needed constant medical care for chronic asthma and many related illnesses from both age and long-term illness. Helping my wife meet her caretaking needs at home (especially during COVID when the worst possible place for my mother-in-law to be was a hospital) meant that my answer to this question about the most important herbs to have on hand, changed somewhat.
However today I would say that the consideration of a question about my top five go-to herbs at home are back to:
- Any berberine-containing herb, such as all the barberry species or Oregon grape. I use these herbs a lot in my clinical practice and also at home, usually for both for gastro-intestinal and liver-related issues as well as topically or even on the mucosa for inflammation and infection.
- Any good mucosal vulnerary (an herb that I use to soothe, protect and heal the mucosa of our eyes and respiratory, gut and urinary tracts) such as marshmallow root and leaf or prickly pear flower.
- At least one strong respiratory herb that I use in the clinic or at home to help with expectoration, sub-mucosal lymph movement and even support of the cilia of our respiratory tract, such as butterfly weed root (aka pleurisy root), yerba mansa, elecampane, yerba santa and gumweed.
- At least one strong anti-infective herb that I like to use for acute and even chronic infections such as baikal skullcap (root), echinacea and black walnut. Bear in mind that when I say “anti-infective” there are many ways in which an herb might serve us to use in that manner. Not necessarily only as a direct anti-infective herb but also as an indirect anti-infective herb that may help our body deal with infection by supporting lymph, immune cell and tissue function around the area of an infection.
- At least one strong nervine that I like to use for calming and even mild pain relief such as motherwort, skullcap or wood betony.
Cross-purposing our favorite herbs
If we look at this list of herbs, what kinds of overlap between “systems” is there? What I mean by this is that from a western standpoint, we can look at our bodies and health as the cooperation between organs and organ systems such as respiratory, digestive, urinary, etc. Of course, there is much more to health than just working with individual systems, but the amazing thing about herbal medicine is that in my experience it affects the body at a cellular level. This means that an herb I use to affect the respiratory tract might also be one that I use for the urinary tract. A good example in the list of this specific cross-purpose would be gumweed. I use it as an amazing anti-inflammatory for not only the respiratory tract, but also urinary tract irritation. Additionally, I use it in oils and liniments topically for skin inflammation such as from contact dermatitis (i.e., a mild poison oak response) and atopic dermatitis (i.e., eczema).
Creating an Herb Table
We can take this idea one step further by creating a simple herb table that helps us list out our favorite and most effective herbs we like to use to help different organ systems throughout the body. There may be lots of repeating information across this table as we cross-purpose our herbs as well, and it gives us a good way to learn the effective uses of herbs as those uses overlap across different body systems.
For example, if you were planning out your own home or field first-aid kit apothecary, how many herbs repeat themselves across different data cells in the table below? Would this help you pick out the most practical herbs to stock up on, especially if you were limited in space, time or budget, such as a wilderness or austere setting?
|Organ System||Useful Herbs to Consider|
|Throat, Sinus and Upper Respiratory Tract Support||Sage, Beebalm, Spilanthes, Prickly Ash, Echinacea, Elecampane, Marshmallow, Pleurisy root, Antelope Horns, Horehound, Mullein, Ginger, Usnea, Gumweed, Andrographis, Rosemary, Plantain, Licorice root|
|Lower Respiratory Tract Support||Pleurisy root, Antelope Horns, Elecampane, Horehound, Mullein, Juniper, Garlic, Gumweed, Rosemary|
|Liver Support||Milk Thistle, Andrographis, Burdock, Dandelion root, Oregon Grape root, Barberry, Coptis|
|GI Tract Support||Barberry root, Andrographis, Coptis, Oregon Grape root, Marshmallow, Elecampane, Garlic, Plantain, Ginger|
|Stomach Support||Oregon Grape, Marshmallow root, Licorice root, Ginger root, Barberry root and leaf, Chamomile, Fennel, Cardamom, Ginger|
|Urinary Tract Support||Uva Ursi, Juniper, Horsetail, Cornsilk, Marshmallow, Prickly Ash, Echinacea, Usnea, Gumweed, Plantain|
|Cardiovascular System Support||Prickly Ash, Wood Betony, Antelope Horns, Ginger, Garlic, Sage, Skullcap, Hawthorn, Bugleweed, Motherwort|
|Nervous System Support||Sage, Rosemary, Skullcap, Prickly Ash, Chamomile, Wood Betony, Bugleweed, Hawthorn, Motherwort|
Putting it all together
Whether you are just starting out with herbs or you have been working with them for a long time, you may find that organizing herbal information for yourself will be more useful if you focus on what would be most practical to use if you were in an environment where space and resources were limited, and yet you might need to be able to take care of health issues for a longer period of time without higher medical care available. Which herbs are the most useful to you in these situations and how can you practically use the same herbs across a multiple organ systems and health issues? Answering these questions will help you learn about, organize, use and formulate your own personal apothecary in a way which maximizes practicality and efficiency.
The best courses where you can continue to learn about herbalism are both our Introduction to Herbalism for Beginners and our Introduction to Herbalism for Professionals Course.