Herbal medicine is just one attribute of naturopathic medicine, but it is one of my favorites. In my mind, herbs are like friends with individual personalities. While two herbs might share some of the same activities, they can vary in their strength and their affinity for different areas of the body. I am a huge fan of both marshmallow root and slippery elm bark. Both are soothing herbs that can be used for irritated mucous membranes. Marshmallow would be the best choice for urinary irritation, while slippery elm support the digestive tract, partially because it helps feed our good bacteria. Of course, if I only had one of these two herbs, I would use the one that was handy for either issue.
Herbs are also usually very gentle friends that help me keep to the naturopathic principle First Do No Harm. In fact herbs are so gentle, it can often be challenging to draw the line between medicinal herbs and food. Which of these is a medicinal herb and which a food: cinnamon, turmeric, myrrh?
Most of you realized that is a trick question. Depending on the culture and the use, all three could be either. In some cultures, myrrh is added to foods as a spice despite its strong flavor. It happens to also serve the medicinal benefit of lower cholesterol while being part of those dishes. (We would use its relative Guggul in a capsule instead to reduce cholesterol.). If you asked someone in that society why it is added to the dish, they would probably say that is the way they like it. This is probably how many of our culinary spices came into common use. They are all medicinal spices that we have grown to love and expect in our everyday cooking. We often start to love foods and herbs that are good for us.
When I learn a new herb, I like to understand its personality to help me remember it better. I do this by both studying and experiencing it.
Start with a few herbs or even just one. Experience it in as many ways as you can, with as many senses as you can. If you can find a living plant, spend a little time observing it. This might not tell you anything about the herb, but it gives you an image and the beginnings of a personality to connect with the other things you learn about the plant. If the plant doesn’t grow nearby, find a picture of it. Smell a crushed leaf from the plant. Taste a tea or tincture make from that medicinal herb. By engaging more of your senses, you are stimulating your memory on deeper levels. Sometimes the taste or smell or even appearance can help you make educated guesses about the activity of its medicinal components.
I also like the scientific side of things. I review studies when available to learn what conditions my herb treats. I will review the herbal medicine books to see what medicinal actions the plant has. Ideally, my herb has more than one of the activities I am looking. For instance, Echinacea stimulates the immune system while also having some antimicrobial benefits to help fight a particular illness on two fronts. The combination of these two activities can give you a much more rounded view of your chosen herb than if you just did an Internet search for “medicinal benefits of plantain” (hopefully my last blog will show up though). Take all that you have learned to create an idea of its personality. Is it a fierce herbal warrior like the antimicrobial yarrow or is it a calming nourisher like the heart-protecting hawthorn. These stories can help you remember when to choose a particular herbal ally.
I would love to hear about your experiences making new herbal friends.