How to Make New Herbal Friends

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.

Photo copyright Henriette Kress,
Marshmallow; Photo copyright Henriette Kress,

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.


Published by drlaurell

Laurell Matthews, ND is a naturopathic doctor with a passion for helping people understand how to be healthier using dietary and lifestyle changes along with other natural medicine modalities like botanical medicine.

7 thoughts on “How to Make New Herbal Friends

  1. I find your post, reviving and interesting.
    I am in my way an herbalist ! But always have to postponed my learning further to my family need… However it seems like it grows into me while I m not studying as I use it through our daily life!

    One question, that troubles me:
    When we cook, it is often too hot, and then the food looses its vitamines and benefit. So made me think of the plants we added to it…
    For example turmeric, I often put it in stew and try to cook it on low fire, not to spoil the food vitamines etc….

    Do you see what I mean? As we can always cook low fire or keep it raw…

    I guess when we make an herbal tea, we bring it to boiling and let it infuse… Guess the plant is therefore also not spoiled in the food… But is the food not spoiled…
    Sad not to be able to use the benefit of it all?

    I know my comment is a bit confused, maybe you can straighten it up, and find an answer ?
    Have a good day

    1. Hello,
      I can see your train of thought there. What components of herbs are harmed by heat?
      The ones that I am most concerned about being affected by heat are the aromatic compounds such as in basil and thyme. They should be added at the end of cooking so that these compounds don’t all evaporate. We will also add them in two waves: one early and one late.
      Cooking might actually enhance the availability of other medicinal constituents. I suspect this to be the case with turmeric and herbs high in minerals.
      But keep trying to puzzle this out and you will be an expert before you know it.
      Dr. Laurell

      1. Thanks, for your answer it make sense . i guess all roots can be cooked long, and aromatic not more that 10 mn, and only briefly at strongh temperature. Y

  2. Genius!! Everyone has a unique learning style but I like the idea of engaging more senses in order to learn medicinal food friends. I love reading this blog. Thank you for sharing your wisdom Dr. Matthews! 🙂

  3. Hi Dr. MAtthews, thanks a lot for the amazing post! I am a nature loving person and I always prefer herbs over other kinds of medicine. I always finds the way to get good amount of important vitamins and minerals using natural things and this is the reason why I am fit even at the age of 60.

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