Herbal medicine is the medicine of the people. It is simple, safe, effective, and free. Our ancestors knew how to use an enormous variety of plants for health and well-being. Our neighbors around the world continue to use local plants for healing and health maintenance. You can too.
Information on herbs and their uses has been passed down to us in many ways: through stories, in books, set to music, and incorporated into our everyday speech. Learning about herbs is fun, fascinating, and easy to do, no matter where you live or what your circumstances. It is an adventure that makes use of all of your senses. Reading about herbal medicine is fascinating, and a great way to learn how others have used plants. But the real authorities are the plants themselves. They speak to us through their smells, tastes, forms, and colors.
You can begin enjoying herbs by preparing teas or infusions from fresh or dried plants purchased from an herbalist, a natural foods store, or a farm market. But one of the greatest delights is to learn to recognize native plants growing around you, right here and now! Then you can explore how these plants nourish, invigorate, heal, and please you. Not everyone responds to the same herb in the same way, and different herbs will be right for you at different times.
Once you begin to learn about herbs, you will be surprised how easy it is to identify common medicinal plants that grow in your own backyard, such as the common “weeds” dandelion, violet, and plantain. In fact, most of us have more than 10 edible herbs growing within walking distance of our front doors, and even children (especially children!) can identify, harvest, and prepare wild plants for food and medicinal use. With just a few common ingredients such as vinegar, oil, and alcohol, you can be your own herbal expert in just a few weeks. Take a “weed walk” with a local herbalist, attend a class, or study by going outside with a good identification book. Before you know it, wild plants will be speaking to you everywhere you go.
Anyone who is willing to take the time to get to know the plants around them will discover a wealth of health-promoting green allies. What stops us from doing this more often? Fear. We fear that we will use the wrong plant. We fear poisoning ourselves. We fear the plants themselves. These fears are wise. But they need not keep us from using the abundant remedies of nature. A few simple guidelines can protect you and help you make sense of herbal medicine.
Virtually all plants contain poisons. After all, they don’t want to be eaten! Because we have evolved to eat plants, we have the capacity to neutralize or remove (through preparation or digestion) their poisons. Not all poisons kill, and even poisons that are deadly often require quantities far larger than can easily be obtained from foods to be fatal. (Apple seeds, for instance, contain a lethal poison, but it takes a quart of them to cause death.)
Our senses of taste and smell are registered in the part of the brain that maintains respiration and circulation—in other words, the survival center. Plants (but not mushrooms) advertise their poisons by tasting bad or smelling foul. Of the four primary kinds of poisons found in plants—alkaloids, glycosides, resins, and essential oils—the first two always taste bitter or cause a variety of noxious reactions on the oral tissues, and the last two usually do so too, especially when removed from the plant or concentrated.
Sometimes the taste of the poison in a plant is hidden by large amounts of sweet-tasting starch. Fortunately, human saliva contains an enzyme that breaks down these carbohydrates, exposing the nasty taste of the poison. Still, tiny amounts of some poisons can have strong effects. So for safety’s sake, take your time (and take small tidbits) when tasting. It is best not to put poison ivy or poison oak in your mouth, and do not taste houseplants.
Because our sense of taste protects us against poisonous plants, it is always best to take herbs in a form that preserves flavor. Consuming just one plant at a time, with as little preparation as possible, gives us the greatest opportunity to taste poisons and is therefore the safest way to use herbs. One herb at a time is a “simple.”
When we ingest a simple herb—whether raw, cooked as a vegetable, brewed fresh or dried in water as a tea or infusion, steeped in vinegar or honey, or dried and used as a condiment—we bring into play several million years of plant wisdom collected in our genes. When we ingest many plants together, or concentrate their natural poisons by tincturing, distilling, or standardizing, we increase the possibility of harm. Powdering herbs and putting them in capsules is one of the most dangerous ways to use them, especially those containing poisons. For ultimate risk, play with essential oils; they are far removed from the plant, very concentrated, and as little as one-quarter ounce can kill.