Speak Like an Herb Expert

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Herbal medicine, like any other specialty, has
its own elaborate lexicon. Much of the vocabulary used by modern
herbalists dates back to the Eclectic physicians and their
influences. Eclecticism, founded in the 1830s by Dr. Wooster Beech,
was a popular branch of medicine that combined new scientific
knowledge with herbal traditions. Some of the words have changed a
bit, but to this day, two herbalists talking shop can sound a bit
like people speaking in tongues.

To those outside this tiny sphere of knowledge, it’s easy to
wonder why we need all these specialized words, much in the same
way we ask ourselves why our doctor tells us we have allergic
rhinitis when she could simply say, “You have hay fever.” The truth
is that the language we use to talk about herbal medicine carries
with it a strong sense of history and tradition.

To that end, we have put together a list of some common — and
sometimes perplexing — words used in the world of botanical
medicine, and have separated them into two parts: First are the
words that describe the effect, or action, certain herbs have on
the body. Second is a compilation of the different herbal
preparations and their subtle distinctions (for those of you who
lie awake at night wondering what the difference is between an
ointment and a liniment). These lists are by no means exhaustive,
but they should give you a good introduction to the vocabulary, as
well as the ability to convince people that you know what you’re
talking about.

Discover the Actions of Herbs

Adaptogens: These are a group of herbs that
help the body adapt to stress — be it environmental, physical or
emotional. Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), licorice
(Glycyrrhiza glabra) and nettle leaf (Urtica dioica) are among

Alteratives: Also called “blood purifiers,”
these herbs help rid the body of metabolic waste by opening the
channels of elimination. Classic alteratives, such as calendula
(Calendula officinalis) and red clover (Trifolium pratense), tend
to be gentle and safe, though quite powerful.

Anti-catarrhals: “Catarrh” means phlegm or
mucous. Anti-catarrhals are astringent herbs that slow down mucous
production, usually in the upper respiratory tract. Goldenrod
(Solidago spp.) is a tried-and-true anti-catarrhal.

Anti-emetics: Herbs that quell nausea and
vomiting. Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is among the best.

Anthelminthics: A very powerful class of herbs
that help clear the body of intestinal worms. Wormwood (Artemisia
absinthium) and the Ayurvedic herb vidanga (Embelia ribes) are

Carminatives: Herbs containing volatile oils
that help normalize intestinal and bowel function to dispel gas and
relieve the discomfort caused by it. You’ll notice some Indian
restaurants serve a mixture of candied caraway (Carum carvi) and
fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) seeds for just this reason.

Demulcents: These herbs soothe raw, inflamed
tissue inside the body and out. They frequently are mucilaginous —
they have a slimy quality to them that coats and heals tissue.
Cornsilk (Zea mays) often is used for its demulcent action on the
urinary tract, whereas plantain’s (Plantago spp.) gooeyness is
soothing to external cuts and scrapes.

Diaphoretics: Herbs that cause sweating and
often are useful in breaking fevers. If your temperature is
spiking, yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is your friend.

Emmenagogues: Herbs such as mugwort (Artemisia
vulgaris) or partridge berry (Mitchella repens) that bring on
healthy menstruation in a woman who is not pregnant.

Galactagogues: Herbs that help increase the
flow of milk in a lactating woman. Fennel is an example of an herb
with this action.

Hepatics: These herbs help liver function in a
number of ways. Cholagogues increase bile production, while
choleretics increase bile flow. Because of their effect on the
liver, hepatics also help with hormone balancing. Oregon grape
(Mahonia aquifolium) and dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) are good

Hypnotics: Named after Hypnos, the Greek god of
sleep, these are herbs, such as hops (Humulus lupulus) and valerian
(Valeriana officinalis), that are used to induce healthy sleep.

Nervines: A large group of herbs that act on
the nervous system. Stimulating nervines like green tea (Camellia
sinensis) excite the nervous system, while nervine relaxants like
passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) and skullcap (Scutellaria
lateriflora) reduce anxiety and irritability.

Tonic: A general word used to refer to an herb
that can be taken safely in larger quantities for longer periods of
time. Tonics generally increase the health of a specific organ or
organ system. For example, hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) is a
cardiovascular tonic, and raspberry leaf (Rubus idaeus) is a
reproductive tonic.

Vulneraries: Herbs used to heal wounds. They
often have a mild disinfectant property that helps prevent scarring
while the cells knit together. Plantain and comfrey leaf (Symphytum
officinale) are quintessential examples.

Get Hip to Herbal Preparation Lingo

Decoction: A tea created by simmering woody
plant matter (bark, woody stems, roots) in water for 15 to 20

Fluid dram: A unit of liquid measure that is
equivalent to 1/8 of an ounce.

Fluid extract: During the time of the
Eclectics, this meant a concentrated tincture prepared by
percolation. Modern herbalists may use the term to refer to any
liquid herbal extract, such as a tincture, infusion or

Glycerite: A tincture that uses glycerin (a
syrupy, sweet liquid obtained from oils and fats) instead of
alcohol to extract the medicinal constituents of a plant. In most
cases, glycerin is not as effective at extracting these
constituents as ethanol, but glycerite preparations can be valuable
for children or for those abstaining from alcohol.

gtt(s): An abbreviation for the French word
gouttes, which means “drops.” Used to give dosage information,
i.e., “Take 20 gtts at bedtime.”

Infusion: A tea created by soaking non-woody
plant matter (leaves, green stems, flowers) in cold or hot water.
For a hot-water infusion, simply pour boiling water over the herb
and let it sit (steep) for 15 to 20 minutes, then strain.
Cold-water infusions commonly are used for mucilaginous plants like
marshmallow, or to extract certain constituents but not others. For
example, a cold-water infusion of uva-ursi (Arctostaphylos
uva-ursi) will extract the same amount of arbutin — the main
urinary antiseptic used in treating urinary tract infections — as a
hot-water infusion but extracts fewer of the plant’s tannins, which
tend to irritate the gut. Cold infusions can be left to steep in
the refrigerator overnight.

Liniment: From the Latin word linere, “to
smear,” any medicinal liquid — usually containing a volatile oil —
that is rubbed on externally. Liniments are liquid at room
temperature, whereas ointments are semisolid.

Macerate: The act of soaking ground herbs in
fluid menstruum over time.

Marc: The plant material left over after
squeezing out all the menstruum to make a tincture.

Menstruum: The liquid solvent used to extract
the medicinal constituents from a plant. In tincture making, the
most widely used menstruum is a mixture of water and ethanol,
although substances as varied as wine, vinegar and glycerin may be
used. When making medicinal tea, water is the menstruum.

mL (ml): Abbreviation for milliliter, a common
measurement for tinctures; 5 mL equals 1 teaspoon, 15 mL is
equivalent to 1 tablespoon and 30 mL equals 1 ounce.

Ointment: A medicated preparation made of fats
or waxes; for external use only. An ointment is semisolid at cold
or room temperature and liquefies at body temperature.

Perc/Percolation: An uncommon method of making
a tincture whereby the ground-up plant material sits in a
funnel-shaped percolator (wider at the top, narrower toward the
bottom) and the menstruum is poured over it. The menstruum then
“percolates” through the plant matter in much the same way as water
does through a drip coffeemaker. This method is said to produce
stronger tinctures of certain plants, as more of the plant matter
is exposed to more of the menstruum for greater extraction.
Percolating takes significantly less time than macerating.

Poultice: Plant matter — usually moistened,
mashed or chewed — applied to the skin at the site of a trauma,
bruise or wound. Often secured with gauze.

Solid extract: The result of evaporating the
liquid from a fluid extract to produce a thick molasses-like
substance that is highly concentrated.

Succus: Latin for “juice,” a liquid pressed
from fresh plant matter and preserved with just enough alcohol to
keep it from spoiling.

Syrup: Infusions or decoctions thickened or
preserved with sugar. Often used for children to make a remedy more
palatable, e.g., wild cherry (Prunus serotina) cough syrup.

Tea: An aqueous herbal extract, an infusion
(Europeans call it a “tisane”). Mix 1 ounce of dried herb with 2
cups of boiling water and let steep.

Tincture: Herbal extracts made by exposing the
plant matter to a mixture of alcohol and water. Some constituents
are more readily extracted into water and others into alcohol, thus
tinctures often have more medicinal benefit than would a straight
water or a straight alcohol extract. Medicine makers often start
out with distilled, grain alcohol called ethanol (190 proof, 95
percent alcohol) when preparing tinctures. Vinegar, wine, hard
alcohol and glycerin also can be used.

Jennifer Rabin is an herbalist and freelance writer living in
Portland, Oregon.

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