Herbalism is the practice of using plants as a tool to maintain overall physical and mental wellness.
The best plants to maintain our health with are wild ones! These plants have had to work hard to produce chemicals to deter insects, prevent over-browsing, and stay strong against fungi and disease. These chemicals are ones that not only boost plant immune systems, but our own immune systems too! It’s not just our immune systems that digested plant constituents can impact though, it can impact our digestive, nervous, endocrine, muscular, cardiovascular, connective systems and more! Plus, when you go outside to forage, you improve your mental capacity as you use your critical thinking and observation skills as well as physical health with exercise and sunlight.
The growing seasons aren’t the only times to forage! Right now, it’s winter – and this is a great time to forage, create teas and infusions or decoctions, create dry skin salves, etc… that help our winter health! I recently made my own winter lip balm with dried herbs from the garden. I also make a LOT of decoctions (what we think of as hot tea), which help keep me cozy and healthy when it’s cold.
Actions are the specific benefits that a group of plants has. For example, plants may be antimicrobial (kill pathogens, fungi, and bacteria), or have other actions.
… plants are those that maintain homeostasis. Homeostasis is when the entire body and it’s systems function as intended. When prepared properly, dandelion leaf and root, red clover, and stinging nettle can all maintain balance within the body and help us stay happy and healthy overall!
While these plants have many other functions (such as improving neurological function, providing minerals and vitamins), drinking teas or using tinctures of these plants can provide this main benefit.
… plants reduce inflammation and pain caused by swollen joints or tissues. When prepared properly, Ginger root, goldenrod, chamomile, blackberry, and willow bark can relieve inflammation.
Willow bark even reduces pain! Modern day aspirin is derived from salicylic acid, which is a constituent of willow. In fact, willow’s scientific name gives you a clue to it’s properties: Salix sp.! Chewing on willow bark can be a quick pain reliever in survival situations or wilderness settings.
… plants are those that reduce muscle spasms, cramping, and muscle tightness. While these soothe back aches and other sore muscles, they also soothe digestive or menstrual pain! These aches are caused by muscle contractions along the intestines and uterus. Some of these plants act to destress the nervous system, which can be the root cause of the muscle tension.
When prepared properly (often as a salve or cream), plants such as Passionflower vine, stem, and flower, chamomile, and rosemary can all relax muscles and ease tension!
… plants, as the name suggests, include plants that have a strong aroma. Often, these plants are ones that are also culinary herbs! They are great in soups, syrups, drinks, entrees, and more. Being aromatic doesn’t just refer to their level of scent though, it also means that a plant has significant levels of volatile oils that benefit the body.
Whether the oils are used in foods, alcohols, or in diffusers, these plants can stimulate or relax various parts of the body. For example, hanging fresh lavender and catmint in your shower, where you can breathe in that warm steam, can calm the nerves and put you in an overall relaxed state.
Other aromatic plants include Thyme, Mint, and Rosemary, however I bet you can name several others too!
… plants are those that work to improve all things digestion! From soothing indigestion, to reducing acid reflux, to reducing gas, to boosting a healthy appetite, these plants can do it all.
If you’re feeling a little nauseous, just had a big meal and could use a digestion aid, or are going out for a fancy dinner later and need an appetite boost, try to use Bee Balm, thyme, chamomile, mint, or ginger as teas or candies. Do you have ginger candies or mints in your car to suck on or chew when you get motion sickness? Now you know why these help!
… are plants that boost circulation of blood to the tissues of the body. These plants are ones that tend to be spicy or hot, which can get your blood moving quickly!
If you’re like me, and are a cold person whose feet are always like blocks of ice and you’d almost rather hold on to your hot coffee cup rather than drink it, you could use some of these plants in your diet! Drinking teas and using them in your cooking could really boost your blood flow and keep you warm.
Keep in mind though, they are very effective at moving blood around. If it takes a long time to stop bleeding when wounded, have heavy periods, or have thin blood already, these plants probably aren’t the best thing to increase in your diet.
Plants that boost blood flow can include ginger, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, and ginkgo leaves.
… are plants that help ease congestion by breaking up concentrated mucous, especially in the lungs and bronchial tubes. If you have an unproductive cough, bronchitis, or a cold that really has you down, try to incorporate expectorants in your daily life.
These plants can work great when made as a tea or even as a salve or cream that you rub on your chest and back. During a cold where your nose is constantly running, we can get chapped, raw skin around our nose after blowing it so often. By creating a cream that combines expectorant and skin-healing plants, we can relieve a lot of discomfort both from the raw skin and the excessive mucous, although keep in mind that expectorants are designed to move mucous, so don’t get freaked out if your nose runs a little more! The mucous is moving out, though.
Expectorants include thyme, violet leaves and flowers, and orange peels.
… or styptic plants, are those that reduce blood flow. This may sound bad at first, until you realize that many of these are applied topically, and speed up coagulation. If you get a cut or a wound that bleeds, applying pastes, creams, or poultices of these plant can promote healing, clean the wound, and help the blood coagulate quickly!
Plants that can slow bleeding include Raspberry (and others in the Rubus genus) leaves, yarrow, and plantain. If you are out gardening or hiking and get cut, chew up any of these plants (if in a safe spot to forage), and apply the paste directly to the wound.
In ancient Greece, yarrow was used to stop warrior’s bleeding during battle and the myth goes that Achilles (the dude who couldn’t be hurt except if he was cut on his ankle) mom held him by the ankles as she dipped him in water that had yarrow in it! Medicinal plants have been used for a LOOOONG time.
…are plants that promote sleep and reduce stress. Many of these plants also can be used as a mild sedative! If you’re having a hard time sleeping due to a restless mind, or stress, drinking teas or infusions that include these plants can be a real help. In fact, many of these can be made into little packets that can be stuffed in your pillow or used as a bedside diffuser to help you sleep!
Plants that make for great sleepy-time tea or de-stressing concoctions can include chamomile, Lemon Balm, cedar, and lavender. Keep in mind though, cedar is very effective, so when prepared properly, a little cedar oil can go a long way!
…plants are those that promote general healing. They aren’t as specific as hemostatic plants that coagulate blood, they do help increase cellular regeneration after an injury, clean wounds, and aid the platelets in closing wounds. They also help reduce risk of illness and promote overall well-being after internal damage.
In some video games, Vulneraries are little potions that you drink in order to regain HP (health points) after taking any kind of damage. Perhaps these little potions are made with lavender, yarrow plantain, and calendula!
These plants can also be used in creams and lotions to speed healing from damage caused by dry, cracked skin.
Excited to get outside, observing the natural world, and enjoying the physical and mental benefits that plants provide? If you’re local, participate in my basic seasonal foraging workshops, then register for advanced foraging and herbalism workshops to hone your skills! Regardless of where you live, you can learn more on social media. I post daily environmental education posts to Instagram and foraging videos to YouTube.
Marissa Jacobs (The Art of Ecology) does not diagnose, treat, or prescribe, and nothing said or done should be misconstrued as such. These tips are designed to educate and support general well-being.