Herb Basics


©2007 Steven Foster

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Guide to Common Aromatherapy Terms

Essential oils. Highly fragrant, concentrated and potent plant essences. Essential oils can be irritating to the skin if used undiluted. The term originated with 16th-century alchemists searching for “quintessence,” or the secret of life. Until the early part of the 20th century, many medicines and personal-care products, such as soaps, were made with essential oils.

Carrier oils. As a general rule, herbal essential oils shouldn’t be applied to the skin—they are highly concentrated and can sting or otherwise irritate the skin. Instead, essential oils are diluted with carrier oils. The best carrier oils are virgin cold-pressed oils, such as almond, walnut, wheat germ, apricot kernel and hazelnut. Castor and jojoba oils also are acceptable carrier oils. Essential oils are volatile, so they evaporate quickly when exposed to air, but they are soluble in carrier oils.

Perfume. From the Latin per fumare, meaning “through smoke.” Asian cultures found religious and spiritual connotations in the aromatic smoke of burning herbs; Native Americans burn aromatic herbs to create smoke for their healing ceremonies. Today’s perfumes are largely synthetic.

Diffuser. Often made of clay or glass, diffusers are used to disperse essential oils into the air. Small “potpourri pots” hold a container of water, to which drops of essential oil are added. A candle heats the water and the heat releases the scent. Electric diffusers are more efficient and effective. They vaporize the drops of essential oil into a fine mist throughout the environment.

Ease the Pain of Canker Sores

Aphthous ulcers, more commonly known as canker sores, are small ulcers in the mouth that can be extremely painful. They’re often linked to food allergies and nutritional deficiencies (particularly of iron, vitamin B12 and folic acid). Here are some suggestions from Eugene, Oregon, herbalist Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa that might help provide relief:

• Because mouth ulcers stem from a breakdown in tissue structure, gotu kola (Centella asiatica), which strengthens tissue and promotes connective tissue growth, can be quite effective. Try 1 ounce of the dried herb, brewed as tea, daily.

• Helpful mouth rinses to try are alum, milk of magnesia and cinchona bark (Cinchona spp.). Myrrh gum powder (Commiphora spp.) can be applied directly to canker sores.

• Antiviral, tissue-healing and anti-inflammatory licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is an outstanding remedy for mouth sores. Put a pinch of dried, powdered root directly on the sore.

Meet Gentian: A Bitter Herb that Helps Digestion

Common names: Gentian, yellow gentian, wild gentian, bitter root, bitterwort
Latin name: Gentiana lutea
Family: Gentianaceae
Part used: Root

Medicinal uses: Gentian is found in many herbal “bitters” formulas for stimulating digestion and relieving gas, poor appetite and indigestion. It is extremely bitter and, when taken before meals, stimulates the taste buds and brain reflexes to promote the secretion of saliva and gastric juices. It’s also used for dyspepsia and anorexia.

Forms commonly used: Dried root, capsules, liquid extracts, tinctures and teas

Side effects: Gentian should not be used by individuals with stomach or duodenal ulcers. The herb sometimes can cause headaches, according to Herbs for Health lead editorial adviser Steven Foster. To be on the safe side, pregnant women should not use it.

Notes: Gentian has been used medicinally for more than 3,000 years. It was used by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.

The herb’s roots contain bitter compounds so intense that the bitter flavor still can be tasted at a dilution of 1 drop gentian tincture to 20,000 drops of water.

In 1865, a patent medicine of gentian and licorice root called “Tobacco Antidote” was sold to help quell the desire for tobacco.

Gentian is one of the herbs in the bitter soft drink Moxie, which has been available in New England since the 1890s. Before hops became popular, gentian root was an ingredient in beer brewing. It is still used in liqueurs and vermouths, as well as bitters formulations like the famous Angostura bitters.

Gentian is a tall, attractive perennial plant that has been cultivated in gardens since at least the 16th century. It is native to mountainous regions of Europe.

To make gentian tea, simmer 1/2 teaspoon dried gentian root per cup of water for 10 minutes; strain and drink 1/2 cup tea two to three times daily.

Sample a Wonderful Watercress Soup

Watercress is an excellent cooling and nourishing tonic for the mind and body. It also is a blood cleanser and is a good food to eat when you’re feeling stressed and run-down.


3 cups vegetable stock, divided
3 to 4 scallions, finely chopped
Pinch ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
1 medium potato, peeled and sliced
2 bunches watercress, washed and roughly chopped
Pinch salt
1 cup soy milk
Freshly ground black pepper
Watercress sprig, for garnish

Heat 1 cup stock in a large pot. Add scallions, nutmeg, thyme and bay leaf. Cover and simmer 5 minutes. Add remaining 2 cups stock and potato, cover and simmer 20 minutes, until potato is cooked. Add watercress; simmer 2 minutes. Turn off heat and add soy milk. Stir well and let stand 5 minutes. Puree until smooth and creamy. Reheat, season with pepper and serve garnished with watercress sprig.

Walters, Louisa, et al. Blissful Detox: Over 100 Simply Delicious Cleansing Recipes. San Diego, California: Laurel Glen, 2001.