Herb Basics

A Place to Start


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This recipe makes a hearty, healing soup that is chock-full of medicinal mushrooms, herbs, grains and vegetables that boost the immune system. Enjoy a cup once or twice a week as a tonic and to prevent colds.

Makes about 7 cups

2 quarts water
5 astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) sticks
1 medium reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) mushroom
2 small shiitake (Lentinula edodes) mushrooms
1/2 cup soaked adzuki beans
1/2 cup barley
Vegetables of your choice, such as carrots, celery, garlic and onions
Miso, spices and soy sauce, to taste Diced tofu, if desired

Place water, astragalus, reishi, shiitakes, adzuki beans and barley in a large pot. Bring water to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Add whatever vegetables you like. Simmer until vegetables are tender, then add flavorings, such as miso, spices or soy sauce. If desired, add diced tofu toward the end of the cooking time.

Source: Hobbs, Christopher. Medicinal Mushrooms. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1996.


You know herbs help you from the inside out. But you may be surprised at the array of activities they carry out in your digestive system. Here are just a few.

Antacids reduce excess stomach acid, helping the stomach lining recuperate. These include marshmallow root and leaf (Althaea officinalis), meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) and hops (Humulus lupulus).

Anti-emetics reduce nausea and vomiting. Examples include ginger (Zingiber officinale) and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). Ginger has been proven clinically to relieve motion sickness.

Bitters relieve gas and improve digestion. These include chamomile (Matricaria recutita), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), calendula (Calendula officinalis), yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and yellow dock (Rumex crispus).

Carminatives clear up gas and bloating because they are mild antiseptics (normalize intestinal flora) and antispasmodics (reduce spasms by improving circulation). These include culinary spices such as peppermint, cardamom, fennel, aniseed, dill, caraway and ginger.

Demulcents provide nourishment and soothe inflamed surfaces, inside and out. Plantain (Plantago spp.) adds moisture, and marshmallow, slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) and aloe gel (Aloe vera) soothe irritation in the stomach, intestine and colon.

Source: McQuade Crawford, Amanda. Herbal Remedies for Women. Rocklin, California: Prima, 1997.


Want to make your own herbal remedies at home? If the herb part you want to try is a seed, bark or root, you may need to make tea in the form of a decoction because it takes these plant parts extra time and heat to break down their cellular structures and release their medicinal compounds.

To make a quick decoction, you’ll need 1 ounce dried or 2 ounces fresh herb, plus 2 cups of water. Place the herb in a pan with a tight-fitting lid. Add water and cover. Bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain into a glass measuring cup. Add water, replacing the water that evaporated during cooking, until you again have 2 cups of fluid.

The standard adult dose for a decoction is 1/2 cup two to three times a day as a tonic, or 1/2 cup three to six times a day for acute conditions. For children older than 5, use half the adult dose. If you haven’t used an herb before, are unsure of its use or want to treat a child younger than 5, be sure to ask your health-care provider for guidance.


Common names: Ginkgo, maidenhair tree, kew tree

Latin name: Ginkgo biloba

Family: Ginkgoaceae

Part used: Leaf

Medicinal uses: Ginkgo is used for improving blood circulation to the brain (benefiting memory and mental alertness) and the legs (benefiting blocked arteries and leg pain). It’s also used for tinnitus (ringing in the ears), depression-related cognitive problems and a variety of ailments associated with aging. Ginkgo has strong antioxidant activity.

Forms commonly used: Capsules, tablets, teas and tinctures.

Side effects: Research shows that minor gastrointestinal upset can occur in approximately 4 percent of individuals who use ginkgo. Less common side effects include headaches, vertigo and dizziness. People taking anticoagulant medications shouldn’t use ginkgo.

Notes: During the Ice Age, all members of the ginkgoaceae family were wiped out, except for G. biloba. It has survived in China for more than 200 million years and is now a popular ornamental worldwide.

Ginkgo is one of the most widely prescribed medicines in Europe. In Japan and China, the tree’s seeds are considered a culinary delicacy. Most of the research conducted on ginkgo has used standardized extracts — look for products standardized to 24 percent ginkgo flavone glycosides and 6 percent terpenes. The majority of commercial ginkgo is grown on plantations in South Carolina, France and China.

In his book Herbal Remedies for Dummies (IDG, 1998), Christopher Hobbs recommends using ginkgo tincture for prevention or for mild conditions, and the standardized extract for moderate to severe conditions.


Need to energize, cheer up or concentrate? Try one of the following great-smelling room sprays from Aromatherapy Through the Seasons (Conari Press, 1998). Be sure to use pure essential oils, not perfume or “fragrance” oils.


4 drops lavender
1 drop lemon
3 drops orange
2 drops rosemary

Mix oils into 3 cups water and place mixture in a spray bottle.


2 drops lavender
2 drops lemon
2 drops peppermint
6 drops rosemary
6 drops tea tree

Mix oils into 2 cups water and place mixture in a spray bottle.


2 drops cedar
1 drop eucalyptus
4 drops lavender
2 drops orange
2 drops rosemary

Mix oils into 2 cups water and place mixture in a spray bottle.

Source: Fitzsimmons, Judith and Paula M. Bousquet. Aromatherapy Through the Seasons. Berkeley, California: Conari, 1998.