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 them.
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 examples.
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 examples.
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 minutes.
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 decoction.
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.