Speak Like an Herb Expert

Boost your comprehension with this compendium of herbal terms for the lay person.


| November/December 2005



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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 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.





elderberry, echinacea, bee hive

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