Mother Earth Living

Herb Basics

• A Brief Lesson in Botany

Sacred Spas: Sweat Lodges

For centuries, the sweat lodge has been a part of many Native American tribal rituals for healing, vision quests, and preparing for most major ceremonies. Customs differ from location to location and tribe to tribe, with sweat leaders determining the details.

The lodge is a small domed structure made of bent willow branches and covered with hides, tarps, or blankets. The floor is usually covered with juniper and/or sage and has a pit in the center where heated rocks are ritually doused in water to produce steam.

Participants often drink teas such as yarrow and wild geranium to stimulate sweating. Once inside, they may rub their bodies down with herbs such as wormwood or sage further stimulating perspiration and detoxifying the body.

The modern traditions of saunas, steam rooms, and hot tubs are reflections of this ancient ritual. Modern herbalists often combine these traditions with the use of diaphoretic herbs (herbs that stimulate sweating) to encourage the elimination of wastes through the skin. Diaphoretics also dilate surface capillaries to improve circulation and skin tone. Examples include boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), ginger, and yarrow.

Tincture Tales

In a generic sense, the word “tincture” refers to a liquid ­ extract made from an herb that has been dissolved in a solvent such as grain alcohol, glycerin, water, or, rarely, another liquid. More specifically, “tincture” can also be used to refer to alcoholic extracts only, while glycerin-based extracts are called “glycerites”.

These concentrated forms of an herb’s active chemicals offer several advantages over other herbal preparations. The bottles are easy to carry and need no refrigeration. The concentrated form makes it easier to take large doses. They keep for years and are easy for the body to assimilate–in fact, tinctures are often absorbed up to 40 percent better because the herb’s active components have been separated from the plant’s indigestible cellulose and starch.

Most tinctures on the market are alcohol-based because alcohol best extracts most compounds and carries them most efficiently into the body. But don’t worry: Four average doses a day usually contain less than one teaspoon of alcohol. And the amount of alcohol contained in an adult dose is less than that found in a ripe banana, according to Mindy Green, director of educational services for the Herb Research Foundation in Boulder, Colorado.

Drug Discoveries

One in four prescription medicines was originally discovered through the study of traditional cures and folk knowledge of indigenous peoples, called ethnobotany. As the discoveries of aspirin, digitalis, and quinine bear witness, the ethnobotanical approach to drug discovery has been spectacularly successful. This table lists only a handful of the drugs prescribed in North America and Europe that were derived from ethnobotanical research.

Why Some Labels Sound Odd

It can be bewildering to shop for herbs. Herbal preparations are often lined up next to over-the-counter drugs for headaches and other ailments, but rarely does the store clerk know enough to help you choose the best remedy.

Nor can manufacturers help by providing detailed information on the labels. In the United States, herbal medicines are classified as dietary supplements, and the law restricts what manufacturers may claim about the herb’s healing properties. For example, manufacturers may claim that a ­garlic product helps reduce cholesterol, but not that it helps reduce cholesterol and thus reduces the risk of heart disease. Consumers are left to make that leap on their own.

When such claims are made, the product label must include the following: “This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease.” Manufacturers also must register the claim with the Secretary of Health and Human Services and be fully prepared to back it up with scientific evidence.


Balick, Michael, and Paul Alan Cox. Plants, People, and Culture. New York: ­Scientific American Library, 1996.

Hobbs, Christopher, and Kathi Keville. Women’s Herbs, Women’s Health. Loveland, Colorado: Botanica, 1998.

Hoffmann, David. An Elder’s Herbal. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 1993.

Squier, Thomas Broken Bear. Herbal Folk Medicine. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

Willard, Terry. Textbook of Advanced Herbology. Calgary, Alberta, Canada: Wild Rose College of Natural Healing, 1992.

  • Published on May 1, 1999
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