15 Best Herbs for the Beginning Herbalist (Which Herbs Should You Start Using First?)
There’s an increasing interest in natural health these days, and this includes individuals wanting to start using herbs as part (or all) of their health practices. I believe this need and want stems from the desire to take charge of our own health and not be at the mercy of the money-driven modern medical industry.
So, you are interested in using herbs? I’ll bet you’re wondering which of the hundreds of herbs out there you should start with?
There are literally hundreds of safe herb choices you can start using as a beginner to herbalism. Although this is a good thing, this fact is what makes herbalism so over whelming to the beginning herbalist. Where should you even begin?
And why should you be interested in learning about natural health and herbalism in the first place?
Here are a few great reasons:
You have more control over your own health and wellness.
You learn knowledge through study & experiences so you can make good choices for your health and your family’s health.
You’ll develop an intuitive sense of when a remedy (allopathic or herbal) is “good” or “not quite right.”
It’s not as hard or overwhelming as it sounds. You just have to start small and keep growing in your experience.
You can share your knowledge and help others!
What I’m going to talk about here is how I personally started out, some recommendations for safe herbs you can begin with, and ideas for where you can go from there.
And you may also enjoy my 12 part series, How to Start Using Herbs. Here is a link to Part One.
FTC Disclosure: There are affiliate links scattered throughout this article. If you click through and make any kind of purchase, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.
How I Began My Herbal Journey
I was not always an herbalist. In fact, like most people in these modern times, I knew very little about anything medical or natural and trusted those educated in the “system”. Even though I tried my best to eat healthy and make responsible choices, I admit to blindly trusting the medical industry of doctors, modern Pharma, and OTC medications. That’s what I learned to do growing up! Just go take a pill.
And I had many, many health issues because of this blind trust.
I’m not placing blame on any arm of the medical industry because I believe most of my doctors were acting out of what they thought were my best interests. (Although many were so busy they didn’t even take time to have a real conversation with me. Besides, that is a completely OTHER conversation.)
My own personal herbal journey began about nine years ago with terrible sinusitis and my annual case(s) of bronchitis. For literally decades, I had suffered from bronchitis once to three times every year that necessitated breathing treatments in the hospital and that sometimes even spiraled into pneumonias.
It was painful and miserable. I was miserable. My lungs are still damaged to this day, not through smoking or anything I did, but only because of these chronic annual illnesses.
The usual treatment was courses of antibiotics, steroids, and some serious cough medications containing pain killers.
After so many years of this, I was sick and tired of being sick and tired at the same time of year (Fall through early Spring) of every. single. year. I decided I was going to try to be even more proactive than I already was being by taking good vitamins and what I thought were healthy supplements, when I by chance ran into a lady pedaling essential oils.
She introduced me to the idea that I could actually use these little plant-based bottles of volatile oils from plants to help me stay well! What?!
I tried her essential oils, and I had GREAT success in enhancing my immune system. That’s when I turned my attention to REAL plants. Plants that didn’t need processing by a large business and that I could grow or forage myself.
I discovered Rosemary Gladstar, bought her Medicinal Herbs for Beginners Guide (which I recommend to everyone, beginner or experienced), and I started dabbling with using common herbs. If the herb was GRAS (generally regarded as safe), I felt safe doing my experiments and using my own body as the guinea pig.
Then I began taking courses. Course after course, book after book. For year after year! My foray into becoming an herbalist is a combination of self-study, and also by taking many courses taught by reputable schools.
To make a long story short….I’ve only had one case of bronchitis since I began using my herbs and essential oils, and it was quite mild. I love using my plant remedies for my personal health and the health of my husband, Mr. V. He appreciates it too!
So…where should you start your own herbal journey?
I can’t tell you exactly what you should do or how you should start. That would be considered a personal consultation, and obviously since this is a public article, that’s not what this is. Also, different herbs will react differently with each individual person due to everyone having a different and special constitution.
But I can give you some general ideas for getting started right here: Tips for How to Become an Herbalist.
I will also give you a rundown of some of the best herbs that I believe are perfect for every person’s beginning apothecary.
These are tried and true herbs, and ones I started using myself. These herbs can be used in a variety of ways and will help you build a basis for creating your own herbal path.
NOTE: Please be sure to do your own research from a variety of sources before you decide to use herbs. In other words, don’t just trust my words. Read literature from other experienced and reputable herbalists.
Rosemary Gladstar, Michael Tierra, Richo Cech, Matthew Wood, and Michael Moore are a few that come immediately to mind. I’ll put a list of good books at the end of this article for you. Many of these herbalists have websites with trustworthy information too.
And maybe you’ve run across other bloggers who you feel have a good background. Many of these herbal folks who write blogs (like me) are also wonderful resources!
A Note About When Foods are Healthy Medicines:
You’ll notice that my list contains some herbs which people associate as being culinary spices and foods. You’ll probably note that you actually have some of these right in your own kitchen right now! That’s because when used correctly, these herbs make wonderful plant medicines for your health!
If you take care of your health first, then you may not even need “medicine,” so to speak. Our personal health care should start with staying healthy first, and using “medicine” that is effective yet “still kind to our bodies. Always start with the most effective but least harmful remedy.” (Gladstar)
Eating healthy foods that can double as gentle remedies is one way to do this!
15 of the Best Herbs for the Beginning Herbalist to Start With
Now, on to the herbs I think are great for the beginning herbalist:
1) Willow (Salix alba):
One of the first herbal preparations I ever made was my Willow Tincture. I figured willow would be handy as a replacement for taking aspirin for normal aches and pains. I suffered from severe back pain at that time, and I was no longer taking the pain medications prescribed by my doctor—-I just couldn’t function on those.
So between yoga, breathing, and my White Willow tincture—-I was able to manage that back pain.
There is a chemical found in Willow (salicin) that converts to salicylate in the body. It is the same chemical aspirin is made from. Some believe that using Willow as a substitute for aspirin is much easier on the stomach lining.
What I have read and do believe is that when scientists remove just one constituent from a plant to use in a certain way, that’s when the side effects are more likely to occur. With an herb, you are using not only the special chemical, but all the other chemicals God placed in that plant that work synergistically together for your health.
With that said, be sure you speak with your doctor about using Willow if you are on a treatment plan or taking blood thinners, as Willow can thin the blood.
At this time, I have not used any kind of OTC or Rx pain reliever for around eight years. I use my Willow tincture or lavender salve if I have a headache. And that works for me.
You can find out more about how to make a tincture in this article.
Willow can also be prepared as a tea or even used topically (on the skin). Here’s a related article you may enjoy: Nine Best Herbs for Supporting Pain Relief.
2) Cayenne Pepper (Capsicum annuum + other species):
I LOVE this herb. Cayenne is one of my most favorite plants to use for both cooking and health. I add it to teas and even hot chocolate!
Medicinally, cayenne contains capsaicin, which has been proven effective as a pain reliever for joints, arthritis, bursitis, and muscle aches. It’s even the main active ingredient in several over the counter topical pain relief remedies! You can find my recipe for Cayenne Salve, which we use for pain relief in our family, in that link.
Capsaicin is great for supporting heart health, as it increases circulation. You can find out more about herbs to use for your heart in this article.
It also helps the body release endorphins, which are the “happy” hormones. This is another reason why it’s good for relieving pain. You can find out how to use it for helping clot wounds in this article, How to Make Your Own Natural Quikclot. This is some great stuff to have on hand for emergency purposes.
NOTE: Cayenne pepper is a very hot herb and spice! You do need to exercise caution when using cayenne pepper because it contains constituents that can actually burn the skin. So be careful when working with cayenne pepper medicinally.
The first time I created Cayenne infused oil, I rubbed some on Mr. V.’s back, not realizing how hot it was! Take a lesson from my mistake: He was not a happy camper for a little bit. Also, never touch your eyes or other sensitive areas after working with this spice!
And for fun, take a look at my Spicy Hot Chocolate Mix you can create and share!
3) Garlic (Allium sativum):
Here’s another culinary herb we all know well! I love using garlic for colds and flu. It also helps with digestion! It’s a well-known immune booster, too.
Garlic is antiseptic, antimicrobial, and is a wonderful vermifuge (useful for helping get rid of worms in the body). Garlic is terrific for supporting healthy cholesterol levels and is great for the circulation.
As you can see, garlic is one of those herbs that’s an all around wonder. I cook with it every day, and sometimes even just eat the cloves!
Here are a couple of ways Mr. V. and I prepare and use our garlic:
You can infuse garlic easily into honey. Just fill a jar with fresh cloves and pour honey over the top. Allow to sit for several days, even weeks. It may ferment, and this is just fine. When the honey has turned into more of a liquid, you can refrigerate it if you like. Honey Garlic is not only delicious, it’s wonderful for supporting your health!
And you may enjoy this article about the Healing Powers of Honey!
Just as with the garlic honey above, you can infuse raw apple cider vinegar with garlic for a delicious salad vinegar or daily tonic shot. Some herbalists strain off the liquid to use after a few weeks, but I just keep my garlic right in the vinegar and use both as needed. I keep a jar in the refrigerator all the time.
I love this tonic remedy made popular by Rosemary Gladstar in the 1970’s. It boosts the immune system, and I believe it helps keep you well during cold and flu season. There are lot of different variations of the recipe these days, and you can even purchase different formulas in the stores.
4) Ginger (Zingiber officinale):
I love using ginger mainly as a digestive aid, and I keep ginger tincture handy for this. Just a couple droppers full solves most digestive upsets in our home. I also add it to many of my teas because it is a stimulating herb and enhances the actions of the active herbs in the tea blend.
Besides that, ginger just tastes delicious!
Because ginger contains an enzyme that has been shown to reduce inflammation, it’s wonderful to add to your topical remedies. I use the essential oil in my Pain Support Salve, in fact, in conjunction with the Cayenne.
Ginger is an excellent remedy for motion sickness and nausea.
5) Turmeric (Curcumin longa):
Turmeric is a pungent herb and is used in many Asian and Indian recipes. In both Ayurveda and TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), turmeric is a mainstay for helping with liver and gallbladder issues.
Besides being delicious, it’s also a supreme anti-inflammatory, and has become quite popular these past several years for people to use in supplement form. It helps with arthritis and joint issues especially.
I have a special recipe for making Golden Milk using turmeric, but it’s not yet on the blog. You can find other recipes online, and Rosemary Gladstar has an excellent one in her book: Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide. This is a drink you can easily make to have right before you go to bed or any time you like.
You can also purchase Golden Milk powder if you want to keep things simple.
6) Aloe Vera (Aloe barbadensis):
I personally believe that aloe vera is a plant that belongs in every home. It grows well in a pot, as it’s an easy to grow succulent.
Aloe vera contains a gel in its thick leaves that is easy to obtain and use. It’s wonderful for soothing and repairing burned skin, including sunburns. Once, my oldest son refused to wear a hat when we went out on the lake nearby. He had very short hair, and his head and face were terribly burned. Guess what I rubbed on his skin? Yep. Aloe gel from my houseplant.
According to Rosemary Gladstar, aloe vera has a natural sunscreen that can block a certain amount of UV rays, and it matches the pH of our human skin. You can see that aloe vera is a wonderful topical use herb.
Aloe also has laxative affects when the bitter portion from the outer sheath of the leaves are used. (This is one of the reasons when you use the gel, you should avoid the tougher leaf section.)
When it’s prepared correctly, you can store it in the refrigerator for internal use for a few weeks. All you need to do to harvest the gel is cut open a leaf. Scoop out only the gel portion and puree it so it’s smooth. Put it into a jar and refrigerate!
You can find aloe vera gel commercially from Amazon if you don’t want to make your own.
NOTE: As with all herbs, if you are pregnant or nursing, avoid taking aloe vera internally because of the potential laxative nature. Talk with your doctor if you are wondering if it’s ok.
7) Calendula (Calendula officinalis):
I just love this bright, cheerful flower! It promotes healthy skin as it helps with skin repair and cell growth. It’s actually finding its way into more and more skin care products these days!
The flowers are edible, and I like to add them to salads for a surprising and pretty punch of color. Another way I use calendula is to infuse the dried petals in oil, like almond or olive oil. I then can use this oil directly on the skin or for making soaps and salves.
It’s a really great herb for babies and children because it is so gentle.
To make an excellent diaper rash salve, just use the infused oil and follow the directions for basic salve, which you can find here in my lavender salve recipe. The steps are the same, except you are not using essential oil (unless you want to).
You can see how I use it to color and add nutrition to my Citrus Dream soap recipe if you are interested!
8) Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile, Matricaria recutita, and other species):
Chamomile is among the most gentle of the sedative herbs, and it also has some potent healing powers for indigestion, infections, and inflammation.
I love drinking Chamomile tea from the fresh or dried flowers best. It supports both the nervous system and the digestive system, and is wonderful to drink after dinner and before bed. You can also infuse it in oil for massage, as it helps with anxiety and stress.
For an ultimate Relaxation Tea recipe, check out this link.
I also love using it to make soap! It adds a calming and soothing property to homemade skincare products. You can find my chamomile soap recipe here.
NOTE: Chamomile is very safe if you are not allergic to it (which most are not). If you try chamomile and have allergy symptoms afterward, you should stop using it until you discuss it with your doctor.
9) Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis):
Goldenseal is a powerful antibiotic herb, and grows natively in the Eastern part of the U.S. It’s been over harvested, however, so be sure if you buy it you purchase “organic.” This ensures proper growing and harvesting methods.
The reason why Goldenseal made my list of best herbs for beginners to experiment with is because I’ve been using it for many years as our main antibiotic source. When Mr. V. or I feel like we are coming down with a little bug our Goldenseal tincture and Elder Flower tinctures are what we turn to.
Why? Goldenseal has the antibiotic properties, and Elder flower has the antiviral properties. Together they are a wonderful team.
I also use Goldenseal to make a great antibiotic salve, which is wonderful for healing surface infections and wounds. You can find that recipe in this eBook: Herbal Salves, Oils, Butters, and Balms.
To make the tincture, refer to How to Make an Herbal Tincture.
10) Elder (Sambucus nigra, S. Cerulea):
There are two types of Elder that grow naturally in the United States and are useful for making plant medicine: The black elder and the blue elder. Black elders grow on the east coast, while the blue elder grows on the west coast. Here in Idaho, we have the blue elder growing profusely where we live!
You can find out how to forage for elder berry and flowers in this article.
Elder flowers, which appear in the spring, are highly diaphoretic, which means they help induce sweating. Helping increase sweating in turn supports lowering fevers. The elder flowers are also filled with immune boosting and antiviral properties.
Elder berries have strong antiviral properties and are most commonly used to make elderberry syrup. Besides being an antiviral herb, the berries stimulate and boost the immune system. There is actually an over the counter formulation called Sambucus that is quite popular. But you can easily buy the dried herbs and make your own if you don’t have fresh ones growing nearby.
Here is a link to my recipe for making elderberry syrup: How to Make Elder berry Syrup. And if you prefer an oxymel (essentially a mixture of honey and vinegar infused with the herb), you can find that recipe in this article.
11) Lavender (Lavendula officinalis, L. augustifolia):
Lavender is not only a wonderful beginner’s herb, it’s used by experienced herbalists every where. Who can resist lavender’s lovely purple flowers? Lavender is uplifting, relaxating, and also has mild anti-depressant properties.
The essential oil of lavender is one of the most popular sold on the market, and for good reason. You can rub it on your temples for calming and soothing tension or for helping with headache.
Lavender has been used for years as an antibacterial, anti fungal, and antiseptic and can be useful in helping get rid of infections, internally and externally.
Another way I love to use lavender is to make an antibacterial spray for my hands and other objects when I’m out and about. All you do is add 20 drops or so to a 2 ounce spray bottle, fill with water to just below the shoulder of the bottle, then add vodka or rubbing alcohol to the neck. That’s it! Shake and spray!
Another way to use the dried flowers of lavender is in your teas. It’s a very pungent herb, so a little goes a long way.
12) St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum):
Oh, this is one of my most favorite herbs of all. It’s been used since the times of the Ancient Greeks (referred to in literature) and I would venture to guess a lot longer than that.
I use St. John’s Wort for supporting my nervous system. I have anxiety, and I tell you, this stuff is more helpful to me (and less dangerous) than the Xanax one doctor tried to prescribe years ago. It’s also great for any kind of nerve damage as well as sciatica.
Some people think you can use it interchangeably instead of anti-depressants, but this is not the case. St. John’s Wort is not a drug, and it doesn’t work the same way on the body. But used over time, it has some marked positive effects on mood and emotions.
You can use St. John’s Wort topically too. It’s a wonderful healing herb, and I use it in many of my more healing salves, such as this St. John’s Wort Healing Salve recipe and my Black Drawing Salve. It’s pretty incredible for inhibiting the virus that causes herpes and shingles too.
I make sure I always have a bottle of infused St. John’s oil, the tincture, and the prepared salve in our first aid kit.
You can find out how it helps mitigate pain in this article: Nine Best Herbs for Pain Relief. And here is a recipe for a Happiness tea blend that will help and uplift you during the long dark nights of winter.
NOTE: You should seek advice from your medical doctor if you are using any kind of anti-depressant or other drug that affects your emotions or mind before using St. John’s Wort.
13) Mullein (Verbascum thapsus):
Another of my very favorite herbs in the world is Mullein. It grows as a weed in many areas across the country, and it is one of the premier herbs to affect the respiratory system. I truly love Mullein, and I attribute my using it to helping me solve a variety of respiratory issues, some of them very serious.
Mullein works so well on the bronchial system because it has anti-spasmodic properties and is an expectorant too. Therefore, it relaxes spastic coughs while also helping expel mucous during serious chest colds, allergies, congestion, and other issues involving the respiratory system.
My favorite remedy using Mullein is what I call Breathe Tincture that Mr. V. and I use whenever we experience sinus congestion and during allergy season. I am sure I would still be suffering terrible allergies if it weren’t for using this tincture. You can find out how to make this simple remedy in this article: DIY Respiratory Support.
Infused Mullein Flower Oil (With or Without Garlic):
The tiny yellow flowers of the mullein plant have special characteristics that are wonderful for helping with ear infections. You need to prepare special garlic and mullein infused oil for the ear.
To make it, place the flowers (wilted or dried) one-third way up a pint or 8 ounce jar. Cover them with olive oil and allow them to infuse for two to three weeks. Then use the infused oil in one more infusion with more flowers for another two to three weeks. Some people add crushed garlic to the oil for a more powerful antibiotic action.
To use this oil, simple heat the oil slowly until it’s barely body temperature. Do not make it too hot. Place 2 or 3 droppers in each ear, even if only one ear is affected. Also, if you believe the ear problem is caused by water entering the ear with bacteria (like when swimming), do not use this remedy.
NOTE: Always seek the advice of a medical doctor for severe pain and infection. This is very important!
14) Peppermint (Mentha piperata):
Peppermint grows well in many places, and its lovely fresh flowers and leaves scent the air with its volatile compounds.
It’s an exceptional digestive aid because it has antispasmodic properties. It helps stomach cramps and is wonderful for helping with nausea.
Peppermint tea can help with headache, bee stings, and even burns.
I love using peppermint essential oil too. Need a quick pick me up? Dab a tiny bit on your temples and you’ll feel immediately refreshed! I love using Peppermint in herbal preparations that taste bad. The fresh, slightly sweet taste can really help improve a bad tasting tincture. lol
15) Valerian (Valeriana officinalis):
The second tincture I ever created was Rosemary Gladstar’s Deep Sleep tincture. I wrote about how to make this sleep tincture when I first started this blog, as a matter of fact! The reason? It seriously helped save my marriage. I’m not even kidding!
So, even though I do not use Valerian in very many ways, I have to include it here as one of the best herbs for beginners to try if you are dealing with sleep issues.
Valerian supports the nervous system by relaxing smooth muscles in the body (uterus, colon, bronchial passages) and also by directly affecting the central nervous system (which affects tension). It is a powerful relaxant, and has been shown to help the heart when anxiety is the cause.
I use several different herbs for sleep, including chamomile, skullcap, and Passion flower. But if I’m experiencing a lot of stress in my life and I can’t turn off the thoughts….or if Mr. V. is really snoring powerfully, I reach for my Valerian tincture.
A quick aside: The root is the part used, and I have to tell you: It is stinky! But I have grown to love and appreciate its special scent because of how much it helps me. :-)
NOTE: Valerian can have the opposite action on a few people with different chemistries than most. For these folks, it can stimulate instead of sedate. Therefore, if you are not sure how you will react to valerian, try it on an evening when you have nothing going on the next day, just in case.
Also, take it only for about three weeks at a time. Stop for a week (this is when I turn to Skullcap), then use again for another two or three weeks. Also—-do not drive while using Valerian.
Where to Get Your Herbs
Personally, I like to grow or forage for my own. This way, I know exactly where they came from and how they were grown. However, this isn’t possible for all herbs you might want to use and try. I recommend Starwest Botanicals if you want to purchase online. They have been around for a long time, care about the environment, and have excellent customer service.
Mountain Rose Herbs and Frontier Co-op are also good companies. And of course, you can purchase most bulk herbs from Amazon, too.
Final Thoughts About Herbs for Using Herbs for Health: Especially for the New Herbalist
This was a hard list to put together because there are SO many more appropriate herbs for the beginning herbalist. Red Clover, Dandelion, Chickweed, Plantain, and many more are wonderful plants for starting out making your own home remedies.
I chose these plants because these were my own first herbs to work with, and I found immediate success for Mr. V. and myself. Just know that there are more you can use and start out with, of course! I really do recommend purchasing Rosemary Gladstar’s book: Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide for yourself if you don’t have it yet.
It’s the book that started me on my herbal adventures and allowed me to feel confident branching away from using only essential oils. It also inspired me to start learning even more and taking courses!
You can find out more about using essential oils and herbs together in these two articles:
There are SO many more articles about ways you can use herbs and essential oils with confidence on Healing Harvest Homestead too.
I hope to encourage and inspire you to start your own natural health and healing journey, and herbs can and should be part of your practice!
If you are interested in excellent herbal online courses, check out my current favorite school: The Herbal Academy of New England. They have courses for all interests and levels of experience.
Do you have questions or comments? I welcome them, my friend! I’ve discovered the questions you ask in the comments section help others out as well as clarifying ideas I may have not spoken well. So—-please leave comments!
Hugs, Health, and Self-Reliance,
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Disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor, and I do not claim to be able to treat, cure, prevent, or diagnose any illness. Although my personal health practice is 100% herbal (use of plants or essential oils), I do firmly believe there is a time and place for allopathic medicine. Health decisions are completely up to the individual, and it is every person’s responsibility to do their own research and due diligence about every substance you put in your body or the bodies of your children, whether traditional (herbal) or allopathic (modern). Always seek the advice of your medical doctor before using herbs or essential oils. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.
Gladstar, Rosemary. Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide.
Cech, Richo. Making Plant Medicine.
Tierra, Michael. The Way of Herbs.
Wood. Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal.
De la Foret, Rosalee. Alchemy of Herbs.