An Herbal Glossary: A Dictionary of Actions, Preparations, and More
When I took my very first herbal course long ago, Rosemary Gladstar mentioned in the study materials that as students, we should make flash cards for all the strange, sometimes archaic herbal words we would be encountering on our learning journey. Well, I did take her advice, and it made my learning about herbs MUCH easier. I thought I’d go ahead and share these common but often unknown herbal vocabulary words and definitions with you.
If you are interested in learning about, talking about, and working with herbs and making this practice a part of your healthy lifestyle, it behooves you to do as I did… make your flash cards. Start your studying and memorizing. Then when you’re reading your herbal books, you won’t have to stop to go look up that weird word, right?
Here’s a good Herbal Dictionary to get you started!
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An Herbal Glossary: Vocabulary for Actions, Preparations, and Other Herbal Words
Herbs that help the body cope with the stress response. These herbs help the body function normally under conditions of physical or mental stress. Examples are Eleuthero, Rhodiola, Astragalus, Ashwagandha, Schisandra Berry. You can find out more about adaptogens in this article.
The parts of the plant that grow above ground.
Herbs that help bring the body back into a balanced state gradually and sustainably with consistent use. These usually strengthen one or more of the body’s systems or organs. You can find out more about alteratives in this article.
Herbs used to reduce pain. These may be used internally or externally depending on the herb. Examples: Skullcap, Chamomile, St. John’s Wort, Cramp Bark, White Willow.
Herbs used to soothe and/or neutralize acids in the stomach and intestines. Examples: Irish moss, Slippery Elm, Marshmallow Root, Fennel Seed, Psyllium Seeds.
Herbs that expel and/or destroy worms and other parasites from the body. Examples: Aloe, Garlic, Chaparral, Wormwood, Rue, Thyme, Thuja.
Herbs that help relieve symptoms of asthma by dilating the bronchioles and breaking up mucus. Examples: Mullein, Elecampane (my preferred two). Also, Coltsfoot, Comfrey Leaf, Lobelia (these are mildly toxic so contraindications need to be taken into strong consideration before use).
These are herbs which help kill bacteria and/or directly stimulate the immune system. Examples: Goldenseal, Chaparral, Echinacea, Garlic, Thyme, Oregano.
Herbs that help prevent excessive mucus building up in the system. Catarrh means mucus. Examples: Cayenne, Ginger, Sage, Echinacea, Goldenseal, Garlic, Mullein, Yarrow.
Herbs that help with nausea. Ginger is an example of a great anti-emetic.
Herbs that help prevent and pass urinary and biliary stones. Examples are Gravel Root, Parslay Root, Marshmallow Root, Cleavers, Buchu, Cornsilk, Stone Root. These are for urinary stones. For gall stones, and supporting the gall bladder, Oregon Grape Root.
Herbs that help prevent the growth of bacteria and resist pathogens. Examples: Goldenseal, Chaparral, Calendula, Sage, Garlic, Pine, Juniper, Oregano. Also, the essential oils of clove, juniper, thyme, oregano, eucalyptus, rosemary.
Prevent or ease cramps in the body, as well as muscle spasms. Examples: Cramp Bark, Lobelia, Black Cohosh, Lady’s Slipper, Skullcap, Valerian, Wild Lettuce.
A gentle laxative that doesn’t necessarily cause the intestines to spasm. These include seaweed, planting seeds, and even ripe bananas.
Herbs that stimulate the sexual response and libido. Examples are Damiana, Maca, Rose, and Cinnamon.
Astringent herbs tighten and tone tissue, constricting it. These help reduce discharge and secretions. Most astringents contain high amounts of tannins. Examples: Witch Hazel Bark, Uva Ursi, Sage, Chaparral, Goldenseal.
These are stimulating tonic herbs for the digestive system and begin the process with the taste buds in the mouth. Examples: Horehound, Dandelion leaves, Burdock, Gentian, Yellow Dock.
Herbs with carminative actions are rich in volatile oils and help stimulate peristalsis in the digestive system. They also relax the stomach. They are wonderful for aiding the release of gas and bowel griping. Examples: Angelica, Anise, Caraway, Cardamom, Ginger, Dill, Cayenne, Chamomile, Peppermint.
This is the oil used to infuse herbal matter for culinary or external use. Also useful in essential oil preparations. Some common carrier oils are almond, grapeseed, fractionated coconut, and olive oil. You can find out more here. 20 Best Carrier Oils for Your Homemade Body Products.
Mucus in the body, especially the lungs.
A formula using more than one herb.
A topical preparation. Usually, a cloth will be soaked in a liquid herbal extract, such as a water infusion or decoction, and applied warm to the body. Example: A washcloth soaked in hot ginger/cayenne infusion and applied to sore muscles is a compress.
An herbal water infusion made using (primarily) roots, seeds, berries, bark of plants and simmered for 20 minutes or longer.
A demulcent herb has a smooth, slippery (some say slimy) texture that is extremely soothing to the mucus membranes in the body (digestive tract and respiratory systems especially). Examples: Slippery Elm (endangered), Marshmallow root, Sassafras.
An herb that opens the pores of the skin, increases internal heat, and facilitates sweat. This action helps lower fevers. Examples: Yarrow, Elder Flowers, Peppermint, Ginger.
An herb that helps the body break down and assimilate food and assists with healthy elimination. These usually work by gently stimulating the digestive tract and are best taken before meals. Examples: Dandelion and other bitter salad greens are great digestive herbs.
Herbs that support kidney function and increase urination. These can be good for helping with swelling. Too much use of diuretic herbs can be hard on the kidneys. Examples: Nettle leaf, Dandelion leaf, Celery, Cucumbers, Coffee.
An herb that facilitates of increases menstrual flow. Black Cohosh, Angelica, Pennyroyal, Rue. These are contraindicated during pregnancy as they may stimulate the uterus.
Herbs that soften and soothe the skin when used externally. Examples: Flaxseed, Slippery Elm, Comfrey, Chickweed, Calendula.
Essential oils are the volatile oils of many plants. They have strong aromas, strong tastes, contain terpenes, and vaporize at low temperatures. (This is why you want to cover your steeping tea.) They are used externally or for inhalation. Essential oils are usually not safe or recommended for internal use.
Herbs that help expel mucus from the body. Examples: Eucalyptus, Elecampane, Mullein.
An herbal preparation made by removing the chemical constituents into a solvent or menstruum. Extracts can be made with water, alcohol, glycerine, vinegar, oil, or combinations of different menstruous. Tinctures, infusions, acetums, glycerites, oxymels, etc. are examples of extracts.
Helps lower fevers. Yarrow, ginger, etc. are examples.
These herbs increase the secretion of milk in a lactating mother. Examples: Fenugreek, Fenugreek, Anise Seed, Blessed Thistle, Raspberry, Nettle, Hops.
An herb that supports the adrenal, thyroid, or other glands. Nettle is a glandular for the adrenals.
An herb that supports the liver. Examples are Dandelion Root, Burdock Root, Oregon Grape Root, Wild Yam, Yellow Dock Root.
Herbs with styptic actions, helping to stop internal and external bleeding. These include astringents that affect blood coagulation. Examples: Cayenne, Yarrow, Shepherds Purse, Goldenseal, White Oak Bark.
An herb that helps induce sleep. Some examples include: Chamomile, Skullcap, Passion flower, Valerian.
Generally referred to water infusions (extracting chemical constituents in water), some herbalists also include infusions with other menstruums in this term.
These herbs help promote the movement of the bowels. Examples are Cascara Sagrada, Senna, Licorice, Flaxseed, Rhubarb Root.
Long Infusion (Also called Strong Infusion, Medicinal Infusion, or Super Infusion):
An infusion that steeps for three or more hours. These types of infusions are generally not for pleasure drinking, but for the medicinal actions of the herbs.
Herbs that stimulate the actions and movement of lymph or tonifies the organs that deal with circulation or storage of lymph. Examples: Cleavers, Calendula, Echinacea, Astragalus, Dandelion.
Soaking a plant or plant parts in a menstruum (solvent) to extract the medicinal constituents of the plant.
The herbal matter that is left over after straining off the liquid after maceration is completed.
The chosen solvent used to extract the medicinal and/or nutritional constituents from a plant. Water, vinegar, alcohol, and glycerine are the more popular menstruums.
A thick, slippery, some would say slimy, demulcent substance produced by a plant or microorganism. Mucilaginous plants (demulcents) will provide mucilage. Okra, Marshmallow Root, Slippery Elm, Sassafras are examples of mucilaginous herbs.
Herbs that calm, support, strengthen, and tone the nervous system. Useful for the emotions, pain, and insomnia. Examples are Catnip, Lemon Balm, Valerian, Passion flower, Peppermint, Wild Lettuce.
These are herbs that have a general strengthening and healing effect on the respiratory system. Examples are Mullein, Elecampane.
Mashed or moistened plant matter or other substances that are placed on the skin. These may be covered by a cloth or some type of adhesive. For example, a mustard poultice on the chest may help soothe difficult breathing. Or, a plantain poultice may help with insect bites and stings.
A horizontal stem that grows underground. Roots extend downward into the soil from the rhizome, and new plants grow up from nodes. Examples: Ginger, Turmeric.
A soothing external herbal preparation made with infused oils and beeswax (or candelilla wax for vegans).
Reduce stress and nervous disorders in the body. Sedatives are useful for sleep and to induce calm. Examples: Valerian, Passion Flower, Chamomile, Skullcap.
Short Infusion (Beverage Tea):
Water infusions steeped for short periods of time, up to 20 minutes or so.
An herbal preparation or extract made using only one herb.
A simpler is an herbalist who creates simples and then blends them.
You’ll see this after the Genus name of a plant in the binomial classification. Spp. means there are multiple species within the genus being referred to. (Sambucus spp.)
These herbs increase the energy and activity level in the body or in a specific organ or system. These are useful as catalyst herbs in formulations to aid the actions of the primary herbs. See the Lesson on Formulation for more information. Examples of stimulants are ginger, Cayenne, Rosemary, Peppermint, Sage, Mustard, Horseradish.
A sweet liquid preparation, usually made by adding honey or sugar to a decoction.
A drink created by steeping plant matter, especially referred to Camellia sinensis (white, black, green, or oolong teas). Herbal teas are referred to as teas these days as well, although their proper name is “tisane.”
A more archaic term used for herbal drinks made from plant and herbs that are not Camellia sinensis. You can find out more about Camellia sinensis in this article.
A preparation made by macerating herbal matter in alcohol, then straining the liquid after maceration.
A tonic herb strengthens and tones one or more organs or systems in the body. Examples: Nettle is an example of a general tonic herb, as is burdock. Red Raspberry leaf is a reproductive tonic, and Mullein is a respiratory tonic.
A plant oil that evaporates very quickly, even at very low temperatures.
A substance that soothes and heals wounds more quickly. These herbs generally promote cell growth and repair. Comfrey, St. John’s Wort, Calendula, Plantain, and Chickweed have vulnerary actions.
Final Reflections on Getting to Know Herbal Words
If you want to start learning herbalism, a great place to start is the special vocabulary. Your knowledge of the plants and words will grow over time naturally, but if you want to speed your herbal fluency up, learning the words specific to and commonly used in herbalism is a great way to get started!
Are you wanting to learn about herbalism? Would you like to be able to create your own herbal preparations with confidence, safely and effectively in your own home?
If so, I suggest reading about How to Become an Herbalist. You can also take a look at The Confident Herbalist: A Guide to Home Herbalism, which is a course designed to get you started on your herbal learning journey quickly and without the incredibly high costs of other herbal foundations courses.
OR, you could join The Confident Herbal Tribe, which is a student community with daily teacher access for those who want to learn foundational monthly herbal lessons together in a small and supportive group. One herb each month plus a general herbal topic is tackled in depth on a monthly basis, and the cost is less than .70 cents a day!
You can also take a look at The Herbal Academy of New England. They have courses for all levels and herbal interests!
If you want to stick with online articles for now, that’s ok! You can find out everything you’ll need to get a start in my series, How to Start Using Herbs. There’s a lot more over on the blog, too!
Don’t forget to get the newsletter and the free Herbal Glossary download, plus a wealth of other self-reliance resources you’ll find in the Resource Library!
I hope this has been helpful for you!
Hugs, Health, and Self-Reliance,
P.S. Herbalism is one of the best, most fun ways to start your journey to self-reliance, homesteading (even in an apartment), and being prepared for an emergency!
Disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor; I am an herbalist. Please be sure to seek advice from your medical professional before using any herbs or essential oils. In no manner, stated or implied, is any language on any platform owned by me meant to treat, cure, diagnose, or prevent any disease or illness. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.
Gladstar, Rosemary. Sage Mountain School (The Art & Science of Herbalism) Study Materials, Lesson 2.
Katz, Nina. A Glossary of Herbalism. Natural Living Mama, LLC.