Since the dawn of creation, plants have been the primary source of
medicine for the human race.
Medicinal plants have been mentioned in the Bible, and in historical
literature. Plants that are used as medicines have been referred to as
"herbs" for over 4000 years by European and the Mediterranean cultures,
hence the word "herb", being a derivation of "herbe" and the Latin word,
Originally, the term "herb" only applied to non-woody plants.
Today, "herb" refers to any part of any plant used for flavoring or
medicine. Although the term "herb" can also be equated with food spices,
it is generally used in reference to any plant, or any part of a plant,
having nutritional and / or medicinal value(s). Additionally, an "herb"
may be a fruit, a bark, a flower, a leaf, or a root, as well as
There are several types of herbal medicine systems that are used
today; European, Native American, Chinese, Ayurvedic, and Western
herbalism are the most prevalent systems. Despite differences in
terminology and in the herbs used, there is a common thread that joins
these systems: all of these systems treat the body as a 'whole', and
they each utilize the energy of plants to 'work as needed' in synergy
with the natural energy in each individual.
Because there are many different herbal systems, there are also many
different ways of classifying herbs. Some systems being used over the
years tend to classify herbs by 'plant part'; by humoral theories; by
botanical family; by color; or by morphology. One example is the Chinese
system, which has a complex classification system based on 'chi', or
'body energy concepts'. This classification scheme is very successful at
correlating the human body to proper herb usage, but does not provide
for easy substitution of one herb for another.
There are many other ways to classify herbs. Another simple method is
to identify five (5) major herbal categories:
Aromatic (volatile oils) Astringent (tannins) Bitter (phenol
compounds, saponins and alkaloids) Mucilaginous (polysaccharides)
Nutritive (food stuffs)
This category system makes it easy to identify herbs using 'taste'
and 'smell', and becomes useful when needing to substitute herbs for one
There are many ways to grow, gather, and harvest herbs. Herbs are
considered the "best" by some practitioners when they are naturally
grown in the wild, untouched by industrial pollutants. Others prefer
herbs that are cultivated indoors, away from all contaminants, in a
controlled environment. Some herbalist's recommend gathering only
certain herbs (depending on the seasons, the weather, and the time of
day) to achieve the highest level of medicinal qualities. And still
others may disregard this practice, and will purposefully plant herbs
'out of season' so that they will be available for sale year round.
Many believe that the energy with which the herbs are gathered is
also very important, and should always be done with great spiritual
awareness and prayerful thankfulness. And others feel that herbs should
be handled with reverence and respect.
In addition to growth and gathering techniques, harvesting practices
vary as well. Recommendations may include taking the whole plant at once
(buds, roots, seeds, leaves and blooms), or taking each part of the
plant in a particular order, and only using younger, or older, plants.
There are also several ways to dispense herbs. The most common
methods are herbal pastes, juices, decoctions, hot or cold infusions,
powders, pills (tablets, capsules), aromatics, tinctures or extracts
(alcohol or glycerol bases), liniments, syrups, poultices and
fomentations, medicated oils, salves and ointments, lotions, teas, and
whole herbs. Each type is good for specific ailments, and often may be
used together (i.e. internally and externally for an external wound) to
take full advantage of the healing attributes of each.
All these choices, like others, should be integrated with both your
personal external needs and your internal ideals for the best possible
results. An experienced herbalist can help you decide which system is
right for you. Please be aware that herbs are foods. And like any other
food, herbs should be taken in moderation. Always follow the
manufacturer's directions for use.
In Chinese medicine herbs are associated with the major organs of the
body. For example - certain herbs are used to heal lung ailments and the
meridians associated with the lungs. The practitioner will always
provide the patient with 2 herbs. One is called the guiding herb that
gets the healing herb to the right spot. The second herb is the healing
herb. Much of this is intuitive - as the body will crave the food,
tastes, or herbs that it needs.
In plant spirit medicine the practitioner not only administers the
healing herb but he has a relationship with the Spirit of the healing
plant. He can actually communicate with the spirit of a powerful healing
plant to heal the patient. This can be done as a remote healing - with
patient and practitioner in two different parts of the country. In this
case the spirit goes to the patient. According to author and shaman,
Eliot Cowan - Plant Spirit Medicine -
"Some people find it difficult to accept the concept of plants
communicating with earthlings. Such plant communication can be in the
form of a plant speaking directly to an individual, or quite often, an
individual seeing a plant spirit. For many, such an occurrence would be
outside their boundary of reality. He takes the leaves of a plant to
make a tea, and then with different forms of meditation, communicates
with the plant to produce a healing for the patient. This is
accomplished regardless of whether the disease is physical, mental or
both. In my opinion, this in itself would certainly be worth writing
"After introductions, the healer asks the plant spirit to teach the
Shaman how to use this plant. The teaching comes in many forms that may
even including a non-verbal transfer of the information. When the
transfer is complete, the shaman then returns to a normal state of
consciousness and immediately starts to record the entire experience.
Next there follows an interpretation of the dream and as is generally
true for dreams, the dream may or may not be self explanatory. As the
author states, "If I can make that relationship with the spirit of the
plant, I don't need the leaf or the root with which to heal.... instead,
I ask the messenger (the plant) to bring the spirit of whatever plant
that person needs. So instead of having or harvesting dozens of plants
that I have to take with me, I just have pills or capsules made out of
the messenger plant."
This ability to communicate with a messenger plant is revolutionary.
Presently the practice of wild crafting is drawing more and more
criticism because it encourages the over harvesting of medicinal plants.
I am personally aware of "over harvesting" as I witness the identical
situation occurring with the medicinal plants of ginseng, and especially
goldenseal. Under present circumstances, goldenseal is even now at the
point of being an endangered species.
This wonderful ability to communicate with a messenger plant, which
in turn eliminates the need of harvesting unnecessary plants, puts Eliot
Cowan in a special place in the realm of plant spirit healing. This is
an arena which even Cowan admits, "we don't control the spirit or even
understand it. Humility is the way."