Learning Herbal Terminology might seems a little arcane, but its definitely not hard. There is a ton of information available about herbalism these days and with it - terms, tools, history, and how herbs work within our bodies. Because these things may seem to mesh together I wanted to break down a few of these terms to help you better understand easy herbal terms and how they might overlap in studies.
Herbal categories is one of those things that aren't right or wrong. There is no specific way to categorize herbs. If you take a look inside a few different herbal books you will find that each have a certain layout depending on the information that is being portrayed.
Categories vary from herbal actions, herbal families, herbal energetics, plant safety, and even time of the year they may bloom like annual or perennials. These are all correct.
Herbal actions refer to what the herb actually does to the body. For instance, words like adaptogen, expectorant, or sedative. Passionflower is a mild sedative and used for its calming effects on the nervous system similar to valerian. The point of actions is to describe the type of work they do on the body.
Another way to test out herbal actions is to get to know your herbs physically by trying them out and using all of your senses. Organoleptic observation is something that has been used for years Ayurveda, Chinese Medicine, and ancient European medicine have all relied on this prior to modernization. Note that they all have their own views on taste profiles as well, 6 tastes of Ayurveda and the 5 tastes of TCM. Shown below are examples of Western herbal energetic taste profiles.
Acrid- have an irritating sensation in the mouth and are often analgesic and antispasmodic.
(peppermint, cinnamon, bupleurum, peony, Sichuan pepper, and ginger.)
Astringent- herbs that dry, draw, or shrink tissue, which helps to create a barrier. You may know it's an astringent if you feel that "puckered" feeling.
(rose, yarrow, blackberry, agrimony, white oak)
Bitter- help stimulate digestion. These herbs are usually cooling.
(horseradish, parsley, coriander, mugwort, chamomile, mint, horehound, endive)
Bland- cooling in nature and often have a slippery texture associated with mucilage.
Pungent- help to stoke the digestive fires and are stimulating, warming, drying and dispersing.
(rosemary, oregano, ginger, coriander, cumin, cayenne)
Salty- usually cooling and drying to the body, and are generally nutritive and rich in both major and trace minerals.
Sour- astringent, stimulating to digestion, anti-inflammatory, and/or antioxidant.
(lemon, hawthorn berry, rose hips)
Spicy- stimulating in nature, and many of these herbs have an affinity for the digestive, circulatory, respiratory, and nervous systems.
(cilantro, cayenne, ginger, cloves, cardamom, tarragon)
Sweet- often have a moistening quality. They can be nutritive and tonic, as well as adaptogenic, demulcent, and/or immunomodulant.
(fennel, licorice, anise, cinnamon)
This is where it gets a bit tricky, energetics of plants, conditions, and people are often thought of as qualities or properties and may be referred to in terms of temperature, moisture, and tension; energetic descriptors include warm, dry, cool, moist, tense, and relaxed.
One popular example is ginger rhizome and how this plant in particular is considered warming due to the fact that it stimulates the blood flow to the body.
Ayurveda is a prime example of how energetics are used. It is said that everyone has a specific dosha: vata, kapha, pitta. These vary with the different seasons of life and what you are naturally at birth. Some characteristics of these doshas are cold, dry, light, swift, oily, heavy, hot, soft, smooth, etc.
The main purpose of energetics is to find the imbalanced hot/cold, and help heal and balance with the opposing energetics. So if someone has a "dry" cough using a demulcent herb like marshmallow root will help produce more "moisture" to help combat this discomfort.
Herbal properties are like herbal actions but more a more in depth, this is kind of where the overlap happens between herbal energetics and herbal actions. Herbal property descriptions can also change depending on the herb that is being used. It's almost like an adjective for herbal actions and helps describe the action in more detail.
While there are a lot of moving parts that go into herbalism, it's quite easy to get the hang of once the vocabulary makes sense. As always we are here to help, feel free to email us with any question or DM us on Instagram @bluradicalapothecary!
If you liked this post you might be thinking about starting your own herbal business?! You can find more information like this and more in our herbal workbook HERE.
Rajak, H. (2018). Classification of herbs
Chevallier, A. (2016) The Herbal Encyclopedia
Dharmananda, S. (2010) Taste And Action Of Chonese Herbs, Traditional And Moder Viewpoint