A medicinal herb is a plant, or a part of a plant, which has created a good enough effect on enough people that it has been remembered. Its name, appearance, habitat, structure, parts, successful preparation and application, effects and side-effects have been passed down from generation to generation.
Medical researchers or a pharmaceutical company might process the plant to derive some of its essence, perhaps chemically altering it or adding other ingredients. The plant thus might become the basis for a pharmaceutical medicine. Two examples are foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), the basis for the heart medicine, digitalin, and white willow bark, the basis for aspirin. When this is done, there are components of the plant left behind, not included in the medicine, and herbalists say it is better to use the plant as it comes. We don’t understand how everything works in nature and it stands to reason that the plant is designed to work as a whole.
Although we hear great things about Chinese herbs or herbs from the Amazon Rain Forest, the great herbalist John R. Christopher, treated people with the weeds from their backyard, or – in any case – from not too far away. There are many plants in the world that have similar properties, so you don’t necessarily have to go far, far away to find what you need. This makes sense, since people have lived everywhere on the planet for far longer than we have had airplanes and trains to transport herbs from continent to continent.
Stories of old days often describe a member of a tribe, family or village as being the herb master or mistress, medicine man, herbalist, herb doctor, wise woman, or even witch. Some of the lore passed down in these professions was herbal lore. Someone had to know where to find the herbs, how to tell them apart, which parts to use, how much to use, and how to prepare them. Today we have naturalists, wildcrafters, herbalists, herb farmers, and herb companies to identify or cultivate the growing plants, dry them, grind them, put them in capsules, tincture and bottle them, and write books about them.
People like you and me might want to gather or grow some of our own herbs. We might want to dry, grind, freeze, chop, hang, encapsulate, tincture and bottle them, or infuse them for tea. We might want to write about them. Medicinal herbs are for our use. They are our plants, belonging to all of us on the planet.