1. Herbal Etiquette
Part One - Herbal Etiquette
Witches and herbalism have long been intertwined. From the helpful village wise woman who used her knowledge to ease the pangs of childbirth, to the witch who concocted potions to bring back a lost love. Because our history is so connected there are still many modern Witches that are striving to regain a somewhat lost art.
The amount of information written on herbalism is enormous and often contradictory, so where does the novice start? As with all lessons, the place to start is with the basics. In this article I will attempt to show you just what some of herbalisms basics are. These basics are the same whether you choose medical herbalism or magickal herbalism as your focus, or a combination of the both of them.
On the subject of medical herbalism...It has often been said that the
man who represents himself in a court of law, has a fool for a lawyer as
well as a client. Much the same must be said about treating yourself
or others with herbs medicinally. You are
playing a dangerous game. Diagnosis is a tricky thing and whatever your opinion of doctors, they have been trained in the subject and you most likely have not. There are several serious problems that have symptoms that mimic relatively harmless illnesses, only a qualified professional can tell the difference. I realize that as with all new found and hard won knowledge we are inclined to show it off. But even the best of intentions can't raise the dead. The information I give you here is NOT intended for self treatment or the treatment of others.
So with that cheery subject out of the way, on to the meat of the matter.
Where do you start in your quest for knowledge of this fascinating subject.
Well, you start with a few rules. The first of which is this. Herbs
are known by both common and Latin names. But when working with herbs
ALWAYS use the latin name. I know, Latin? Why the Latin name,
isn't wolfsbane always wolfsbane? In a word...No. Aconitum
napellus also known as Monkshood or Wolfsbane is a deadly poison, not to
be used by a reputable herbalist under ANY circumstances. But, Arnica
montana is also known as Arnica or wolfsbane, though not to be used internally,
it makes a wonderful poultice or salve for the healing of bruises or strained
muscles. It doesn't take a genius to see the necessity of using the
Latin name. But, you say, I am not going to use herbs medicinally,
only magickally. So why should you use the Latin name? Toxic
herbs are generally toxic whether ingested through herbal teas or through
inhalation of incense smoke. Dead is still dead. Common names
vary from region to region. So although most herbal books list plants
by their common name, they also give the Latin name. And if
they don't, find another book. Does this mean that you must memorize endless lists of Latin taxonomy. No, but do know where to find the name when you need it. Knowing where to find the information is sometimes more valuable than attempting to carry it all around in your head. If your memory is what mine is, it occasionally fails me when most needed. If you are going to make an herbal purchase, write them down on your list. Which brings me to the another rule.
The best place to get herbs for your use both magickally and medicinally
is to grow them yourself. That way you KNOW how they were raised
and there is less chance of mis-identification. But with a large
majority of us being urban witches, that is not always practical.
So what can you do? In the larger cities grocery stores often offer
a collection of fresh culinary herbs. You can purchase those and
dry them yourself. But many of the botanicals you will wish to use
are not normally thought of as culinary. There are many businesses
all across the country that specialize in herbs and most of the larger
ones do mail order. One of the disadvantages of this is they generally
do not sell small quantities and herbs do not keep indefinitely.
specializing in sales to the Craft will sell smaller quantities but these are generally more expensive than buying in bulk. In any
case, ordering through mail order is something that you should only do if absolutely necessary. Why? Because if at all possible you should see the business from which you are making your purchase. Pay attention to the way that the herbs are stored. Are the containers clean? Are they opaque or are the herbs exposed to light which may cause deterioration of volatile oils? Are the owners and salespeople knowledgeable? These questions are all important ones. Remember, you want your herbs to be as potent as possible and that means they need to be treated with care. And again, always ask for them with the Latin as well as the common name. When ordering mail order, write the Latin name you wish next to the common name, this may save you from getting the wrong herb. If they don't know the Latin names or tell you they don't matter, go to another supplier. Be absolutely sure of what you have. I cannot stress that enough.
Which brings us to our next rule. Be informed. Don't take
any one references word for it. Check at least three, and more if
you have them. Herbal information is often contradictory and as I
have said it is better to be safe than sorry. I have in my collection
a large number of herbal books, I have them classified into five different
sections. There are the optimistic herbals, the pessimistic herbals,
the way-out-in-left-field herbals, the historical herbals and the magickal
herbals. (Sometimes the
historical and way-out-in-left-field fall into the same section.) So what does that mean? The optimistic herbals are the ones that tell you herbs can cure anything and several herbs are virtual panaceas. Take one and a multitude of illnesses are gone. The pessimistic herbals say that only herbs that have had scientific studies done on them to verify their properties should even be considered, that the rest are superstition and folklore. The left-field variety tell you that you never have to go to a doctor again. Or they are full of very old information now considered out dated. The historical are ones such as Culpepper or Gerards, ones that have a lot of interest when studying the past history of herbs, but not much practical use. The magickal ones deal almost exclusively with the just that, the magickal properties. At the end of this article are a number of books from all categories. I do not list any books that I do not have personally, so there are many more that I do not own. If you are serious about herbalism, read. Read everything that you can get your hands on. That is one of the only ways, lacking a good class, that you will be able to obtain knowledge. And after you read, use common sense. I have several herbs that I use to judge the type of book I am reading. I look these up and see what the author has to say about them. If they are cautious in there use, and give warnings for dangerous herbs, then it passes my test and will become a valuable reference. If
they author gives no cautions, I know that the information within the book is to be treated with a great deal of cross-referencing. I have my own personal favorites and after time you will develope
So now you have my three personal rules to begin with. 1) Use Latin names. 2) Know your source. 3) Be informed.
Next time we will begin to learn what the various preparations are and how to make them.
Good Herbals to have:
Rodales's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs ed.by Claire Kowalchik & William H Hylton
Magic and Medicine of Plants pub. by Reader's Digest
The Herb Book by John Lust
The New Age Herbalist ed by Richard Mabey
The Dictionary of Modern Herbalism by Simon Y. Mills
The Holistic Herbal by David Hoffmann
The Herbal Handbook by David Hoffmann
A Modern Herbal (in two volumes) by Mrs. M. Grieve
Wylundt's Book of Incense by Steven R. Smith
Magical Herbalism by Scott Cunningham
Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs by Scott Cunningham
The Master Book of Herbalism by Paul Beyerl
These run the gamut from optimistic to somewhat pessimistic. But
they give you a place to start.
Part Two - Preparations
Last time we learned a few basic rules to begin our study of herbalism.
Now we will expand that knowledge with some
information on how to make herbal preparations. But first, for new readers just joining this series I must repeat. If you have
medical problems seek the help of a qualified medical practitioner. Do not attempt diagnosis or treatment on yourself
or others. This series of articles does not in any way qualify you to practice herbal medicine. Even potentially harmless
substances can be dangerous if the person taking them is allergic to them. Why such harsh warning? Because many people have become seriously ill or died from self-treatment. Don't be foolish!
Before we go into specifics on how to make the actual preparations,
let's lay down a few ground rules. (I know, rules
again? Trust me, I have lots of them.) We assume that you already have your herb (and have chosen it by it's Latin name.)
You can purchase herbs in a variety of forms. Whole, cut, and powdered are the main ones. I usually buy mine cut or whole
depending upon for what purpose I am going to use them. If I need the herbs powdered, I do it myself. Powdered herbs lose
their potency much quicker than whole ones.
Once you have made your purchase, you must know how to store the dried
herbs properly. The basics of doing so are simple. There are
a few things that will ruin your herbs faster than anything else, among
those are heat and light. So, you should always try to keep
them in a cool, dark place. Now some of you may think that makes
the refrigerator a perfect place? It's cool, it's dark, that makes
it good, right? Wrong! It's also damp and along with heat and
light, moisture is not good either. Herbs are plant material and
any of us who have found that bowl in the back of the refrigerator that
has the unknown substance from two months ago in it, knows what can happen
in a cool, dark, moist place. They may mold. And although it
is true that penicillin was discovered from mold, I don't recommend you
grow your own. So, where can you put them? Well, if you store
them in opaque containers you don't need to be concerned about the light.
Glass is always best. Plastic, because it is porous, lets through
a fourth enemy, air. And metal is not good under any circumstances.
It may react with the chemicals in the herbs, destroying the use of the
herbs as well as damaging the container. So, choose dark glass containers
and store them in an area of your house that stays the coolest. (Just
a note here...I get most of my containers by recycling glass jars from
products I have purchased. It saves me the expense of buying the jars and helps me be environmentally sound.)
Now that you have the proper container, label it in the proper manner. That means the common name, Latin name, and specifics about purchase (such as when and where.) This will help make sure that you know what you are using. A word of warning here. Don't label them on the lid only, if you take the lids off two things at the same time, they may get confused. When I first began to practice herbalism, almost everything looked the same to me, just like chopped weeds. Nothing I could identify by just looking at it. And all the pictures in the world of the whole, fresh plant didn't help me once I got the dried, cut one home. So use care and label properly. Labeling with where you purchased your herbs will help you decide if you choose to purchase from the same place again. Herbs vary in strength and some suppliers are better than others. Labeling with the date you purchased them will help you know when your stock needs to be replaced. Herbs do not keep forever. Some things such as Hops (Humulus lupulus) do not keep well at all. A general rule of thumb is as follows. Roots, bark and seeds keep longer, usually they will be good up to a full three years. Flowers, leaves, and other plant material are good for only about a year.
Another thing that I suggest if you intend to use the herbs for magickal
use is to label them with the astrological association,
and primary magickal use. This makes for quick and easy reference when looking through racks of bottles. I have also
found it helpful to put at least the Latin name and common nameon the lid of the jar, so when looking for something specific, if
the front label is not visable, I don't have to drag everything out. I can just look at the lid.
Following these rules for storage will help assure that your plant materials
are as potent as possible. As well as cut down
on mishaps involving mis-identification.
Now on to preparations.
First, regardless of whether your focus is magickally or medicinally,
the basics of preparation is really the same. You
will use the following techniques to make preparations for ritual use. The only minor difference is the use of incense, aspergers
and the like which we will cover at the end of this article. All the information given here assumes that you are using dried
So on we go...
Locked inside of herbs is a vast treasure trove. This hoard has
the glamorous name of 'chemical constituents.' Each herb has
them and they are all different from herb to herb. What we need is the key to unlock the treasure chest. That key comes in
several different forms. There are infusions, decoctions, tinctures, salves, poultices, syrups, and powders. Even though
there are a multitude of different preparation types they all begin the same way (with the exception of powders and tinctures.)
First you must know if you are dealing with tough material, such as
roots, bark, seeds, or woody stems. If that is the case, you
will begin your preparation with a decoction. If your plant materials are flowers, leaves or other light matter, you will use
an infusion. Big words huh? Well, it's actually pretty simple. To make an infusion is pretty much like making tea. You measure your water into a pan. Never use aluminum pans, the best pans to use are enamel or glass. If you must use metal use stainless steel. But any pan you use must have a cover. Now that your water is in your pan, bring it to a boil. As soon as the water is rolling nicely, turn it off, if you have an electric stove make sure you have removed it completely from the heat.
Immediately pour your water onto the pre-measured herb and cover with the lid. Now set a timer and wait about ten to fifteen
minutes. (The actual time will vary depending on exactly which herb or herbs you are using.) Make sure, that steam is not
escaping. If you can smell the wonderful aroma of a delicious herbal mixture, you can smell the treasure you are trying to
extract slipping away. After your timer has expired remove the cover and strain your preparation through cheese cloth. Now it is ready use. By the way, if you see the word tisane, it is generally an infusion that has been prepared more like we usually
If you need to make a decoction, you begin the same way. Measure your water into the pan and bring to a boil. Next instead of turning off the heat, reduce it to a simmer, pour in your pre-measured herb and now cover. Set your timer for 10-20 minutes. (Again the time varies.) Make sure that the mixture does not boil again, only simmers. After the time has expired, remove from heat and strain through cheese cloth into a container.
Remember, when making an infusion, NEVER drop the herbs into boiling
water. The intense heat will destroy the chemical
constituents that you are after.
To make a tincture you start with alcohol, liquor not rubbing alcohol.
Use at least 60 proof. Different sources recommend
different types. (I personally think it depends on what libation is the author's favorite.) In any case. Put a measured amount
of the herb into a clear glass container. Pour on the required amount of alcohol. Set it in a sunny window for about two weeks. Shake it at least once a day. After two weeks is up, strain out and discard the plant matter, then store the liquid in a dark container. Tinctures, because of their alcohol base, keep longer than any of the other preparations. If you have need of an alternative to alcohol you may use vinegar. Apple cider is recommended. Also, this extraction method works well on either
light plant materials or the tougher ones, like bark and roots. Although for the latter you may wish to grind the material first.
So now that you know how to make an infusion, decoction and a tincture,
you are ready for the next step. Some herbs should
never be taken internally, but are valuable for external application. For these you will use the form of washes, ointments, salves, and poultices. For a wash you just apply either your decoction or infusion (whichever is appropriate) to
the area affected. You do not need to do anything further with the mixture. A tincture that is applied externally, is generally
called a liniment.
To make ointments though you will need further steps. There are
several ways to make an ointment. The chemical constituents of herbs
fall into two categories, water soluble and fat soluble. This gets
a little complicated and the only real way to know
which category an herb falls into is to understand basic herbal chemistry, which is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it
to say sometimes when making an ointment you first make a decoction or infusion of the herb, add it to the base (lard,
lanolin, oil) and then heat it on a low heat until all the water has evaporated. (I personally use lanolin as my base. Although
recently I have heard that there is some danger from pesticide residue left from the attempt to kill sheep vermin. I guess
nothing is safe anymore.) Then you add a small amount of melted beeswax, if it is not firm enough. This a common method for
those herbs that are water soluable. Remember, when heating the mixture, it is very important not to let the it get too hot or
you will lose the very properties you are trying to extract.
Another method you may use if the herb is fat soulable is to begin with an oil. First take a natural oil, one that is good
for your skin (These include almond, safflower, olive, etc). I like almond oil. Or you could use the more traditional lard.
Measure the correct amount into a pan and heat gently, then add the herb. Cover and let heat for about 15-20 minutes. Again
make sure that this mixture never boils. And be very cautious as always when heating oil, so it will not burst into flame. After
you have strained the mixture, again you may add a small amount of beeswax if you need a firmer ointment. Remember that lard and lanolin will have a firmer consistency when cool, so you may not need to use the beeswax.
As I indicated earlier there are many ways to make ointments, these are only two examples.
To make a poultice you would make your infusion or decoction, but do
not strain out the plant materials. If the mixture is very
thin you may want to add some oatmeal or bread so that it be the proper consistency. Place the moist plant mixture either
directly on the area or in soft, natural material, such as loose weave cotton and apply to the site. Change as soon as the heat
has left the herbs. The herbal mixture should be against the afflicted area. You may choose to wrap a cloth over the entire
area to help contain the heat. Make sure that the material you use to hold it in place, will not stick to the affected area
(such as cotton wadding might.)
A compress is basically the same as a poultice put instead of using
the plant materials themselves, steep a cloth in the
infusion or decoction and use the wet cloth only.
To make a syrup you once again you start with something else either
an infusion, decoction or tincture. Basically you just add
sugar or honey to one of these strained mixtures and heat until the sugar is dissolved. Once again, make sure that the mixture
does not get too hot. (Tired of hearing that one yet?)
Powders are just that, powdered herbs. I purchased a small electric
coffee grinder that I use. Or you can use the
traditional mortar and pestle. Herbs are often powdered then put into capsules for internal consumption. Also, in order to use
them as incenses, the powdered form is generally required.
To use herbs as incense, the simplest way is just to powder the herbs and burn them on charcoal briquettes. But always remember when burning herbs that they may create potentially hazardous smoke. To which anyone who has been downwind of burning poison ivy can attest. As a general rule, if it is toxic when ingested, treat it as toxic when burned, unless you are absolutely certain otherwise. Don't hurry your departure from this life needlessly.
In a later article incense making will be covered in greater detail.
An asperger is a bundle of herbs that is tied together to be used to
sprinkle liquid on people, places or things. They can add a
nice touch to rituals and are easy to make. All you do is tie a small bundle of herbs together. Naturally, powdered or herbs cut into small pieces won't do for this, they should have longer stems. If you can get them, fresh herbs are really better for
See, there is nothing mystical about the preparations, except the magick that you yourself invest in them.
Now you have the basics on how to make herbal preparations. I have given you no measurements to begin with as it varies from herb to herb. Next time we will go into specifics about what some herbs do and how to best use them.
In the meantime remember, store and label properly and use the correct preparation method.
Part Three - Actions
We have gone through some practical rules of herbalism, as well as covered the basics on how to make various preparations. Now we come to the area where herbalism loses quite a few of its' students. But once more before we begin, let me repeat. This series of articles is in no way to be construed as an alternative to proper health care, or common sense. If you are ill, or even suspect you may have a medical problem, see a qualified medical practitioner. I would like you to be around to read the rest of this series.
Now with that out of the way, let us proceed. In order to choose
the proper herb to do the job you need to know just what they are capable
of doing. After all if you are going to dig a hole in your yard to
plant a tree, you don't use a hammer. So it is also with botanicals.
If you are in need of something soothing to the digestive tract, you wouldn't
use an herb whose primary 'job' was to stop bleeding. You would want
the proper tool. Those different 'jobs' are called actions.
Why are they called
actions? Because they 'act' upon the body, affecting its' functions. What, you ask, does this have to do with magickal
herbalism? Stick with me and I hope I will show you a new perspective.
Most people find this section deadly dull. They would much rather
be learning about specific herbs and what they are
purported to do rather than have to try and separate an alterative from a vulnerary. So why is it important? If you
know that you have a cold and peppermint (Mentha piperta) is good for colds, isn't that all you really need to know. Well, not
exactly. You see colds have a variety of symptoms and if your primary symptom was a problem with a scratchy, sore throat,
peppermint probably wouldn't be your answer. Also, if you know the various actions of all of the herbs you have, it make
substitution much more simple. All you need do is find another herb with the same actions.
I am going to give you a list of several of the different actions, along
with my definition. I do not intend to cover
every possible action, but I will give you the ones I feel are the most commonly needed or most important. Most of what I say
in the next part of the article pertains to medical herbalism, but at the end I will cover my magickal theory.
Abortifacient - This action is just like it sounds, it causes an abortion.
Not withstanding all the current legal, and moral
debate, using herbs to induce an abortion is extraordinarily dangerous and foolhardy. Your chances of successfully dislodging
the fetus and remaining alive are slim. I include this category because it is important to know for women who are pregnant.
These herbs usually work by damaging the fetus and should be strictly avoided during pregnancy.
Adaptogen - A substance that helps the body better deal with situations
and therefore possibly decreases your risk of
contracting a disease. A good example is stress. We are all aware that excessive stress your body is unable to handle can
cause one to become ill. What this type of herb may help do is help your body deal better with the stress and therefore keep you from becoming sick do to the excessive demands on your system.
Alterative - Sometimes also called 'blood cleansers'. They work
by gently altering the course of a disease or a condition in the
body that may cause a disease. Much like you can change the course of a stream by dropping rocks into the water. Do not
expect lightning swiftness from this category, they are the tortoise not the hare.
Analgesic - A substance that reduces pain by depressing certain bodily
functions. (Sometimes also referred to as Anodyne.) The best known in this
category is the Opium Poppy (Papaver Somniferum). As you can see
most of the effective herbs in this
category are extremely dangerous and illegal. Herbalists generally prefer to treat the cause of a disease rather than a
symptom and pain is a symptom that should never be ignored.
Antiseptic - An herb that exhibits the ability of killing germs.
This is important in the cleansing of wounds or in combating
Antispasmodic - Something that relieves involuntary muscle cramps or spasms. Useful in the case of painful menstruation or sore overworked muscles.
Aperient - A mild laxative, helping to gently restore normal bowel function,
rather than a violent purging of the system.
Though again the underlying cause of the constipation should be found and treated.
Aromatic - A substance that has a strong aroma (either pleasant or disagreeable).
These are often used to hide the unpleasant
taste of other herbs. They are also used in Aromatherapy.
Astringent - This action causes a tightening or dehydration of tissue.
Most often used externally to stop bleeding and
internally to stop diarrhea.
Bitter tonic - Just like it sounds this action generally has a disagreeable
or acrid taste that stimulate the flow of saliva and
gastric juice. These are used to help with digestion.
Carminative - This action helps to relieve and or arrest the formation of gas in the digestive system.
Cathartic - A substance that causes the evacuation of the bowels.
It can be through the more gentle action of a laxative or the
more forceful action of a purgative.
Counterirritant - A substance that induces a local inflammation in a certain area, in order to counteract or lessen the effects
of inflammation in another area. Many commercial preparations (such as the 'sore muscle' rubs) use this action to help
alieviate mild pain.
Demulcent - This action soothes and moistens, especially helpful to the mucous membranes.
Diaphoretic - A substance that promotes perspiration.
Diuretic - This action helps increase the flow of urine. Most
of the herbs that are listed for weight loss fall into this
category. So as you can see, much of the weight loss would be do to water loss, rather than fat loss. A reduction in your caloric intake and an increase in excercise is still the best way to lose weight.
Emetic - This action produces vomiting.
Emmenagogue - Taken internally this substance promotes normal menstruation. This is another category to be strictly avoided by pregnant women.
Emollient - This substance is soothing and softening when applied externally. It is usually used for the skin.
Expectorant - This action expedites the expulsion of phlegm.
Febrifuge - This action helps to relieve a fever. There is much
controversy over whether or not you should let a fever run its'
course or whether you should attempt to bring a bodies temperature back to normal. I won't enter into the discussion
here other than to say that most modern herbalists believe in fever management rather than attempting to fight what the body's
immune system is trying to do. In any case rampant fever can kill or cause irrepairable damage.
Hemostatic - A substance used to control or stop the flow of blood.
Nervine - A substance used to help support the nervous system. To calm nervousness, tension or excitement.
Rubefacient - This action increases the blood flow (literally 'making
redder') in the area it is used. Generally these are
Sedative - This action helps to produce sleep by acting on the nervous system by reducing tension.
Stimulant - This action makes a body organ or system work faster.
Stomachic - A substance that assists the stomach and digestion.
Styptic - This action stops or slows bleeding, usually it is also an astringent.
Tonic - This action gives strength and support to the bodies systems.
Vermifuge - This action is used to expel worms.
Vesicant - This substance is a counterirritant that is so strong it can cause blisters or sores, such as poison ivy.
Vulnerary - This action is soothing or healing to wounds.
Now that you have waded through all that and you know a styptic from a diaphoretic, perhaps you can see how to put this knowledge to use. You would know that if you have a cold and your primary symptom is our aforementioned scratchy throat, that you would need a demulcent. So you would know to look for an herb that has those properties.
Now how does this fit into magickal herbalism? Much emphasis has
been placed upon the astrological associations of different
herbs. I often use that approach in my ritual workings. I choose an herb that has the correct zodiacal correspondences, or
God or Goddess associations. But another method that I often use is the 'action' approach. For example, if I am doing a ritual to cleanse something, I might choose for my incense something that contains an herb with antiseptic properties or prepare an
infusion of an herb with antiseptic action and asperge the subject/area/thing with it. If I am trying to rid myself of what
I perceive as a negative trait, I would choose an herb to use that had expectorant properties. Or I feel acutely the loss of
someone or something and I need healing, I might use a vulnerary. If I need more energy in a ritual, I would use a stimulant, or
maybe a tonic.
These are just a few of my ideas, I hope you can see the possibilities
this holds. You can even combine it with the
astrological and God/Goddess associations for even more specific uses.