The qualities of HerbsThe definition most accepted as the definition of "herb" is: "A plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savory, or aromatic qualities."
Or, as the Herb Society of America, as good an arbiter of such things as any, puts it: "Any plant that may be used for pleasure, fragrance or physic."
Thus defined, herb includes a broad spectrum of plantstrees, shrubs and herbage.
The nature of HerbsHistorically, most plants that can be categorized as herbs contain some substance in the root, leaf, bark, flower, or fruit that, at one time, has been used in medicines. Paging through any old herbaland most new onesone will find the names of hundreds of plants, some still popularly considered herbs (rosemary and thyme), others commonly viewed as weeds (purslane and dandelion), and still others considered only trees or shrubs (poplar).
Medicinal Herbs:The oldest and probably the most interesting use of herbs is for healing. In every age, some writer recorded the medicinal uses of herbs. Herbals survive from the earliest Chinese civilizations, from the ancient Greeks and Romans, from the Elizabethan English, and from the earliest settlers in the New World. Even today, modern herbalists and students of folk medicine are collecting and spreading the lore of medicinal herbs.
The healing value of HerbsThe healing value of herbs, of course, is not simply folklore. For centuries, the established medical authorities prescribed particular plant parts and combinations thereof for the remedy of illnesses. In relatively recent years, pharmacy has advanced to the point where scientists now analyze plant tissue in order to extract the chemical constituents and isolate the plants' healing factor. Once pinpointed, the factor is synthesized. This enables physicians to prescribe specific doses of an accurately measurable size and consistent quality. The number of pharmaceutical firms that package and sell botanicals has dwindled, and the pharmacists that do more than count out pills are few and far between.
In modern China, however, the situation is very different. There herbs are widely cultivated, chiefly for their medicinal qualities. Even military installations have their prominent herb gardens, with each plant carefully labeled. Soldiers are taught to identify medicinal plants, to enable them to forage for healing plants in field situations. Paramedical personnel work closely with the people, using herbal remedies to a great extent. As one Western observer put it: "Everyone in China is a little bit of an herbalist. The housewives, the farmers, and even the school children grow herbs and learn to recognize them. Furthermore, herbs are easily available at stores, are extremely cheap, and are reasonably safe to use."
There is, perhaps, a tendency to expect more of medicinal plants than they can deliver. But if you are looking for a refreshing beverage when you have a scratchy throat, try some horehound tea. Or to settle a touch of indigestion, try chamomile tea.
Dangerous medicinal HerbsA word of caution is in order here. There are any number of plantsmedicinal herbs, in factthat can make you sick or even kill you. If you are prompted to seek out more information on herbal medicine and especially to try it, avoid the dangerous herbs.
Many of the available herb books fail to make clear the potential dangers of the following plants: jimsonweed, daffodil, spurge, arnica, wormwood, mandrake, hellebore, squill, poison hemlock, tonka bean, aconite, white bryony, nux vomica, Calabar bean, camphor, ergot, bittersweet, gelsemium, henbane, celandine, belladonna (deadly nightshade), foxglove, and mayflower. Others that should be dealt with cautiously include tansy, valerian, rue, lobelia, goldenseal, and bloodroot.
Practical medicinal HerbsThe Practical Encyclopedia of Natural Healing, the ten most practical medicinal herbs are: comfrey, garlic, chamomile, peppermint, cayenne, sage, horseradish, catnip, rosemary, and coltsfoot. Don't feel that you'll be missing much if you don't try the above plants. There are plenty of other plants with reputed medicinal values that are in no way dangerous, and that have fragrant and visual values as well. For example, according to
The herbs selected were those that "are not only famed for their medicinal properties (and often, good taste) but are also used frequently enough throughout the year to make it worthwhile cultivating them yourself." More information about them is found in the Herb Chart.