In ancient times humans discovered the healing properties of a plant by observing how the plant lived in its natural habitat: the colors, shape, and the texture of the plant, and its pattern of growth. These told the stories of the difficulties the plant had encountered in its development and the way these challenges had been overcome. The people related this to the human body and realized that the body, with its different functions and internal environment, represented the plant within us. When the body was stressed beyond its capacity for self-restoration, the plant that had learned to deal with the same kind of stress could “teach” the body how to balance itself. An example of this would be the aloe vera plant that has learned to adapt to a hot, dry climate by retaining moisture. Aloe vera gel has been used to moisturize dry skin and to heal burns.

Throughout time, herbal wisdom has been carried forward through the native traditions, folklore, and midwifery. Today, one can find several books and classes on medicinal herbs. Still, with all of the resources now available to us for learning about herbs, many people become overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin.

When I first started learning about herbs, I quickly realized that with hundreds of herbs to choose form, I needed to find a simple way of looking at the different kinds of herbs so that I could start using them with confidence. I was delighted to find that herbs could be classified into five basic groups, with each group having different and distinct action on the body.

Aromatic Herbs: The healing properties of these herbs are due to the volatile oils that give many of them a pleasing or strong scent. Aromatic herbs stimulate action and get things moving. They can transform degeneration into regeneration. Ginger stimulates digestion and eases nausea. Peppermint soothes the stomach and fennel helps with gas. Garlic is a powerful infection fighter, helps rid the body of parasites, and aids the respiratory and circulatory system. Capsicum (red pepper) stops bleeding on contact and balances blood pressure. Chamomile and valerian are wonderful for stress as they calm and relax the body and mind. Aromatic herbs represent fire element.

Mucilaginous Herbs: These herbs contain polysaccharides which give them a slippery texture and mild taste. They also swell in water. Mucilaginous herbs are soothing and cooing and are often used topically. Aloe vera can be used both on the skin and internally to heal an ulcer or colitis. Used as a poultice, comfrey assists in would healing and is a great bone knitter. Psyllium hulls or seeds add fiber to the diet and help to cleanse the colon of toxic waste. Slippery elm has long been used as a remedy for diarrhea. These herbs represent the water element.

Bitter Herbs: Alkaloids, saponins and phenols give these herbs properties that loosen, soften, dissolve and liquefy impurities an toxic material form the body. Laxative herbs such as cascara sagrada and senna, and diuretic herbs such as dandelion, juniper berries, and consult fall into this category. Golden seal and Echinacea are nature’s antibiotics, with golden seal also having the ability to lower blood sugar. White willow bark is a natural pain reliever and is what aspirin was derived from (without the toxic side effects aspirin has, such as stomach bleeding). Bitter herbs represent the earth element.

Astringent Herbs: Tannic acids in astringent herbs give these plans the ability to tighten and tone loose, spongy tissue and to stop bleeding. White oak bark and butcher’s broom strengthen blood vessels and hare helpful for varicose veins and hemorrhoids. Bayberry root bark has the ability to stop hemorrhaging. Red raspberry leaves are a wonderful women’s tonic, as they tone the uterus and can prevent miscarriage. Black cohosh is a source of natural estrogen, and eyebright strengthens the eyes. Pau D’Arco is a anti-fungal and helps shrinks tumors. Astringent herbs represent the air element.

Nutritive Herbs: These herbs owe their names to the nutritive values they provide to the diet. They are true foods and exert some mild medicinal effects. They provide the protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals necessary for good nutrition. Alfalfa is a great balancer for the glands as its roots go several feet deep into the soil to absorb minerals. Rose hips is one of the richest sources of Vitamin C. Blue green algae, the basic food on the food chain, contains all nutrients. Broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower have anti-cancer properties. Stevia is 300 times sweeter than sugar and enhances the immune system.

One of the best ways to get to know herbs is to start with common garden herbs or even herbs that some would call weeds. Often the herbs that we need the most are growing right in our backyards. Many herbalists believe that herbs that are indigenous to your local area will be most effective because they share the same space and harmonize best with your energy.

Learning to forage for edible plants in the wild is a valuable skill. When wildcrafting herbs, however, it is important to be able to accurately identify a plant because many medicinal or food herbs look very much like some poisonous plants. In nature, a poisonous plant will almost always have its antidote growing nearby. Two of my favorite books for identifying and using herbs are Peterson’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants by Steven Foster and James Duke, and The How To Herb Book, by Velma Keith and Monteen Gordon. Given these tools and some experience, learning to heal with herbs can be enjoyable and rewarding.