Weaving Together the Patterns of Herbs: Using Materia Medica to its Fullest Potential

Home herbalism is who we are and how our families work, healing practiced around the kitchen table around the world and across the centuries. Thank the Good Green Earth that home herbalism happens as a reflex, intuition built on a foundation of herbal fluency that allows us to live as herbalists in every moment. Let us explore the creation of family remedies, including children’s health, nursing parents and their babes, pregnancy & postpartum from a radical perspective, and generally hexing the patriarchy from the comfort of your own home. In the last installment of this column, we established some foundational principles of home herbalism; this time we will dive deeper to develop our skills.

Given the limits of the home apothecary and the wide-ranging needs of family and community, how do we pick the right herb for the moment we’re living in?  Climbing out of the trap of “this herb for headaches, that one for sleep” allows the home herbalist to reach the next level of understanding that can be seen from the corner of your mind’s eye, but is still outside your grasp.

Collecting individual herbs one at a time, adding them to our basket as we need them—what can I use for this rash?—gives us a limited understanding of their broader usefulness, in that each herb has the potential to be useful in myriad ways far beyond that single use. Instead, let us use materia medica to organize herbs into broad categories and rely on our critical thinking abilities to recognize patterns.

The most basic premise of critical thinking in this context is “where/when/how have I seen this before? what did it do, how long did it take, what else happened?” Asking yourself this question engages your beautiful brain’s pattern recognition problem-solving magic powers. Even if you know the answer intuitively, practice engaging this part of your mind at every opportunity to hardwire pattern recognition into your process; that way, when you need it, it’s ready for you.

If herbs are in categories, we can narrow the categories down using patterns that are increasingly specific to use our medicines to their fullest potential in formulas, as well as substituting willy-nilly and hither and yon. If you want calendula right this minute but you only have comfrey, yarrow, and plantain, you can probably muddle through.

Just as Linnaeus divided up plants based on reproductive structures, thus creating a replicable taxonomic pattern, whatever categories we create must be recognizable and repeatable, otherwise they are not useful on a long term basis.

Materia medica organizes herbs in a top-down manner, with the broadest category at the top and the most specific at the bottom. Instead of having an herb for each issue you’re likely to run up against as a home herbalist, use readily available materia medica to learn the broad categories that each of your herbs belongs to, then get more specific from there. This allows you to use each herb more intentionally and effectively. Next time someone tells you that they know herbs don’t work because they tried valerian and it kept them up all night, you will be able to confidently recommend hops (and don’t be condescending, being a jerk is not their fault, it’s probably genetic) because of your understanding of actions, indications, and energetics (and your perception that their pitta is way out of control or they wouldn’t be bothering you with their mishegoss anyway).

Looking for herbal patterns also gives you flexibility within your own apothecary by letting you substitute this for that when you need to. Let’s say you have a kid who can’t sleep and you’re out of the California poppy you usually give, if you are fluent in the patterns of herbs in your apothecary you might choose to give catnip and chamomile instead, because you understand actions and indications so you can pull out another soothing nervine that’s safe for kids like the magical fairy herbmother you are.
Herbal actions are the first, broadest category, and describe what an herb might be used for in the broadest sense. They are big categories that have lots of herbs in each of them. Generally, herbs have multiple actions. The long lists of actions can be a little overwhelming on materia medica, but when you start to find the patterns among them and learn how they work together actions become very helpful for winnowing down the world of possibilities between you and your remedy.

A small sample (there are many more): IMG_0865

  • Hypnotic
  • Nervine
  • Adaptogen
  • Antispasmodic
  • Bitter
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Astringent
  • Immune Stimulant
  • Expectorant
  • Decongestant
  • Febrifuge
  • Diaphoretic
  • Demulcent
  • Vulnerary
  • Galactagogue

These are broad categories: nervine simply means an herb that works on the nervous system, the qualification that it is “calming” or “stimulating” comes later. To refine our broad categories we look to specific indications, energetics, and contraindications. The idea is to be able to say to yourself, “I need a nervine,” and then progress to “I need a calming nervine, specific for anxiety, that is cooling and dispersing to a pitta type anxiety and safe for pregnancy.” Or, very usefully in the home apothecary, “I’m out of the thing I wanted, but I can use this other herb instead, since it’s also an anti-inflammatory adaptogen specific for the GI.” Or even, since you’ve been looking for patterns, “I need a diuretic—I wonder if this anti-inflammatory might also have diuretic action? Let’s look up what Michael Moore says.” and BAM you’re a secret genius.

Herbs have multiple actions, which allows for simpler, stronger, more appropriate formulations. When choosing the herbs for a remedy, try to choose fewer herbs that address more issues, as opposed to a single herb for each issue. Many actions appear together often, which is useful for formulations. For instance, many anti-inflammatory herbs are also diuretics, because the kidneys play a large role in inflammation. Learning these patterns of actions gives you the ability to learn herbs faster and more intuitively. This may be counterintuitive, studying materia medica to improve intuitive healing, but it helps by yielding fertile ground to grow from. You can often see the specific indications coming if you understand which herbal actions hang out together. For instance, herbs that are astringent and anti-inflammatory will be good for both sore throats and IBS. Herbs that are astringent and diuretics, or diuretics and antimicrobials, are good for UTI’s. Herbs that are adaptogen and nervine are good for people prone to chronic stress, whereas herbs that are nervine and anxiolytic help people prone to panic attacks.

Specific Indications
Specific Indications are the next category, literally more specific to tell you exactly when an herb is called for. They are used to qualify or explain herbal actions. For instance, wild yam and ginger are both antispasmodics, but ginger is specific for the stomach whereas wild yam is specific for the uterus.

Remember the principle of holism: everything is connected. Concurrent problems have the same or a related root cause, even if it’s just the stress of one condition opening the door for another. Finding an herb with the most appropriate specific indications leads to success. Most herbs specific for nursing also protect against common postpartum conditions like postpartum depression, mineral depletion (i.e. dental problems), liver overload, or circadian rhythm disruption, so choosing a galactagogue that addresses other concurrent issues can be accomplished by thinking about specific indications. Young children’s digestive tracts play a major role in their immunity, so an herb like thyme that is an immune stimulant specific for the respiratory tract and digestive systems can be of particular use (as an oxymel, just try it, it’s amazing!)

Energetics is a set of descriptive vocabulary useful for talking about people, problems, & herbs. Energetics is about how something feels or its essence, as opposed to what it does (that’s the action). This is super specific and used to qualify actions and indications so you get a really clear picture. The basic concept is easily understood through taste: think of the difference between cayenne and cucumber and you’ve got the general idea.

Energetics is one of the huge obvious differences between traditional medicine and modern medicine: all schools of traditional medicine use some form of energetic patterns, whereas modern medicine lacks this sort of vocabulary entirely (and would greatly benefit; just ask anyone who’s been on 4 or 5 different antidepressants before they found one that worked). I think this might be why many home herbalists and students struggle with energetics, since they didn’t grow up with it as a concept. Also, it’s pretty abstract and can get esoteric in its more complex iterations. But rest assured: the rabbit hole of energetics is only as deep as you want it to be; my rabbit hole goes to Nanjing, but yours doesn’t have to.

This is not the place for an exhaustive dissection of varying energetics systems; suffice it to say, there are many different systems of energetics, from the very simple to the very complex. It doesn’t matter which system you use, as long as you apply pattern recognition consistently. I usually recommend people start with the 4 Qualities since they’re very straightforward, but whatever flavor floats your boat floats mine too.

If you’re using herbs with children, pregnant people, or the elderly, know that their innate energetics are subtler and more gentle than other age groups and therefore easier to tip out of balance if you overdo it, so start with herbs that are close to energetically neutral or gently expressive.

Super Basic 4 Qualities

Warm: red, swollen, tender, & hot to the touch; excess or accelerated function & movement

Infection, heartburn, allergies, diarrhea
elecampane, northern prickly ash, cayenne

Cool: inactive; stuck; heavy; movement frozen; poor circulation or sensation

Muscle knots, constipation, sinus congestion, diabetic neuropathy
Borage, peppermint

Damp: fluids & swelling involved, can be warm or cool

Sore throat may be warm & damp; a stuck, phlegmy cough may be cool & damp
demulcents like marshmallow & comfrey

Dry: not enough moisture; poor nutrition; weak function where lubrication is important

Acne may be warm & dry; anorexia or nutrition deficiency might be cool & dry
lavender, astringents like witch hazel & goldenrod

Again, not an exhaustive explanation by any means, but there are any number of excellent resources on this topic (like this magazine in your hands right now). The point is just to use some form of energetic thinking to narrow down which herbs are the best fit.

Contraindications & Cautions
Contraindications are situations where an herb is not indicated, either because of a potential interaction or a potential bad outcome. Some contraindications are known: an herb that is an abortifacient is contraindicated in pregnancy because it could cause an unwanted abortion. Licorice is used with caution when high blood pressure or kidney disease is an issue because of fluid retention. Others are suspected: an herb that depresses the central nervous system could potentially cause serious problems (including respiratory depression) if it was taken with a pharmaceutical that did the same thing, so check first. Others are purely hypothetical: an herb may be contraindicated in pregnancy because rats walked strangely after having massive amounts injected into their backs. It’s important to understand that some contraindications are absolutely critical to follow and others are simply moments to pause and consider carefully. More details here!

Instead of getting caught up in contraindications as a fear thing, especially if you’re using herbs with children or pregnant people, it’s helpful to think of them as the final detail in the organizational framework: suddenly contraindications become so useful! Often, they help us choose between 2 or 3 herbs: this one is good for kids, this one isn’t; this one stimulates the liver so is iffy with the psych med, that one is metabolized by the kidneys and should be fine.

Using Materia Medica as an Organizational Framework

There’s no lack of discussion on characteristics of herbs. Let’s turn the voluminous materia medica at your disposal into a useful, concrete method of choosing herbs, using the following framework.

1. What’s the problem?
Figure out what issues you will address, then determine appropriate herbal actions. Use critical thinking: where have you seen it before, what happened, what helped, how is this time different from that time, etc.
Example: for a stomachache, use actions including carminative, anti-spasmodic, laxative, or anti-inflammatory, depending on what the problem is

2. What else is happening at the same time?
Example: stress
Determine appropriate herbal actions again
Consider patterns: what actions often accompany the actions you need, and could they be helpful here?
nervine, adaptogen, anxiolytic
Do any herbs have most or all the herbal actions you need?
There are many nervines that are also carminative, antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, etc.

Now you’ve gone from a million herbs down to a few. Of those, ask yourself:
3. Which herbs are specifically indicated for the condition you’re working with, or are known to have an affinity for the body system in question?
Eliminate the ones that don’t, and now you’re left with just a couple.
chamomile, peppermint, lavender, catnip…

4. Which combo will best help restore balance, without overcompensating?
Consider the energetics of the person, the problem, and the plants you’re thinking of using. Is this a person who tends towards heat, with a problem of serious excess heat (think ulcer or diarrhea), or perhaps the same person with a problem of excess dry & cool (like bloating & constipation). Both stomach aches, but different herbs are appropriate.

5. Are the herbs in question safe for the person you want to give them to? Are there any relevant contraindications?

6. Critical thinking check-back
Look back at the beginning and question yourself. Is this the right herb or formula for this problem in this person? If you’ve got a kid with a stress stomachache at bedtime, catnip is perfect since it will help her relax into sleep, but if that stress stomachache is roiling and boiling at 10 am you might go with cooling, enlivening peppermint instead; if it includes anxiety-induced constipation you may think of fennel’s anti-spasmodic seedy fiber, or if it is accompanied by throbbing temples, lavender’s cooling release of tension.

Apply critical thinking skills to check your work, using pattern recognition within the framework of materia medica: “where have I seen this before? what did it do, how long did it take, what else happened?” Have you chosen herbs with known affinities for the body systems in question, specifically indicated, energetically appropriate, and with a tradition of use? Intentionally question your work to engage all the dimensions of your incredible brain.

Aspire to Flourish

The human brain is built for pattern recognition and critical thinking; we have far greater abilities than we are ever aware of. Allow your innate pattern recognition skills to winnow down the choices until the perfect herb becomes clear, honing your skills with every linament and vinegar, soup and steam and percolation you create. Don’t be intimidated by the great abundance of materia medica: instead,

Recognize the potential of thousands of herbs calling out to be known, and allow your apothecary to flourish as your aspirations grow toward the sun.

This article was originally published in Heart & Hearth, my Plant Healer Magazine column on Radical Family Herbalism.  Link in the sidebar to subscribe to the magazine and support my work!

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