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Terms of the Trade: An Introduction to Herbal Actions

Posted May 15 2009 10:11pm

Herbal actions — it doesn’t sound nearly as exciting or sexy as botanical monographs or the latest cure-all, does it? I’m aware that a fair number of beginning and intermediate herbalists tend to gloss over this particular subject, probably in part because of the typically vague and boring explanations given in many books and classes. What you may not realize though, is that this particular subject is both the foundation of the key to being an effective and insightful herbalist. As jim mcdonald puts it in his own introduction to herbal actions and properties:

“I don’t think I could possibly overstate how important it is to understand the properties by which herbs work. This knowledge is what separates a mediocre herbalist (someone who memorizes the name of a problem and the name of the herb that is listed next to it and says use this for that) from a good herbalist (someone who says, “Ah… dry, enflamed tissues… which mucilaginous herb should I use for this?”)… learn this stuff. Years later, you’ll either be glad you did, or wish you had.”

And while herbal actions ~sounds~ pretty dry, the actual experience and reality of it is very exciting because it has everything to do with the how the plants speak to us through our bodies. In my opinion, there really isn’t anything more appealing than and fascinating than talking to plants!

If you were to check out the list of actions in nearly any herb book, you would likely find them to be an overwhelmingly long list of very short, often cryptic definitions, most of them with the prefix of anti-. There’s usually an enormous amount of overlap and no arrangement of primary and secondary categories, along with a complete lack of consideration for herbal energetics. I’ve always found this to be immensely frustrating, which is exactly why I’ve been writing my Terms of the Trade series for this blog exploring primary actions and now providing this introduction to herbal actions.

You won’t see anti- anything as a primary action in my writings, this is because it’s much easier to understand the herb through what it promotes in the body rather than what it kills or stops. In fact, I would go so far as to say that herbal medicines simply aren’t anti-oriented. Even when they happen to help eliminate bacteria internally or systemically (as opposed to topically on the skin), it’s most often through some kind of enhancement of the native immune process rather than through direct attack on the bacteria itself. This can be hard for modern antibiotic oriented minds to understand. We keep asking ourselves when the bacteria is going to get herb resistant, showing how linearly minded we’ve become and how out of touch with natural processes we tend to be. I feel that the anti- prefixes only reinforces this kind of thought process. Therefore, I attempt to focus on the ~vital~ actions that the herbs excel at and which herbal medicine utilizes so well.

We do need to understand that there are many herbs that, while normally safe and life-enhancing, can be used in a suppressive or dangerous manner in inexperienced or overly forceful hands. A large part of the herbalist’s (and herbs’) job is simply to remove obstructions in the path of the anima (vital force) so that the body can do what it does best: heal, balance and thrive. Also, herbs that work primarily on a constituent-based physiological basis (think narcotics) are often best left to acute situations in the hands of experienced herbalists. The plants I DO talk about here should not be thought of any less powerful than ones such as Opium Poppy or Henbane. To the contrary, I consider plants that act in a nourishing, vitality increasing way to be far superior to those of limited usage and potentially dangerous, although both can be useful in the proper context.

Learning the Language of the Plants

Herbs are dynamic, living beings, as are we. Both the human body and the plants have the ability and tendency to adapt as needed. For this reason, there’s a fair amount of unpredictability involved in herbalism (much to the chagrin of the scientific and mainstream medical industry), but the perceptive herbalist will learn to recognize what is most likely to happen with certain herbs and what is most likely to happen with certain people, and not get attached to the idea of one herb creating the exact same effect in every person. A rose is a rose is a rose, but in one person the Rose may help them to feel relaxed and joyful and in another person it may trigger a sensation of physical coldness or even cause them to feel jittery and spaced out. The usefulness of understanding energetics and actions, is that it helps even the less experienced herbalist to better see what will likely happen in a relationship between any given herb and person.

Energetics and actions are not lists of correspondences and memorizable terms, but rather a mode of perception through our senses. A way of listening to the language of the plants with our bodies.

Herbal actions are the general tendency of the herbs in the body. They are not set and unchangeable but rather a continually adapting relationship between human and plant. Yes, astringency will always tighten the tissues, but how much and where will vary greatly depending on which plant, what other plants it might be mixed with, where that plant grew, when it was harvested, how it was processed, and so on.… it will also depend on the constitution and condition of the individual who ingests, the climate they live in and how they ingest it. Beyond that, there is the less tangible territory of intent and the subtleties between the person and the plant. Our emotions, state of mind, modes of perception and open-heartedness all play a large part in how everything around us enters and effects us, not least the plants we evolved beside and have allied with for millennia.
Actions are our perception and description of how the herbs effect the anima that flows through us. In most cases, the plants are encouraging our body to remove obstructions to the vital force (through stimulating circulation or diaphoreses or digestion, by modulating the immune system, by feeding the nervous or endocrine systems, by relaxing the muscles or countless other ways).

Primary & Secondary Actions

Primary actions indicate that the action is the foundational tendency of the herb in the human body, often deriving directly from its energetic propensities like astringent or demulcent. Secondary actions are those specific to certain organ systems like pectoral (lungs) or hepatic (liver). There is yet another category of actions (the anti- actions, I call them) that are dependent on the remedy’s ability to kill certain organisms, suppress or stimulate a function of the human body such as anti-fungal or narcotic or sudorific — we won’t be dealing with this third class much here because these plants are often poisons of varying degrees and thus depress vital function.

The easiest and often most accurate way to discern the action of any given plant is through our senses. The sensory input an herb gives us through taste, smell, texture and color can provide us with very specific insight into what the herb will likely do in the human body and in many cases, even ~how~ it will do it. This is the way the plants speak to us (and indeed the whole world, if we’re paying attention.

Previous and future posts on specific actions indicate how determine each action through the senses. A future post will also cover basic energetics and their relationship to actions.

Our Responsibility

While the plants possess an extraordinary amount of innate intelligence, it is up to us listen and observe closely enough to know which plants are needed in what way and amount. All humans have the inborn ability to do so, and it is the calling of the herbalist to specialize in this matchmaking process. We are not just well-trained pharmacists or researchers who can recite lists and cures from books, but sensitive practitioners with one hand on the human pulse and the other in the soil.

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