Herbal Properties and Actions
EGAD! This (below) is old and not up to my
current thinking, which I've been elaborating on in
depth in Plant Healer Magazine; you can get a pdf
file containing 100 pages (and formatted for
printing out and binding) from me for $10 if you'd
like to see the more refined telling of my take on
energetics and actions; just drop me an email and
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?”).
Understanding these properties opens up new worlds
of possibility to the herbal student. It
allows one to more deeply understand the herbs
they’re using, and see patterns in both plants and
people more clearly. It also clears up
that head scratching that occurs when you’re reading
herbal books and have no idea what they’re referring
to when they say “anticatarrhal”.
While you could go
through this list and try to memorize terms and
definitions, the best way to gain an understanding
of this material is to do so experientially.
You can read what an astringent is, or you can chew
on a green banana peel or wild geranium root and know from experience.
Or you can understand that a mucilage is a viscid,
slippery carbohydrate, but making a strong infusion
of Marshmallow or Slippery Elm and playing around
with the resulting goo will allow you to not only
understand with your head, but with your body as
well. And who would want to pass up the
opportunity to compare and contrast the varying
degrees of bitter?
So… learn this stuff.
Years later, you’ll either be glad you did, or wish
I should state that while I've presented these initial
energetic considerations as polarities (hot/cold,
dry/damp, tense/lax), there are so many
exceptions and distinctions to be made when
practically applying these concepts that visualizing
these qualities on opposing ends of a spectrum is
going to cause confusion and frustration and teeth
gnashing. As an example, we could say that
demulcent herbs are moistening and astringent herbs
are drying, but while moistening and drying is a
polarity, astringents and demulcents are not...
astringents are really the opposite of relaxants,
If you don't get that, please read on, and hopefully I
can clear up and elucidate herbal energetics into
the rather commonsense recognition of patterns that
hot ~ cold
It is clear that some herbs are warming and some are
cooling. Give anyone some cayenne pepper and,
given the two options, they're sure to pick
correctly. Same goes for iceberg lettuce, or
cucumbers... they're just clearly cooling, and
you're likely to find wide agreement on this fact.
But, as you move in from the extremes to the middle
ground, you'll start to see differences of opinion,
even among the wisest of plant people. To me,
that just makes sense, in the same way that everyone
will agree that Palm Springs, California in July is
hot and Lake Superior in late March is really very
cold. But put them in a "room temperature"
hotel and any group of two or more will often
disagree as to whether its a bit warm or a bit
chill. When learning to apply the ideas of
"heating" and "cooling" to herbs, start with the
obvious extremes and work you way in.
Still, there are some general observations about these
two categories that can be clarifying and offer
generally speed up processes, increase peripheral
circulation, are generally stimulating in
slow down processes, soothe either irritations or
damp ~ dry
Imbalances in the body are often characteristically
dry or damp. This applies throughout the body,
but nowhere, perhaps, is it as readily discernable
as in the respiratory tract, since when someone
coughs, you can often clearly hear which end of the
spectrum is manifest. Likewise, the herbs we
use tend to possess either a drying or moistening
As it turns out, most herbs are drying,
can vary greatly not only in degree, but in nature
of the "dryness" they impart. Drying herbs tend to
cause dryness via one of two processes:
1.) They result in the release of fluids from the
body, like diuretics (fluid lost through pee),
diaphoretics (fluid lost through sweat), bitters
(fluid lost through bile), galactagogues (fluid lost
through breastmilk), emmenogogues (fluid lost
through blood), sialogogues (fluid lost through
drool), expectorants/decongestants (fluid lost
through mucous), emetics (fluid lost through vomit),
aphrodisiacs (fluid lost through... you probably get the picture).
But, of course, we need to thicken the plot a bit...
The same drying herbs that release fluids from the
body in some ways moisten tissues as the
fluids are released. For example, the skin will go from dry to
moist with the use of an appropriate diaphoretic.
This, though, is a local and transient phenomenon,
one to be utilized for a limited duration of time; if it makes you secrete a fluid or stimulates some
type of evacuation, it’s still constitutionally drying,
because there is less fluid in the body as a result
of its action. But sometimes just establishing
- or reestablishing - the flow of fluids through a
given tissue will restore proper function, and with
Another consideration is that the "dampness" in the
body calling for the use of this class of "drying"
herbs can often be seen as a "stagnation" of some
sort. By stimulating the flow of fluids
associated with a given organ, system or tissue, we
help to break up that stagnation and resolve the
problems that go along with it; as a general rule of
thumb, anywhere you have stagnation in the body, you
have an imbalance that needs to be addressed.
2.) Astringents are considered drying. This is both
a correct and misleading way to understand what they
do. Astringent herbs don't really cause the loss of
fluids from the body... in fact, they often are used
to help retain fluid from being lost (for example,
blackberry root being used to stop diarrhea,
shepherd's purse to staunch uterine bleeding, or
staghorn sumach to help resolve excessive urination). But a
simple taste of an astringent leaves the mouth (i.e.
the mucous membranes) dry (think about the dryness
you get from sipping green tea, or from taking a
bite of a too green banana). What astringents do is
restore tone to tissues by causing them to
constrict. It is this constriction - generally of the
outer surface of the tissues - causes dryness. In
western herbalism, these herbs were sometimes referred to as
"tonics": herbs that restored tone to tissues. In
most cases, short term use of astringents causes a
localized dryness, while helping to preserve fluids
constitutionally. Prolonged use, however, or the use
of very strong astringents can constrict tissues too
much (and not just on the surface), and in doing so
impairs their proper function by both robbing them
of fluids and impairing their ability to absorb or
So we might say that "drying herbs" that cause
loss of fluids from the body a constitutionally
drying while sometimes moistening locally, and
astringents are locally drying while they initially
help to retain fluids on a constitutional
level... this distinction is exceptionally
important, as lumping together these differing
qualities under the simplified assessment "drying"
can lead to inappropriate use or inappropriate
That insight is worth re-reading until you get it.
generally come in four types:
1.) Demulcent/emollient herbs that moisten via
mucilage. We should be aware, though, that this is not always a direct effect
of the mucilage coming into contact with tissues. In the GI tract, there's a
moistening effect via contact, but this isn't the
case with, say, the lungs. Still, mucilages almost
universally moisten mucous membranes, even if they
don't come into contact with them. Degrees to which
mucilaginous herbs moisten is roughly proportional
to how mucilaginous they are; slippery elm and
marshmallow a very mucilaginous and very moistening,
plantain is mildly mucilaginous and mildly
moistening. Sassafras and violet leaves are in
2.) "Sweet tonics" are mildly moistening. Think of
tonic" in the TCM sense - herbs like American Ginseng, Codonopsis, licorice.
3.) Herbs rich in fixed oils (think
of most seeds and nuts), or that affect oil
utilization are moistening. Flax (the freshly
ground seeds, not the probably rancid oil), in
addition to fixed oils is rich in mucilage, and so
especially useful. Some herbs may not
actually contain a lot of fixed oils, but somehow
help in there optimal utilization. Burdock is
an example of an herb that affects oil utilization.
Also, we should consider the incredibly important
role of Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids found in wild
fatty fish, wild game, and other animals with a free
ranging wild eating lifestyle.
4.) Some warming, oily aromatics can moisten, if
only superficially. Angelica and Osha are examples.
This may seem strange, because
these are herbs that are generally used to treat wet
coughs (and they do indeed have a notable drying
action). But they are really oily
herbs, and the moisture they offer is oil moisture,
not water moisture. So, if someone needs water
moisture, they won't help much and might aggravate,
but if someone needs oil moisture for some acute
situation, they can be very
helpful. I (who tends to be dry) can use these
without much aggravation, but their potential to
aggravate if there's water dryness can be tempered
by adding a bit of mucilage. A practical
example of this is to use Osha on a dry cough; the
mucous dries up, but the lung tissues are moistened
to a degree by the clearance of Osha's antimicrobial
Tissues can become too tense, or too lax/weak.
Tension or spasm in
tissues impedes the flow of the circulation and the
body's vital energy. Relaxants are usually
called for here... normally people refer to these as
"antispasmodics", but I feel that relaxants more faithfully
conveys the nature of there action: they relax
resistance to the healthy flow of energy in the
body. Aromatic herbs can ease tension via
their inherently dispersive nature (think of
chamomile relieving tension and expelling gas in the
gut), acrid herbs are often notable antispasmodics
(kava and lobelia being notable here), and stinky/skunky
smelling herbs (valerian, cannabis, poppy) are often
pain relievers and sedatives, helping to resolve
tension as a reaction to pain.
also consider that demulcents can result in a
lessening of tension, because dry tissues are more prone
to be tight; just think about an old, dried out
piece of leather; it lacks pliability and gets "stiff".
In such a case, the strongest antispasmodics
available will do little good if the underlying
cause of dryness is not addressed. On a
similar note, nervine herbs will be needed if
tension arises from mental stress of agaitation.
Laxity or weakness
in tissues calls for astringents, as astringents help to cause the tissues to constrict
and tighten up; think of the puckering, tightening
sensation you get if you eat a banana that's not
ripe enough, or the milder expression of this that
accompanies sipping on green tea. Prolapse is
a form of laxity (think about the way a balloon
looks that's been blown up for a week and then
deflated). Other tissues may get "spongy" when
they lose tone (such as the gums or prostates).
In William Cook's Physio-Medical Dispensatory, he
discusses the difference between herbs he calls "diffusives"
"Impressions made upon the nerves are conveyed with
rapidity. Sometimes, this rapidity may be so
great as almost to resemble a shock. Hence
agents that are principally conveyed by the nerves,
manifest themselves speedily; while those that act
principally by absorption, are more tardy in working
their effects. A great many agents act through
both media, and that in every conceivable ratio;
hence these may first manifest a prompt, sudden
action, which will apparently have passed away, and
subsequently be absorbed, and make a renewal of the
original impression in a less intense but more
persistent manner. Agents acting principally
on the nerves are, therefore, more diffusive
and transient, while those relying upon the slower
process of absorption are more permanent.
These terms are, of course, merely relative; for
some agents which are absorbed (as capsicum) may
first make a diffusive impression through the
nerves, and follow this by an influence of a slower
and more persistent kind through the entire frame.
But, while this nomenclature is not absolute, it is
sufficiently explicit to warrant its general use -
employing the terms only as referring to time,
and not to extent."
An interesting example of this relationship is found
in Burdock; the seeds are diffusive, while the root
Aromatic herbs are those that contain strong smelling
volatile essential oils. These oils tend to be
anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and are
“dispersive” in nature, which is to say that they
help break up stagnation of all sorts. This
can be respiratory congestion, intestinal gas, or
even cluttered minds & cloudy thinking.
Although not exclusively so, aromatics are often
relaxants, acting perhaps as antispasmodics to help
relieve tension and spasm, perhaps as calming
nerviness to allay nervous stress and anxiety (and
frequently both). Though it sounds strange to say,
aromatic herbs are also very often stimulating, and
some are both relaxant and stimulant (to wrap your
head around this apparent contradiction, try
vigorously scratching your head. You’ll find that
any tension there is relaxed, but that the
scratching also stimulates increased blood & energy
flow). Aromatics often act as diuretics as well, as
the volatile oils are processed by the kidneys,
which find them irritating and increase urine output
to “flush” them out of the body. This is what
provides aromatic’s antimicrobial effect; the
antiseptic oils in the urine bathe the tissues of
the urinary system as they are swept out of the body. Examples are innumerable…
Sage and Fennel are a couple.
Astringents are herbs that cause tissue to contract,
and so are indicated when tissues are weak, atonic
and/or “leaking” (the tissues don’t have the tone
they need to hold in fluids), swollen or injured.
They may be used to
stop bleeding (In which case they are called
A good way to conceptualize tissues that need
“astringing” is to think about a balloon that’s been
blown up and emptied out so many times it’s lost its
resiliency; the latex is weakened and lax. Or,
sometimes weak tissues get "spongy" (think of
spongy, bleeding gums).
Most people are quite familiar with astringency…
that bite of green banana that you thought was ripe
enough? That sensation of puckering and dryness is
astringency. The strength of astringent herbs varies
widely, from the very gentle strawberry to the
moderate green tea to the significantly strong oak.
Pretty much all things that taste sour are
astringent to some degree.
Astringents are generally considered “drying” in
nature because of the sensation they offer, though
they can help the body retain fluid on a larger
scale by preventing excessive urination caused by
weak renal tissues. They have a local
anti-inflammatory action, and can also act as
antimicrobials by toning tissues, they make it
harder for bacteria to adhere to them. Cranesbill, Sumach, Oak,
and most of the rose family are examples.
Herbs containing mucilage are referred to as
“demulcents” when used internally, and “emollients”
when applied externally. Mucilage refers to a
carbohydrate that, when moistened with water,
becomes viscid and slimy. Michigan herbalist Joyce
Wardwell calls these herbs “slimaceous”, which is
both an appropriate and memorable term. Mucilaginous
herbs lubricate tissues, ease dryness, and soothe
inflammation, irritation and injury. Though it makes
sense that demulcents coat tissues, the physical
mucilage is actually very poorly absorbed by the
body, and certainly isn’t traveling through the
blood to the kidneys. Rather, the ingestion of
mucilage seems to promote a systemic moistening of
tissues throughout the body, with some demulcents
being more specific to particular organ systems.
Mucilages can help loosen/relax tissues that are
tight due to dryness. Slippery Elm and
Marshmallow are archetypal.
regarding astringents and demulcents…
Because astringents are generally considered
“drying” and mucilaginous herbs considered
“moistening”, it can seem confusing to use them
together (which is often done) and even more
confusing that some herbs are both astringent and
demulcent. To wrap your head around this seeming
contradiction, don’t view astringent/dry –
mucilage/moisten as opposite ends of a polarity...
that simplification doesn’t work. Instead, consider
that astringents tighten and tone, and demulcents
coat and soothe. The moistening effect of the
demulcents is perfectly appropriate to balance the
dryness that comes with astringency, and the
lubrication offered protects the tissues as they are
stimulate the secretion of of pretty much all the digestive acids, juices
and enzymes, which generally improves appetite &
digestion, especially of fats/oils/lipids.
They also increase absorption of nutrients by
supporting the processes that breakdown and absorb
nutrients. Bitters stimulate tissue repair in
the GI, and also can have a mood
stabilizing/"antidepressant" effect by increasing
the production of mood related hormones by the
enteric nervous system in the gut. They have a
grounding, downward energy. You
must taste bitters to receive their medicinal
virtues. There are nutritive bitters
(dandelion greens), aromatic bitters (Calamus),
bittersweet bitters (Celastrus), and just plain
bitter bitters (Boneset).
”Relaxant” is a term
commonly used in Eclectic and Physiomedical herbal
texts. It does not refer to herbs that
are sedative, but rather herbs that relax contracted
tissues, such as antispasmodics. This doesn’t
seem confusing, but when you look up and herb in
Cook’s Physiomedical Dispensatory and it says “this
herb is stimulating and mildly relaxing”, you get
kind of disoriented. What such a sentence
means is that the herb stimulates activity and
relaxes resistance to that activity. Lobelia is a famous one.
Here’s a doosey of a
term. Obviously, stimulants stimulate
activity. However, while nowadays people
almost always associate stimulants with caffeine,
Ephedra and other cerebral or metabolic stimulants,
most old herbal texts use the word stimulant to
describe an herb that stimulates activity of any
sort of tissue or process... sialagogues are
An herb's primary actions are those that correlate
directly to an system, organ, or tissue. While
the energetics of the herb aren't indicated by the
name of the primary action, we can determine these
rather simply by pondering which foundational
actions are represented. So, "expectorant" is
a primary action, because it relates to the lungs
and respiratory system. But all on it's own,
we can't know who to give what expectorant to.
So we break expectorants into categories based on
foundational actions: aromatic expectorants,
demulcent expectorants, relaxing expectorants,
stimulating expectorants, bitter expectorants
(hmm... not as many), and astringent expectorants
(how often do we use astringents specifically for
Here are some primary actions:
adaptogens (affecting the neuroendocrine system)
(affecting the metabolism)
trophorestoratives (each herb acting on a specific
diaphoretics (affecting the immune & endocrine
diuretics (affecting the urinary system)
expectorants (affecting the respiratory system)
lymphatics (affecting... really, I shouldn't have to
(affecting the nervous & limbic systems)
(affecting the digestive system)
(each releasing a fluid from a gland)
vulneraries (affecting the skin/mucosa)
Again, for each of these actions, we'd consider the
plants unique conbination of foundational actions to
understand it's energetic indications.
An herb's secondary actions can be said, more or less,
to be a simple statement about the end result of
using an herb, without any indication given as to
how or where this action manifests. As an
example, people often refer to an herb as possessing
an "anti-inflammatory action". While this
tells us something of what might be achieved by
using the plant, it really tells us very little
else. Is the herb anti-inflammatory because it
contains a mucilage that coats and soothes enflamed
tissues? Or perhaps its astringent?
Maybe the anti-inflammatory agent resides in the
plants aromatic oils, or maybe it contains salicin or some other compound that inhibits
inflammation... we don't know. We don;t know
whether the herb is warming or cooling, we don;t
know what system(s) it works on. We just know
that somehow, inflammation is reduced.
It is in all of these differing possibilities that the
answer to the question, "How do I choose the right
anti-inflammatory for this person expressing these
specific symptoms lies. So, if you know a
plant possesses some secondary action, try to
understand which primary actions lead it to this
Most of our secondary actions start with "anti-"...
anodynes describe herbs that ease or relieve pain.
They may do this through a variety of mechanisms;
for example, antispasmodics, anti-inflammatories and
herbs containing salicylic acid are all anodynes.
Willow & Black Cohosh are examples of
analgesic/anodyes. Narcotics inhibit central
nervous system activity, and are generally dangerous
in excess. Opium and Henbane are examples… not
for the home herbalist.
Antacids are herbs
that contain constituents that bind with and
neutralize acids. These herbs are usually used
in the treatment of heartburn, and include
Chamomile, Fennel and Peach. Some, such as
Meadowsweet, are also astringent, and have the added
benefit of strengthening a weakened sphincter that
is allowing stomach acids to escape into the
esophagus, as well as helping to heal any
ulcerations that have resulted from this.
These herbs help
resolve congestion arising from excess mucous
production (“catarrh” being mucous), as in
sinusitis. Often, they are astringents
(which tighten tissues to lessen secretions) and/or
contain volatile oils (which disperse congestion).
Goldenrod and Goldenseal are anticatarrhal.
Obviously, herbs that
help resolve inflammation. This action may be
the result of mucilages that coat and soothe
inflamed tissues (Slippery Elm), astringents that
tighten tissues (Vinca), or of constituents like
salicylic acid (Meadowsweet).
“Lithiasis” refers to the production of “stones” or
“gravel”; precipitations of minerals in the body
that (for the most part) cause excruciating pain
that most agree rivals or surpasses childbirth. In
reference to the urinary system, this would include
not only kidney stones but also gout and some types
of nonspecific joint pain. Antilithics are therefore
understood to be herbs that in some manner or
another help to resolve this condition. This can be
achieved in a number of ways.
In a sense, any diuretic herb is going to be
antilithic to a certain degree, because it increases
the volume of urine and helps flush stones from the
body. Demulcents, by causing the
moistening/lubrication of urinary tissues, helps as
well to facilitate the expulsion of stones.
Relaxants help ease resistance to the stones
But some plants are considered specifically
“antilithic”, in addition to other actions that may
be related. These herbs are sometimes said to
“dissolve” stones. This, I feel, is a special
action, but one that requires some looking into. It
is probably unlikely that any herb will reliably
dissolve a stone that’s being passed like salt or
sugar dissolving in water. There just doesn’t seem
to be evidence that this occurs with any reliability
(though I do account to exceptions). However, I do
think that some herbs can help to dissolve stones to
a degree. This might result in taking some of the
sharper edges off a stone, or perhaps breaking a
large stone into smaller, easier to pass pieces.
Herbs I’d consider specifically antilithic include
goldenrod, queen anne’s lace, gravel root & burdock
refer to “antibiotics” and “antivirals”.
Antimicrobial is a more general term that refers to
herbs that kill or inhibit invading microorganisms,
without specifically referring to which type of
microorganism the herbs are active against.
The mechanisms by which they work are too varied to
These herbs kill
worms and parasites. They should be used
when they are needed, and not based upon
the mistaken belief that we’re all full of parasites
that are causing all of mankind’s ills. Black
Walnut is probably the most widely used.
Herbs that kill or
inhibit the growth of fungi. Cedar, Wild
Bergamot and Black Walnut come to mind. They
most often require consistent, long term use to work
Herbs that prevent
bacterial growth. “Septic” infections are
usually considered “damp”, being purulent (having
puss)… staph-type infections. Echinacea and
Wild Indigo are antiseptics.
Herbs that help
inhibit the growth of tumors. Red Clover is
These herbs are
applied topically and have an irritating and/or
heating effect on the skin. By causing local
irritation, these plants draw the attention of the
body (usually via blood) to the area they are
applied, and so initiate a healing response.
Cayenne and Arnica are popular counter irritants.
Some plants that have been used as counter
irritants, such as Buttercups, are exceedingly
strong and will blister the skin.