I was 50 before I began to study under a teacher that was not my family. Eventually, I was asked to teach herbalism. My experience with herbs up to this point had been learning from working in the garden with my dad or grandma. To teach others I need more formal information, which led me to books, lots of them! As I read, I realized the topic of herbs had its own language and a working glossary would be quite helpful.

Mom taught me that if you want to understand a new topic read the glossary first. That way you understand what you are reading. When it comes to herbs there are many different glossaries on many sub-topics. I cherry-picked the most used or important ones to make a basic glossary for myself and my students. This glossary was the first lesson I taught my students and is broken down into categories. It has proved useful over time as a quick reference that I keep in the front of my own herbal notebook, maybe it will be useful for you too.


I begin with types of concoctions which is how something is prepared as you combine ingredients.


COMPRESS: Is a piece of cloth soaked in herbal decoction and applied externally with pressure.

DECOCTION: An herbal dose obtained by boiling or simmering a certain weight of herb in a measured liquid for a specified amount of time.

A standard decoction is made with 1 oz of herb to 2 ½ cups of liquid (usually distilled water), Bring the liquid to a boil then add the herb and simmer for 30 minutes. By this time the liquid should have reduced by half. If more has evaporated, top with liquid to make 1 ¼ cups This reduction method is typically used for the tougher parts of the plant, roots, bark, stems, and seeds. For a leaf type tea, the reduction step is not needed nor desired.

MACERATING: Is for herbs that may lose some of their therapeutic value if heated. They can be steeped in oil, vinegar, or alcohol.

Pack a glass jar with crushed fresh herb, cover with liquid, seal the jar, and leave for two weeks, shaking jar each day.

For a stronger maceration, strain and repeat the process until liquid smells strongly. Use fresh herbs each time you strain. This is a two-week process, not a 4–6-week one like in tinctures.

INFUSION: This is an herbal dose obtained by pouring a certain amount of boiling water over a certain weight of herb and leaving it to steep for a set amount of time.

A standard infusion is 1oz of dried herb to 2 ½ cups of water. The average time to steep, is 5 minutes. Some recipes call for more or less time. Most of us use this method for making a leaf type of tea.

POULTICE: Is a crushed herb that is heated then spread on a cloth that is wrung out then applied to bruised or inflamed skin.

NOTE: The difference between a poultice and a compress, is that a poultice is a crushed herb that is heated then applied without pressure. A compress is a liquid herb, like a tea that is hot or cold that is then applied with pressure, and not wrung out before application.

TINCTURE: This type of concoction is what most of us are familiar with. It is a solution of extracts that are typically obtained by steeping herbs in alcohol, or a combination of water and alcohol. A tincture can also be made with vinegar or a food grade vegetable glycerin.

TONIC: A Tonic is a concoction that stimulates and invigorates the body as a whole or a specific system or organ of the body and is usually a blend of various herbs. These are typically made by steeping herbs in water. I prefer to pack my container with water and herbs and leave them in the sun to warm for a tonic, then I refrigerate them and usually drink them cold like iced tea.

ELIXIR: An elixir is a liquid containing alcohol and medicinal herbs that are sweetened usually with sugar or honey.

NOTE: If you sweeten a tincture, it becomes an elixir, and when you add a tincture to an infusion it becomes a tonic.

OXYMEL: This is a preparation containing honey, water, and vinegar and is used as an expectorant. These are usually 5 parts honey, 1 part water, 1 part vinegar.

EMULSIONS: Emulsions can be tricky, they are a preparation composed of totally un-homogeneous substances that are intimately mixed causing one to be suspended in the other, like the oil and egg in mayo to keep it creamy, or the oil in beeswax.

FOMENTATION: An application of a hot moist substance. Also known as a poultice.

OINTMENT: A solid herbal medication applied externally that softens when applied to soothe the skin like a wax-based concoction.

PLASTER: A medication that is applied externally and covered with a cloth, like comfrey for a bruise.

NOTE: This is different from a poultice because it is not hot, and it is different from a compress because it is not applied with pressure.

UNGUENT: A fatty medicinal preparation for external use that liquefies when applied, typically these will have coconut or olive oil in them. Long ago it was not uncommon to use bear fat, lard, and other like fats for this type of concoction.

ESSENTIAL OILS: An oil present in plants usually containing terpenoids that are extracted by steam distillation.

EAU DES CARMES: This has an interesting history. It is a sleep-inducing remedy produced by the Carmelite Nuns during the Middle Ages. It contained lemon rind, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and coriander in a white wine. I have yet to find an actual recipe for how this was made but I can see it being made as a spiced wine, strained, and served warmed.

DEPURATIVE: an agent that purifies ( can be a type of concoction and an action of an herb)

VULNERARY: These are used in treating wounds ( can be both a type of concoction and an action of an herb)

MELITTA: any liquid medicine mixed with honey instead of syrup.


ACTIONS: Actions are what the herb does.

RUBEFACIENT: These concoctions redden the skin bringing blood or heat to the surface of the skin. Mustard and cinnamon are the more commonly known rubefacients.

ANODYNE: These are the opposite of the rubefacients, they are herbs that are capable of soothing, comforting, calming, or relieving pain.

ANTI-HYDROTIC: An anti-hydrotic, slows the perspiration by reducing the action of the sweat glands which is the opposite of diaphoretic.

ASTRINGENT: This tightens the skin. It is a topical that can help stop bleeding and decrease mucous secretions.

BACTERIDE: This destroys bacteria on the surface of the skin. An antiseptic is a bacteride

CALMATIVE: These herbs are mild sedatives, like chamomile, or marjoram.

DIURETIC: Natures water pills, these herbs stimulate the elimination of water from the body.

EMETIC: A concoction that promotes vomiting.

EXPECTORANT: Causes phlegm to be coughed up from the lungs.

MYDRIATIC: Dilates pupils, many herbs have this action.

SIALAGOGUE: Produces a flow of saliva

MUCILAGE: A gelatinous substance occurring naturally in some herbs that is used to soothe inflammation of the skin. These herbs are often good for the hair too.

NARCOTIC: Any substance that in small doses deadens pain but in large doses can damage the nervous system, be addictive or be fatal.

BANE-BANEFUL HERB: An herb that is toxic or poisonous.

NERVINE: Relaxant, calmative, treats nerve disorders ( such as neuropathy)

PURGATIVE: A strong laxative, not an agent to cause vomiting

ADJUVANT: A substance that enhances the effect of another medication

ANESTHETIC: These substances numb, reduces, or abolishes sensation

ANALGESIC: A substance that reduces pain

ANTIPYRETIC: Reduces fever by lowering the body temperature

ANTITUSSIVE: Prevents coughing

APERIENT: Laxative

APERITIF: Stimulates the appetite, usually an alcoholic drink served 20 minutes before the meal

BITTER: Bitter herbs that stimulate the appetite by irritating the taste buds which stimulates the appetite and flow of digestive juices

CARMINATIVE: Relieves flatulence and  griping pains in the stomach and bowel

COSTIVE: Constipating action

SYNERGIST: Agent that increases the effectiveness of another when combined

CATHARTIC: Stimulates bowel action more forcefully than a laxative – see purgative

DIAPHORETIC: Increases perspiration

HYPOTENSIVE: Reduces blood pressure, vasodilator

HYPERTENSIVE: Increases blood pressure, vasoconstrictive

ANTIRHEUMATIC: Eases the pain and inflammation in joints and muscles

CARCINOGENIC: Cancer-causing

CHOLERETIC: Stimulates the liver to produce more bile or to stimulate the release of bile from the gall bladder and bile ducts into the duodenum

NERVE TONIC: A medical preparation that is meant to stimulate and tone up the nervous system and give a sense of well-being

ANTIEMETIC: Prevents nausea and vomiting

DEMULCENT: An oil or substance that can be used to protect or soothe a mucous membrane

DEPURATIVE: Substance used to purify the blood

HEMOSTATIC: Stops bleeding

RESORPTIVE: Herb applied topically to make bruises disappear

ALTERATIVE: A substance that gently detox’s the blood and enhances liver, kidney, and skin clearance

ADAPTOGEN: Any substance that increases the bodies resistance to stress

SUFFIX: Hem- blood, Hep- liver, Hypo- restrictive or less, Hyper- more, or overactive


ACTIVE CONSTITUENTS: Medicinally effective chemical substance found in plants

TERPENOID: A hydrocarbon considered an essential oil common in our diets, can enhance the effects of some herbs

SAPONIN: Plant glycosides that produce a soapy film in water

CYANIDE: Poisonous chemical found in some seeds such as the wild cherry pit

SCOLPAMINE: A poisonous plant chemical of the alkaloid group obtained from plants of the nightshade family and used as a sedative, usually in combination with other herbs. Also used as a truth serum as it makes people talk more openly than normal.

ALKALOIDS: Are a diverse group of basic compounds with alkaline properties and generally a marked physiological effect on the nervous systems typically containing nitrogen. They generally have a bitter flavor and most are poisonous to varying degrees. They produce varied effects, such as analgesic, anesthetic, tranquilizing, vasoconstriction, and hallucinatory actions.

BETA SITOSTEROL: Found in soya beans used for the manufacture of steroids- may reduce cholesterol has anti-inflammatory properties

BISABOLOL: Calms the stomach and gives a blue color to the essential oil of chamomile

POLYPHENOLS: An antioxidant

TANNINS: A plant compound that binds to and precipitates proteins, amino acids, and alkaloids


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