Introductory Guide to Medicinal Plants: The Basics

plant medicine basics

When it comes to medicine, plants have always had our backs. The first written record of medicinal plants dates back at least 5000 years but archaeological studies have found that plant medicine actually dates back over 60,0000 years. For all of our existence, humans have experimented with plants to discover the various ways they can assist with healing. Unfortunately, the pharmaceutical industry has resulted in many in many generations dismissing and even forgetting about the healing potential medicinal plants have to offer. But as the saying goes, history repeats itself, and more and more people are starting to go back to their ancestral roots to find natural ways to heal (and ones that don’t come with a massive fee). Whether this is your first time looking into plant medicine or you have dabbled in homeopathic medicine over the years, this article provides you with all the information needed to channel your inner herbalist, so you can start harnessing the natural healing legacy of plants.

What is Plant Medicine?

As the name suggests, plant medicine is a term used to describe health products that are made from plants and designed to assist with the healing, treatment or maintenance of health. These products are also sometimes referred to as herbal products or botanical products.

Now, “medicinal plants” is a term used to describe plants that contain therapeutic properties that have a healing effect on humans. These are used to make the products known as plant medicine. These products range from herbal supplements, pills, powders and tinctures to teas, lotions, creams, infusions, syrups, salves, bath products, steams and so much more.

Medicinal plants are also used in modern medicine. For example, deadly nightshade is a type of plant that produces black berries (that are highly poisonous) but that provide the drug atropine. Opium poppies are another excellent example of plants used in modern medicine, as they’re used to produce morphine and codeine.

What Types of Plants Can be Used as Plant Medicine?

Any plant that has a pharmacological effect on humans is considered to be a medicinal plant and can be used for plant medicine. This can be flowers, trees, weeds, herbs and spices, or the various components of each, such as the leaves, seeds, roots, stems, buds, pedals, and so on and so forth. There are literally thousands of different options. In fact, the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that over 50,000 medicinal plants are used across the world today.

What may surprise you the most is that these aren’t always strange, exotic plants you’ve never heard of before. Instead, medicinal plants can be found anywhere and everywhere. They can be found right in your own backyard or grown in your garden and you likely even have some in your pantry or on your spice rack right now.

Nature’s Most Powerful Plants

To get you started on your plant medicine journey, we’ve created this list of nature’s most powerful plants that are easy to find and some popular ways to use them. So, whether you’re growing some medicinal plants on your own, grabbing them from your local grocery store or picking them in the wild, keep an eye out for these:

  • Aloe vera: A popular plant that contains a therapeutic gel substance that is often used to soothe and heal the skin. It’s commonly found in shaving creams, skincare and sun lotions. You can also purchase aloe vera from a grocery store, remove the gel from inside the leaves and toss it into a blender with some coconut oil to create your own.
  • Bergamot: This medicinal plant contains antiseptic, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties and is known for providing fast healing of wounds, particularly those on the skin. As such, it is commonly found in plant medicine that aims to kill bacteria and prevent infections, clear up acne, heal cracked skin, treat ulcers or relieve itching. It can also be used to soothe aches and pains, repair cells, reduce cholesterol and much more.   
  • Chamomile: A popular plant for your digestive system, chamomile can be used to help ease flatulence, indigestion, nausea, motion sickness, vomiting, and diarrhea. It can also help reduce menstrual cramps, anxiety, insomnia, depression, inflammation, and much more.
  • Cinnamon: Best known as a sweet spice, cinnamon has antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal properties. As such, it can be used to improve gut health, manage blood pressure, reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, control blood sugar, protect heart health, and even neutralize free radicals linked to cancer.
  • Echinacea: A plant commonly found in powder and supplement form, Echinacea is best known for helping treat the common cold and upper respiratory infections. However, it can also boost immunity, relieve pain, decrease inflammation and provide antiviral and antioxidant effects.
  • Garlic: Garlic isn’t just for adding flavor into your dishes, as it is also a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant that contains potent medicinal properties. It can help protect against illnesses, including the common cold and flu, reduce blood pressure, improve cholesterol levels, lower risk of heart disease, prevent Alzheimer’s disease, improve athletic performance and more.
  • Ginger: Ginger contains powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects and is popularly known for improving digestion and easing symptoms associated with indigestion, such as nausea. It can also be used to help fight the common cold and flu, reduce oxidative stress, treat morning sickness, promote weight loss, ease arthritic pain, lower blood sugar, reduce menstrual pain, lower cholesterol and the list goes on.
  • Gingko: Commonly used to create capsules, tablets, extracts, and tea (when dried), Gingko is mainly used to help boost brain health, treat dementia, slow down cognitive decline. However, it can also help treat circulatory problems and respiratory conditions, anxiety and depression, inflammation, eye health and much more.
  • Holy basil: Basil isn’t just for cooking with. Holy basil is a popular medicinal heart that is an adaptogen, which helps your body adapt to stress to combat the negative effects of chronic stress, stabilize blood sugar levels, and promote longevity. It also contains a plethora of healing properties, as it is an antiarthritic, antidiabetic, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antioxidant, and can help prevent fevers, treat coughs, promote liver, brain and heart health, improve brain function, slow aging, and so much more.
  • Lavender: Best known for its calming effect, lavender is commonly used to help treat anxiety, depression, insomnia and restlessness. It contains antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties and is also commonly used to treat burns, stings and cuts. There are many ways you can use it as well – from teas and tinctures to cooking and baking, lotions, essential oils and much more.  
  • Mint: The perfect plant for easing digestive issues. Mint is commonly used to soothe a sore stomach, nausea, indigestion, stomach infections and much more. It’s also believed to help treat Alzheimer’s symptoms, improve teeth and gum health, and much more due to its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Tea tree oil:  The oil of a tea tree, this plant medicine has antibacterial properties that are commonly used to help with skin conditions, such as skin conditions, acne, athlete’s foot, small wounds, dandruff, insect bites, nail fungus, lice, and other inflammatory skin conditions, such as boils. 
  • Thyme: Due to its antimicrobial activity, thyme is often used to help relieve coughs and cold symptoms. It’s also used to soothe headaches, depression, nightmares, inflammation, other respiratory issues and neurological concerns.
  • Turmeric: One of the most popular spices of today, turmeric contains anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antioxidant properties. It is commonly used as an anti-inflammatory that can help treat skin diseases and joint arthritis. It is also used to prevent cancer, stop DNA mutations, and improve heart health.  

What Kind of Healing Can Plants Provide?

As you can see from the examples above, the types of healing that plants provide are vast. Plant medicine can be used to help with the healing, treatment or maintenance of various physical and mental health ailments. It can be used to help detox different organs, heal physical wounds, calm your nervous system, protect against insects, fungi and diseases, lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation and so much more. The options are endless.

However, not all medicinal plants are created equal and the type of healing you can expect depends on the medicinal plant you’re using. The way you use a medicinal plant can also determine the effect it will have. For example, some medicinal plants can be enjoyed in tea to soothe digestive issues, but can also be used as a salve for itching.

Long before the pharmaceutical industry came along, plant medicine was the only thing humans knew. As more of us search for healthier, natural alternatives to expensive and potentially harmful modern medicine, we are finding ourselves going back in time to rely on the one thing that has always had our back. There are over 50,000 medicinal plants used today and the list and tips provided in this article can help you start benefiting from the most popular kinds. 

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