The Tenets of Herbal Medicine: Guidelines & Rules for Health, Safety & Success

Book Cover for Trail of the Traditional Herbalist

I was hurriedly descending the lowest slopes of Mt. Baker, through a giant old-growth forest, trying to reach the road before nightfall. My ride was waiting there, and I could see my friend in her car, just below me through a break in the trees. The trail continued at a gradual angle 1/4 mile sideways before switching-back to the parking area.

I was young, so even though going off-trail would create erosion, my young mind thought that cutting downslope was an acceptable choice since someone was waiting for me. Wrong. In the dim light, I scrambled over fallen trees and jumped down steep inclines, not taking care to avoid damage to the forest, nor to myself.

Instant Karma hit as I crossed over a little stream. My momentum was fast forward, but my leg fell into some kind of hole which had a broken root that caught my thigh. Direct hit, causing the worst charlie-horse I’d ever received, and that’s from a kid who grew up with 6 siblings, always playing outdoors. It took me a while to catch my breath, and about 10 minutes to move the remaining 100 feet down to my ride.

The pain increased as I sat in the car. By the time I returned to town an hour later, the pain was worse than any I had experienced in my life. Years later, after taking EMT training, I realized that I had suffered a hematoma, which can be a simple as a bruise, but can be as serious as constant internal bleeding.

As soon as I elevated my leg, the pain decreased a bit, from a “9” on the scale of 1-10, to an 8, and after a few minutes, to a 6.5. But whenever I lowered my leg, the pain would increase to an 8 again. I couldn’t sleep that night, and the next day, the pain was a “5.5” when my leg was elevated, but a “7.5” when walking.

First Two Tenets of Herbal Medicine

Linda Quintana of Wonderland Teas & Spices photographed by Marnie Jones in Grow Northwest Magazine
Linda Quintana of Wonderland Teas & Spices photographed by Marnie Jones in Grow Northwest Magazine

At the time, I was trying to avoid using modern medicine, and instead, endeavoring to learn about herbal replacements. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the basics. I acted like there was a cure-all for everything, and  I had broken the first tenet of holistic herbal medicine: prevention. Then I broke the second tenet: immediate treatment with full follow-through. Not only did I sit in the car with my leg lowered, but because I was avoiding modern medicine at the time, I refused ibuprofen. Reduction of severe pain actually helps the body heal faster, but also, ibuprofen reduces swelling, exactly what I would have needed.

Fortunately, in Bellingham where I was living, there was (and is) an herbalist, Linda Quintana, who runs a store downtown on Railroad Avenue called Wonderland Teas & Spices. It took me a couple days to get my tough self over there, but one look at my swollen, bruised thigh, and Linda grabbed a bottle of Arnica Oil from the shelf and told me to apply it every couple hours.

The next day, my thigh was tender, but there was otherwise no pain. That bottle of Arnica Oil traveled with me for the next 10 years, although I forgot about it for a couple days the next time I was injured. By then, I had turned 30 and had “discovered” the wisdom of ibuprofen, but after a couple weeks enduring a sore, hyper-extended elbow from too much wheel-barrow work, I remembered the Arnica Oil, and within a week, my elbow was cured.

Sometime later, I returned to that place where I suffered the hematoma, and growing along the banks of that cascading stream, right where water sprayed off some rocks, grew a beautiful Arnica plant. There are a few different species in the genus Arnica, so I’m not sure which one Linda used in her oil, nor which one grew along that stream, but seeing it there was astonishing.

To review, remember the first tenet of herbal medicine is prevention. Not only should you prevent injury through safe living, but you should prevent illness as well.  Stay clean, allow appropriate exposure to germs (to build the immune system, but not to overtax it), and strengthen your immune system with use of appropriate tonics such as nettle tea in the late winter before the cold and flu season hits, for example.

And remember that the second tenet of herbal medicine is immediate treatment with full follow-through. You should remember that herbal medicines are usually less intensive than modern pills, so if you are intervening in a medical problem – cronic asthma for instance – then I like to say that your medicines need to “taste bad,” or more seriously, be as concentrated as they need to be to work.

Third & Fourth Tenets of Herbal Medicine

Herbal Recipies for Vibrant Health by Rosemary GladstarThe third Wolf College tenet of herbal medicine is to properly a) cultivate, b) harvest, c) process, and d) store the highest quality of herbs, in order to produce herbal remedies that actually work. For instance, have you ever tried Celestial Seasonings herbal teas, and then switched to Traditional Medicinals? The difference is astounding. Traditional Medicinals was co-founded by herbalist Rosemary Gladstar who offers a renown herbal medicine correspondence course that Linda Quintana originally recommended to me, and in which my wife Kim is now enrolled.

Linda, Rosemary, and the current proprietor (the other co-founder) of Traditional Medicinals know how to propagate, wildcraft, harvest, and process herbs so that their medicines are effective. So if you have tried herbal medicines that don’t work, look deeper. Do your research, test products, and discover what works for you. Order products straight from knowledgeable producers. The best mail-order source I know of is from Northwest wildcrafter, herb farmer, and permaculturist Michael Pilarski who runs Friends of the Trees.

Speaking of wildcrafting, it is extremely important to note that the initial word of this tenet is cultivate. When we harvest, it needs to be with a cultivator’s mindset. This means when we harvest, we are weeding out the plants that would be damaging, and harvesting only enough of best medicine plants that we need – never more than what will allow the wild crop to strongly regenerate. Please read our Honorable Harvesting Guidelines before harvesting any plant material.  The final guideline is of utmost importance:  “Never put anything in your mouth unless you are 100% sure it is safe to ingest.”

The fourth Wolf College tenet of herbal medicine is to learn the plants in your area, and to test them to see what works for you. In the Rocky Mountains, Northwestern States and Canada, the plant guides published by Lone Pine which are excellent for identifying plants based on family characteristics. If you live in one of those regions, your Lone Pine guide is indispensable.

For everyone else, the book Botany in a Day by Thomas J. Elpel is key to learning plants. As for herbal guides specifically, there are a variety of excellent resources. Some of my favorites include Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health by Rosemary Gladstar, the Medicinal Plants series covering the western U.S. by the late herbalist Michael Moore, and the various Peterson field guide to wild edible and medicinal plants, among many other books.

Learning plants can be overwhelming, so my next blog post will break it down, focusing on the most important plants first, and gain a solid foundation of knowledge. In the meantime, here’s a suggestion: a) learn 1 native wild herb; b) cultivate 1 potted herb; c) read Botany in a Day (Intro thru Conifers, and then the “Plant Properties” Appendix, and when you have more time, finally tackle the flowering plants starting with Monocots, then Dicot plant families you already recognize locally; d) learn herbal vocabulary, such as: astringent, purgative, laxative, diuretic, expectorant, stiptic, etc. and the following ways of making remedies, listed here from least intensive to most intensive:

Cold Water Infusion
Spit Poultice
Hot Water Infusion
Water Decoction
Glycerite Infusion
Oil Infusion
Alcohol Tincture

Fifth & Sixth Tenets of Herbal Medicine

Into The Wild Book Cover by Jon KrakauerThe fifth Wolf College tenet of herbal medicine is: No Garbage In.  Consume only the wild plants you know well, and those you cultivate yourself, as there is no reason to sample vague ones. In fact, I would go further and say that there is no need to learn more than a couple of poisonous plants: just learn the 10 or 20 plants you will probably ever use for medicine. Exceptions to that rule include knowing which plants to consider removing from your property in order to keep grazing animals and small children safe, and knowing which plants are look-alikes to the ones you use.

Yew, for instance, looks similar to some pine family trees.  Death camas bulbs look similar to blue camas.  Most of the carrot/parsley family is deadly, with leaves and flowers that look similar to our native wild carrot, commonly known as Queen Anne’s Lace. Finally, know when edible plants become poisonous, such as when black spots appear on grass which can indicate the vicious ergot fungus.

The sixth Wolf College tenet of herbal medicine is: No Garbage Out.  Cut back all the misinformation that’s out there.  Just share what you know to be true through personal trial and error, and through scientific study trials and errors. If you read or hear something, test it before believing it. For instance, many people like to harvest “fiddleheads” or ferns when they first start to unfurl in the spring. Although cooking the fiddleheads may destroy the enzyme found in many ferns that robs the body of vitamin B, many ferns also contain carcinogens.

The point is, if a plant is proven to be healthful, then eat it as needed.  If someone in some book, written or referenced before scientific tests were done on the plants, says something is edible, then remember, that’s all it is: edible, not necessarily healthful.  For instance, John Krakauer suggests in the appendix to Into the Wild, that Christopher McCandless may have died not because he didn’t have enough to eat (he ate moose, for instance), but because he read in a book that a plant was edible, which it was, although it also robs the body of vitamin K, so he starved to death.

Underlying these tenets is the concept of cultural appropriation. There is so much to write on this topic, and it shouldn’t be buried here in the middle of the article, but it deserves another blog post so I’ll put that on my to-do list if I decide I can speak to it with authenticity. In the meantime, always cite your sources, and get permission before sharing information.

Seventh & Eighth Tenets of Herbal Medicine

The seventh Wolf College tenet of herbal medicine is to get healthy yourself. I can attest to having a doctor who is overweight himself, and doesn’t encourage me to drop below my “hypertension weight” even though with my family history, that may be the absolute most important thing I can do for myself. What do I recommend for this, the most prevalent health issue in modern society?

Whether or not you need to gain or lose weight, I recommend doing a stint with Weight Watchers or another supervised system. You may think you know what kind of calorie intake you and your patients have, or how well you are eating and what you recommend to your patients, but I guarantee you will learn a lot by working, at least for a short time, on your own caloric intake with a nutritional supervisor/mentor/coach/system of some sort. It’s a journey to eliminate foods we are allergic to, find out what kind of eating style helps us find the right weight, lower blood pressure, and most important, enjoy many more life activities.

For examples, check out our Paleo & Veggie Lifestyles Workshop description. Also, in addtion addressing issues such as smoking, drinking, and other potentially harmful behaviors, find out what kind of exercise is best for you. For instance, many people think they need rigorous exercise, and that may be true for some people, but often, overweight people just need to walk for an hour per day, and that usually raises the heart rate to the perfect “fat burn” zone. My dad, a retired country doc and military surgeon, has been telling me this for decades.

The eighth Wolf College tenet of herbal medicine is  to make a list of the prevalent maladies in your family history, and in today’s society.  For instance, some of the epidemic diseases I deal with include asthma, overeating, skin maladies, chronic colds from teaching rooms full of kids all winter,  etc. etc.  Then as you progress with your herbal lifestyle, start filling in the actions and medicines that address those maladies. An abridged version of my list includes:

Immediate Bee Sting Cure & More: Plantain Herb (super astringent)
Nature’s Aspirin: Willow Species (salicylic acid decoction)
Vitamin C Sources to Hit Colds & Flus: Pine & Rose Families (also internal astringents)
Increasing Temperature to Fight Colds & Flus: Yarrow, Arnica, Ginger
Stopping Bleeding: Yarrow, Calendula, Sphagnum Moss (acidic)
Healing Internal Wounds, Sprains & Breaks: Arnica, Poplar (Cottonwood), Comfrey
Fungal Infections: Cedars, Usnea Lichens
Bacterial/Protozoan Infections: Oregon Grape, Usnea (berberine, usnic acid)
Wet Cough Expectorant: Cherry
Dry Cough Suppressant: Mullein
Joint Issues & Blood Sugar: Devil’s Club, Nettles, Grasses
General & Urinary Health: Cranberry, Nettles, Garlic|
Cooling/Calming/Insomnia: Pinapple Weed (Chamomile), Mint
GI Tract Health: Grasses, Plantain Herbs, Docks Roots, Dandelion
Electrolyte Sickness (not enough salt, too much water): Goosefoot, Seaweeds

Notice that these last two tenets are about taking care of yourself first, before advising others. I’ve developed these tenets of herbal medicine over the past couple of years. I hope they will be considered, discussed, revised, and added to, so please comment below. Thanks!

Ninth & Tenth Tenets of Herbal Medicine

The ninth tenet of herbal medicine is to find a good naturopathic physician and consult with him or her about any herbs you use. Information provided by educators of any kind should never be intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.  Always consult with a qualified health care practitioner before using herbal products, especially if you are pregnant, nursing or on any medications.

The tenth tenet is biosecurity. There are various reasons for preventing the spread of plant species from one area to another. For agricultural reasons, it’s important to protect a crops from pests at national, regional and individual farm levels. For the protection of waterways and riparian zones, it’s important to keep invasive species out (like reed canary grass here in the north, for instance) that block native plants and animals from surviving in these, the most productive biological areas of the planet. Gardeners really have to be careful about letting non-native vegetables and herbs escape into the native environment, so keeping those species in pots, and making sure seeds don’t travel with you in and out of car doors, for instance, is critical.

11th & 12th Tenets of Herbal Medicine

The eleventh tenet of herbal medicine is to acknowledge the history of medicine and where various knowledge came from. (paragraph being rewritten – standby)

The twelfth tenet to acknowledge the people, land and waters where you cultivate, wildcraft, garden and caretake plants. (paragraph being rewritten – standby)

Learn how to confidently identify plants using their unique family patterns in this in-depth video by author of Botany in a Day, Thomas Elpel!

Chris Chisholm is founder and co-owner of Wolf Camp and the Conservation College. For training on herbal medicine check out these programs:

Spring Workshops:
Wild Foods Foraging & Herbal Medicine Making

Edible Seaweeds, Shellfish, & Shore Plants of the Salish Sea

Summer Expedition in Western Washington: Wild Ethnobotany and Herbalism Training

1 Comment

  1. I like how you mentioned that it is important to note everything that will help you in the future. My cousin mentioned to me last night that he wants to improve his overall health and asked if I have any idea what is the best treatment to do. Thanks to this informative article and I’ll be sure to tell him that it will be much better if he consults a trusted nutritional pharmacy as they can answer all his inquiries and will provide the proper herbal medicine he needs.


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