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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Creating a Materia Medica (Herbal Notebook)

As always I have a great many projects going on in my life.  One of the ongoing ones I've been working on is my "Materia Medica" --  a book of herbs and other plants.  In my head I usually call it my Herbal Book of Shadows because it will, when finished, include information for herbal workings both mundane and magickal.  I hope someday to create a hand written "heirloom" version to pass on to my children & grandchildren.  But for now it's a scattered mess of information on a great many herbs.

I mentioned on my One Witch's Wonderland Page that I was working on such a project and I got a few comments from people who wanted to or had attempted to start their own version - but who felt it was too daunting a task or weren't sure where to start.  Trust me, I get that!

As many of you know I attempted to get a degree in Holistic Health, which included a section on Herbalism, but sadly, the school I was working with closed.  So I am now searching for a new school to start over at. This means that for the most part my Herbal education is self taught & researched.  This is not a bad thing in my opinion, for nearly all the great herbalists of history were either self taught or apprenticed by someone who was -- there were no herbal degrees in the Ancient World!

This means that regardless of your financial means, a project like this is NOT outside of your abilities.  I guess that old adage about "If I can do it - YOU can do it"  works well here.  But seriously, it's not quite as hard as you think.

If you're doing a digital version or even a "blog" type version it can be even easier because you can edit what you've already written, but if you're doing it by hand I suggest leaving entire blank pages between each herb - at least in the beginning.  I've found that as I've gone on I've learned more about herbs that I've already "finished" and had to go back and add information.  Either way, I suggest NOT creating any type of "bound" book until you feel you're finished - which granted could be years.  So either a digital version (online or off) and/or a 3-ring binder work well to start.

I actually have a ton of notebooks full of information because I like to hand write everything.  And I'm now in the process of typing up my early research and creating more of a binder, but do what works for you. I have found that I retain more mentally if I write it out rather than just type it.

But where to start? What herbs to include? What books or sites to rely on? What information to include?  And what to do when information from one source seems to clash with information from another source?  It's no wonder it seems like the project from you know where...  But no fear, it's not nearly as scary as it seems.

Before you start researching herbs, I found it of great benefit to create a "glossary of terms." This takes a small amount of research all it's own, but it makes for an easier time later on.  IF you have already defined a Dicot as " any member of the flowering plants, or angiosperms, that has a pair of leaves (cotyledons) in the embryo of the seed" and you know that "most common garden plants, shurbs, trees and broad leafed flowering plants such as roses & geraniums" are included in this group, then you won't have the need to define that each time, instead you can simply label the plant as a "Dicot." You may also wish to define other terms related to your research in this section.  You may wish to include terms related to the following aspects here:

  • Preparation & Preservation of Plant Material (Tincture, Drying, Infusion, etc)
  • Growth Habit Classification
  • Scientific Classifications (Division, Class, Family, etc)
  • Life Cycle Types (Perennials, Annuals, etc)
  • Light & Soil Needs (Full Sun, Shade, ect) 
  • Plant Parts:  Names & Types (Stamen, Receptical, etc.) 

I found it best to start with what you know.  Choose herbs you're already comfortable with. What herbs do you have in your garden? What herbs do you already wildcraft?  And what herbs are in your kitchen?  These are the herbs to begin with.  If you are REALLY new to the world of Herbs, I would suggest starting with one you can easily purchase near you. Most grocery stores now have at least a small section of fresh herbs (even my shithole of a grocery store has Rosemary and Sage in the produce section) so start with those.  This way you will be able to fully experience the herb itself, at least in a small way - taste it, smell it, feel it, see what it looks like, maybe even meditate with it.

Once you've chosen an herb to start with, you may be wondering what information to research and what to include in your "book."  Some of that will be up to you. I am a little OCD and include as much information as humanly possible, but you don't need to have all of this.  Here I am listing what I - PERSONALLY - include, placing an asterisk (*) next to those things which I feel are of the greatest importance and SHOULD be included in everyone's book...

  • Common Name*
  • Scientific Name*
  • Alternative Names (Most Common)*
  • Description of Plant and it's parts (& Photographs or Drawings)
  • Native & Naturalized Growing Areas
  • Growth Habitat
  • USDA Symbol
  • Scientific Classifications (Group, Family & Flowering Duration)
  • Actions/Medicinal Properties* (“antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory”, “expectorant”, etc.)
  • Energetics* (“warming”, “cooling”)
  • Affinities* (body parts or systems affected)
  • Common Uses*
  • Common Preparations*
  • Recommended Dosages*
  • Precautions & Possible Allergy Information*
  • Animal Use Information
  • Growing Information (Soil Preference, Tips, Seed Depth, etc)
  • Beneficial Planting Companions
  • Metaphysical & Magickal Correspondences & Properties
  • Meta. & Magickal Uses & Preparations 
  • Essential Oil Uses
  • Recipes
Don't expect to gather all the information at once.  As I said above, I have had herbs I thought I was "done" with only to discover later that I had more to add...  A good bit of this information is simply "Scientific" in nature, and is meant only to help you identify and classify.  You may wonder WHY this is important, if you know what a plant looks like, do you really need to know what Family or Genus it belongs to?  Well, yes and no.  You don't need to know this stuff in order to properly use your herb, but knowing this information does help you to learn relationships between plants and will help you to understand more subtle uses and associations. For example, knowing the Lemon Balm (Melissa Officinalis) and Peppermint (Mentha piperita) are both a part of the Lamiaceae Plant Family, will help you see similarities between the two and give you a leg up when it comes to identifying unknown species of plants in the same family down the road - a huge benefit when wildcrafting in new areas. 

But as I said, not all of this information is needed for everyone.  If, for example, you have no use for Metaphysical or Magickal Correspondences or Uses, skip that part. And you may choose to create a separate chapter or book for recipes.  Growing information may be omitted if you live in an area where a specific plant can not grow, or if you do not plan to grow it.  

If you are using a digital system or a binder you can always add information later on. As I am creating my binder, I have found it beneficial to create 3-5 pages per herb. The first page is for identification & scientific information (names, description, family, etc). The second for medicinal information (usage, dosage, precautions, etc.) including any medicinal information for the Essential Oil.  The third for growing & gardening information (soil pref., sun needs, moisture levels). A forth for the Magickal information & uses. And then the final page for any other information which I may feel needs to be includes. If I have photographs, pressings, drawings, seed packets, and/or recipes I will include them on additional pages. NOTE: I do attempt to include a photo of the herb on the first page with the identification information, however additional photos, etc. get their own page for space reasons.

What herbs or plants you choose to include is entirely up to you. As I said above I feel the best place to begin is with herbs you are already familiar.  For me, Rosemary, Burdock and Dandelions were a good solid place to start, but if you have herbs or plants growing in your home, you may wish to begin there, or possibly with herbs you use to cook often.  Once you feel you've gone through all the herbs and plants you are readily familiar with, or if you feel there aren't any plants you are comfortable with, then I would suggest doing a search on what plants are common where you live.  Often times the plants we see growing along the side of the highway are some of the most amazing.  Wildcrafting.net has a search tool which will give you a list of plants found in your state. 

Once you know what information you're looking for, and you know what plants to research, it may hit you that you're unsure as to where, exactly, to search.  There are literally thousands of books out there and even more websites & blogs.  So where do you go for solid and trustworthy information?  I prefer to stick to "official" sites like the USDA PLANTS Database for scientific information, and Wildcrafting.net has a great deal of that information as well. But for usage and growing information you'll need to look elsewhere.  Stick to professional individuals (their books or sites) and official texts - Herbalists, Holistic Doctors, College/School Textbooks, Encyclopedias - and stay clear of general blogs unless you know the source is good.  Most blogs are written by people like you and me, chances are they aren't trying to put out misinformation, but it can happen. And when it comes to using an herb for medicinal purposes, you want to ensure you have the right information.  Of course if you're researching properly you'll have 2 or 3 sources for everything, but it's still best to skip the little guys and go for the more consistently reliable sources.  If you are looking for text books, do a search for Herbalist Schools or classes at local colleges and see what text books they are using, chances are they're pretty reliable - again though, stay away from unreliable schools or schools who use their own materials. Sites from well known herbal experts (ex: Rosemary Gladstar) are also a good place to and these may even be available through your local library or at a discounted price through places like Half Priced Books or Amazon. 

Even when you are using all the best information sources you may still come across information which is conflicting.  Numerous herbal books suggest the internal usage of Comfrey, for example.  While more recent books will talk about it's carcinogenic properties and suggest it only be used for mulch. In cases like this, take some time to see why there is a conflict. In this case the studies which identified Comfrey as possibly carcinogenic weren't done until recently, so books from previous years would not have had this updated information available when they were written.  Look for studies which back up one or both claims and weight the information against what you know about the body and similar plants.  

Although it may seem a quite impossible feat, it is in fact something that can be done. But the final question here is WHY?  There are, as I said above, thousands and thousands of books, websites and blogs about herbs out there, WHY spend all this time to create a book of your own? Why not just go out and buy other books and keep those.  Well, fact is, if that's the question you're asking yourself, this project may not be for you - it's not for everyone.  But on the chance that you're asking this out of fear rather than simply not wanting to do it, the answer is this - all those other books are wonderful and have all the information you need. This project though is about more than that, it's about teaching yourself all of this information and creating a place to keep it all organized for those times when your brain simply can't remember it all (and unless you have an eidetic memory you never will be able to remember it all anyways.) It's also about creating something that your children and your grandchildren can use and learn from. Something that is going to give them all the education that you have gathered and stop them from needing to sort through all the thousands of books looking for the information that you already have. 

I'll be honest, this is NOT a quick project. You will NOT finish this in a weekend. Chances are, you won't finish this in a year. You may not even finish it in a decade - or ever!  If you're like me, the chance is great that you will add to this book for the rest of your life.  But that's not a bad thing!  Your book will grow as your knowledge grows. If you wish to do an "heirloom" version - like I hope to someday do - then you may wish to someday sit down with your huge 3-ring binder filled with page after page of herbal information and pair it down to just the most common and/or local plants. But that's down the road. Don't allow the idea of a single book limit you now.  You may wish to create an entire shelf of binders as your book grows... I say go for it!  What matters is all the knowledge you will be gathering as you go forward - and of course all the knowledge you will be able to pass on in the process.  

Once upon a time this knowledge was not uncommon. The average housewife could go out to the woods and pick up the herbs she needed to heal the sick, ease labor pains and cook dinner... 
It's time we got that knowledge back!  

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