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Understanding & Identifying Basic Herbal Actions

Understanding & Identifying Basic Herbal Actions

Herbalism is an art and science with nuances as diverse as the unique relationships we form with the plants around us. Whether we learn from our family, a teacher in our community, a collection of books, or simply work with the herbs near us, understanding the language of herbalism can benefit us in nearly every situation.

Using these common categories allows us to recognize patterns that can inform our learning process when using a new herb, making decisions about formulations, or when we're in need of a substitute for one of our go-to preparations. Many times, a plant will exhibit several actions, like a bitter calming herb for example, making just a cup of that single herb as a tea or a squirt of tincture the perfect remedy on its own.

Here's a helpful list of basic herbal action categories with examples of uses and herbs. You might find that some of these definitions are a bit different from one herbalist to the next, but this simplified guide is a great place to start the journey.

 Understanding & Identifying Basic Herbal Actions



Herbs that are drying, drawing, and constricting help to create a barrier. Look for that "puckered" feeling. Topical astringents can be used to help pull out splinters and tone the skin. Internally, astringents work to help tone mucus membranes and dry up conditions of excess, like occasional diarrhea or too much urine.

A few astringent herbs:

Rose, Blackberry root and leaf, White Oak, Green and Black Tea, Witch Hazel, Willow

Understanding & Identifying Basic Herbal Actions



Herbs often with volatile essential oils that present strong aromas. They are most often used to support the digestive and reproductive systems, disinfect the respiratory tract, or help expectorate the lungs. Some aromatics are also excreted through the urinary tract or the skin.

A few aromatic herbs:

Peppermint, Cardamom, Fennel, Rosemary, Ginger, Angelica

Understanding & Identifying Basic Herbal Actions



Herbs that support your body's own natural defenses in the presence of illness and help restore proper function. 

A few alterative herbs:

Echinacea, Red RootOregon Grape, Yellow Dock, Dandelion, Red Clover




A diverse group of herbs that help us face and handle stress as it happens – although the classification is often complicated and the boundaries difficult to define. These herbs restore overall balance and strengthen the functioning of the body as a whole without impacting the balance of an individual organ or body system. Adaptogens facilitate these changes by a wide range of actions and energetics, rather than one specific action. Adaptogens can be stimulating and/or relaxing, many help improve focus, support immune system functioning, or provide some other broad-spectrum normalizing influence on unbalanced physiological processes.

A few adaptogenic herbs:

Eleuthero root, Holy Basil, Schisandra berries, Rhodiola, Ashwagandha




These are herbs that help stimulate appetite and digestion by encouraging the production of gastric fluids and peristalsis. Just a drop of this often shunned flavor on the tongue is effective in activating the production of beneficial digestive secretions. Helpful for occasional constipation, gas related cramping, sluggish digestive movement, and supporting a healthy appetite. 

 A few bitter herbs:

Dandelion, Gentian, Yellow Dock, Hops, Mugwort, Orange Peel, Skullcap


Nervines are herbs that specifically support the nervous system, so not all calming herbs are nervines. Calming herbs have a range of actions including tonic nervines to mildly or strongly calming effects. They are used to relieve muscle tension and spasms, some kinds of pain, circular thoughts, sleeplessness, and the occasional worry we all experience from time to time.

A few calming herbs:

Skullcap, Chamomile, Valerian, Hops, Lemon Balm, Catnip, Oat Tops, Passionflower, California Poppy 




These herbs are often aromatic and help expel gas from the digestive system. This action can help ease bloating and gas related cramping.

A few carminative herbs:

Fennel, Caraway, Peppermint, Chamomile




Herbs that are mucilaginous and produce a slime that coats, soothes, and protects mucus membranes, as well as eases dry conditions. This slime action triggers a reflex that helps promote natural moistening secretions within the body systems. Best extracted as an infusion in water rather than in alcohol tincture form. Helpful for supporting normal respiratory health and coating otherwise dry internal conditions.

A few demulcent herbs:

Marshmallow Roots, Chia Seed, Mullein (lungs), Violet, Cinnamon, Fenugreek, Plantain, Flax




These herbs help raise your body temperature to make you sweat and stimulate circulation. This action can also cool the body through increased perspiration. Using diaphoretics may be helpful for breaking dry fevers, erupting skin infections, promoting blood flow to cold extremities, and detoxification.

A few diaphoretic herbs:

Ginger, Garlic, Cayenne, Elder, Yarrow




Herbs that help you urinate. They help promote the elimination of fluid by increasing the amount of urine expelled by the kidneys. This can be helpful for water retention and urinary tract flushing.

A few diuretic herbs:

Dandelion, Juniper, Green Tea, Uva-Ursi, Cleavers




Similar to demulcents, these herbs are also mucilaginous, but used as topical applications to help soothe, condition, and protect the skin.

A few emollient herbs:

Aloe Vera, Comfrey, Marshmallow, Violet, Plantain




Herbs that encourage productive coughing by breaking up mucus in the lungs and expelling it more effectively.

A few expectorant herbs:

Elecampane, Mullein, Lobelia, Horehound 




These herbs are nutritive and can be taken regularly to help strengthen a system without harmful side-effects.

A few tonic herbs:

SkullcapOat Tops, Nettle leaf, Dandelion, Milk Thistle Seed 



Additional Resources:


American Botanical Council - Herbal Terminology



Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health by Rosemary Gladstar

The Herbal Medicine-Maker's Handbook by James Green

Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth by Sharol Tilgner ND

Making Plant Medicine by Richo Cech

Understanding & Identifying Basic Herbal Actions


Topics: Traditional Herbal Recipes, Herbal Education


Written by Friends on August 14, 2013