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Understanding terms or words commonly used in herbal literature provides a basic foundation for people new to herbs and reinforces the basics for those with some experience with herbal medicine. The following terminology categories offer a comprehensive understanding of herbal medicine’s role in healthcare.

Healthcare Systems: Lists the basic theory or school of thought underlying healthcare systems throughout the world. Some systems include herbal medicine as an approach.

Approaches: Lists a few approaches applied to various healthcare systems that use medicinal plants or plant-derived preparations.

General Herbal Terms: Lists some common terms used when discussing or learning about herbal medicine.

Plant Parts: Lists the crude drug or phytopharmaceutical names that describe the part of the plant that is used in the herbal preparation. This name is not always synonymous with the botanical description of that plant part.

Preparations: Describes various plant preparations used to make herbal products both at home and for the marketplace.

Medical Terminology: Lists words with medicinal actions or that are referred to in medicine in order to provide a better understanding of the proper use of the herbs and under what conditions they might be employed.

Healthcare Systems

Allopathy: Also known as "conventional medicine" in Western societies. Allopathy focuses on treating the symptoms of diseases primarily through prescription drugs. This approach utilizes a process of reductionism (focusing on the symptoms exhibited in a part of the organism rather than focusing on the organism as a whole.)

Ayurvedic Medicine: Literally meaning the "science of life." A 5,000-year-old system of medicine originating in India that combines natural therapies with a highly personalized, holistic approach to the treatment of disease.

Homeopathy: A system of medicine founded in the late 18th century in which remedies consist of diluted substances from plants, minerals and animals. It is based on a theory that "like cures like." Remedies specifically match different symptom pattern profiles of illness to stimulate the body’s natural healing process.

Naturopathy: A holistic medical system that treats health conditions by utilizing what is believed to be the body’s innate ability to heal. Naturopathic physicians aid healing processes by incorporating a variety of natural methods based on the patient’s individual needs.

Indigenous or Tribal Medicine: A healthcare system that tends to incorporate various methods of botanical and animal medicines as well as specific ceremonial rituals of the culture to cure disease. The medicinal knowledge is passed from generation to generation primarily through oral traditions. The system tends to be unique to each tribe.

Traditional Chinese Medicine: A 3,000-year-old holistic system of medicine combining the use of medicinal herbs, acupuncture, food therapy, massage, and therapeutic exercise. Chinese physicians look for the underlying causes of imbalance in the "yin" and "yang" which lead to disharmony in the "qi" energy in the body. Traditional Chinese Medicine addresses how illness manifests itself in a patient and treats the patient, not the ailment or disease. (top)


Aromatherapy: This approach uses essential oils extracted from medicinal plants to treat various health conditions. The oils are generally diluted, then used topically, internally, or to stimulate olfactory senses.

Flower Essences: In the 1930s, Dr. Edward Bach developed an approach to healing using "flower essences." Flower essences are made by infusing flowers or other plant parts in spring water and then adding alcohol as a preservative. The essences are used internally or topically to balance emotional states. The underlying philosophy focuses on stabilizing emotions in order to dissipate illness and stimulate internal healing processes.

Herbal Medicine: An approach to healing which uses plant or plant-derived preparations to treat, prevent, or cure various health conditions and ailments. This approach is incorporated into various medical systems. Although herbal medicine does not have a specific point of conception, at present an estimated 80% of the world’s population rely on medicinal plant preparations for their primary healthcare needs, according to the World Health Organization. Despite the extensive use which can be attributed to the use of plants in traditional medical systems, our knowledge of the plants and their values remain largely unexplored. (top)

General Herbal Terms

Binomial: The two-part scientific Latin name used to identify plants. The first name is the genus and is a general name that may be shared by a number of related plants. The second is the species name, which refers to the name that is specific to that individual plant (i.e., Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustifolia).

Crude drug: Natural products, which are not pure compounds (i.e., plants or parts of plants, extracts, or exudes).

Drug: a pure substance or combination of pure substances (isolated from natural sources, semi-sythenthic, or purely chemical in origin) intended to mitigate, treat, cure or prevent a disease in humans (and other animals).

Herb: The word herb (sometimes referred to as botanical) has several different meanings depending on the perspective:

  • In commercial terms - herb generally refers to plants used for culinary purposes. Additionally the terminology differentiates Temperate Zone plants from tropical and sub-tropical plants (i.e., spices).

  • In horticultural terms - herb refers to "herbaceous," which describes the appearance of the plant (i.e., a non-woody, vascular plant).

  • In taxonomic terms - herb generally refers to the aboveground parts or the aerial parts (i.e., the flower, leaf, and stem).

  • In terms of herbal medicine - herb refers to plants used in various forms or preparations, valued for their therapeutic benefits, and sold as dietary supplements in the U.S. marketplace.

Pharmacognosy: The study of natural products (i.e., plant, animal, organism, or mineral in nature) used as drugs or for the preparation of drugs. Derived from the Greek pharmakon meaning drug and gnosis meaning knowledge.

Phytochemicals: Chemical compounds or chemical constituents formed in the plant’s normal metabolic processes. The chemicals are often referred to as "secondary metabolites" of which there are several classes including alkaloids, anthraquinones, coumarins, fats, flavonoids, glycosides, gums, iridoids, mucilages, phenols, phytoestrogens, tannins, terpenes, and terpenoids, to mention a few. Extracts contain many chemical constituents, while chemicals that have been isolated from the plant are considered pharmaceutical drugs (i.e., digoxin having been isolated from the foxglove or Digitalis lanata plant).

Phytomedicinals: Medicinal substances that originate from plants. This may include certain phytochemicals as well as whole plants or herbal preparations.

Phytoestrogens: A type of phytochemical with some influence on the estrogenic activity or hormonal system in humans. This rather broad term does not mean that the plant mimics human estrogen, only acts to affect it in some way. (top)

Plant Parts (crude drug terminology)

Aetheroleum: Refers to the essential or volatile oil as a distinct aromatic product obtained from the plant.

Balsamum: Refers to a solution of resin and volatile oil usually produced by special cells in some plants.

Bulbus: Refers to the bulb or an underground bud (specialized stem structure) of a plant, from which both a shoot and roots may extend.

Cortex: Refers to the bark of the plant. Bark can be collected from the root, stem, or branches.

Flos: Refers to the flowers of plant usually consisting of a single flower or the entire inflorescences (i.e., head, umbel, panicle, spike, etc.).

Folium: Refers to the leaf of plant. Usually the middle leaves of plants are collected.

Fructus: Refers to the fruit (the ripened ovary of the flower-bearing seeds) or berry of the plant. In pharmacognosy, fructus is not always synonymous with the botanical definition.

Herba: Refers to the aerial parts or the aboveground parts of plants which may include the flower, leaf, and the stem of the plant, and occasionally fruits too.

Lignum: Refers to the wood or the secondary thickening of the stem. This may or may not contain the bark as well.

Oleum: Refers to the fixed oil preparation pressed or squeezed from the plant material.

Pericarpium: Refers to the peel or rind of fruit.

Pyroleum: Refers to the tar from dry distilled plant material.

Radix: Refers to the root of a plant, though radix is sometimes synonomous with rhizome

Resina: Refers to the resin that is secreted by the plant or by distillation of the balsamum.

Rhizoma: Refers to the rhizome or a creeping horizontal stem, generally bearing roots on its underside.

Semen: Refers to the seed of a plant, usually removed from the fruit, and may or may not contain the seed coat. (top)


Decoction: A tea made from boiling plant material, usually the bark, rhizomes, roots or other woody parts, in water. May be used therapeutically. Natural dyes are often made this way.

Infusion: A tea made by pouring water over plant material (usually dried flowers, fruit, leaves, and other parts, though fresh plant material may also be used), then allowed to steep. The water is usually boiling, but cold infusions are also an option. May be used therapeutically, as hot tea is an excellent way to administer herbs.

Tincture: An extract of a plant made by soaking herbs in a dark place with a desired amount of either glycerine, alcohol, or vinegar for two to six weeks. The liquid is strained from the plant material and then may be used therapeutically.

Liniment: Extract of a plant added to either alcohol or vinegar and applied topically to employ the therapeutic benefits.

Poultice: A therapeutic topical application of a soft moist mass of plant material (such as bruised fresh herbs), usually wrapped in a fine woven cloth.

Essential Oils: Aromatic volatile oils extracted from the leaves, stems, flowers, and other parts of plants. Therapeutic use generally includes dilution of the highly concentrated oil.

Herbal Infused Oils: A process of extraction in which the volatile oils of a plant substance are obtained by soaking the plant in a carrier oil for approximately two weeks and then straining the oil. The resulting oil is used therapeutically and may contain the plant’s aromatic characteristic.

Percolation: A process to extract the soluble constituents of a plant with the assistance of gravity. The material is moistened and evenly packed into a tall, slightly conical vessel; the liquid (menstruum) is then poured onto the material and allowed to steep for a certain length of time. A small opening is then made in the bottom, which allows the extract to slowly flow out of the vessel. The remaining plant material (the marc) may be discarded. Many tinctures and liquid extracts are prepared this way. (top)

Medical Terminology

abortifacient - inducing abortion

adjuvant - aiding the action of a medicinal agent

amphoteric - normalizing function of an organ or body system

analeptic - restorative or stimulating effect on central nervous system

analgesic - relieve pain

anaphrodisiac - reduces capacity for sexual arousal

anesthetic - induces loss of sensation or consciousness due to the depression of nerve function

antianemic - preventing or curing anemia

antibacterial - destroying or stopping the growth of bacteria

antibilious - easing stomach stress

anticatarrh - reduces inflamed mucous membranes of head and throat

antidepressant - therapy that acts to prevent, cure, or alleviate mental depression

antidiabetic - preventing or relieving diabetes

antidiarrhetic- substances use to prevent or treat diarrhea

antiemetic - stopping vomiting

antifungal - destroying or inhibiting the growth of fungus

antihemorrhagic - controlling hemorrhaging or bleeding

anti-infectous - counteracting infection

anti-inflammatory - controlling inflammation, a reaction to injury or infection

antimalarial - preventing or relieving malaria

antimicrobial - destructive to microbes

antioxident - prevents or inhibits oxidation

antipruritic - preventing or relieving itching

antipyretic - agent that reduces fever (febrifuge)

antirheumatic - easing pain of rheumatism, inflammation of joints and muscles

antiseptic - agent used to produce asepsis and to remove pus, blood, etc.

antispasmodic - calming nervous and muscular spasms or convulsions

antitussive - controlling or preventing cough

antiviral - opposing the action of a virus

aperient - a very mild laxative

aperitive - stimulating the appetite for food

aphrodisiac - substance increasing capacity for sexual arousal

asepsis - sterile, a condition free of germs, infection, and any form of life

astringent - agent that constricts and binds by coagulation of proteins a cell surface

bitter - stimulates appetite or digestive function

cardiotonic - increases strength and tone (normal tension or response to stimuli) of the heart

carminative - causing the release of stomach or intestinal gas

catarrhal - pertaining to the inflammation of mucous membranes of the head and throat

cathartic - an active purgative, producing bowel movements

cholagogue - an agent that increases flow of bile from gallbladder

cicatrizant - aiding formation of scar-tissue and healing wounds

counterirritant - agent producing an inflammatory response for affecting an adjacent area

demulcent - soothing action on inflammation, especially of mucous membranes

dermatitis - inflammation of the skin evidenced my itchiness, redness, and various lesions

diaphoretic - increases perspiration (syn: sudorific)

diuretic - increases urine flow

dysmenorrhea - painful menstruation

dyspepsia - imperfect or painful digestion

ecbolic - tends to increase contractions of uterus, facilitating childbirth

emetic - produces vomiting

emmenagogue - agent that regulates and induces normal menstruation

emollient - softens and soothes the skin

errhine - bringing on sneezing, increasing flow of mucus in nasal passages

escharotic - a caustic substance that destroys tissue and causes sloughing

estrogenic - causes the production of estrogen

euphoriant - produces a sense of bodily comfort; temporary effect and often addictive

expectorant - facilitates removal of secretions

febrifuge - an agent that reduces or relieves a fever

flatulence - excessive gas in the stomach or intestine

galactagogue - an agent that promotes the flow of milk (syn: galactogenic)

hemagogue - an agent that promotes the flow of blood

hemostatic - controls the flow or stops the flow of blood

hepatic - having to do with the liver

herpetic - treating skin eruptions relating to the herpes virus

hypertensive - raises blood pressure

hypoglycemant - agent that lowers blood sugar

hypotensive - lowers blood pressure

lactifuge - reduces the flow of milk

laxative - substance that acts to loosen the bowels contents

masticatory - increases flow of saliva upon chewing

narcotic - induces drowsiness, sleep, or stupor and lessons pain

nervine - a nerve tonic

neuralgia - severe sharp pain along the course of a nerve

parturfaciant - induces contractions of labor at childbirth

purgative - laxative, causes the evacuation of intestinal contents

resorbent - aids reabsorption of blood from bruises

rheumatism - a general term for acute or chronic conditions characterized by inflammation of the muscles and joints (includes arthritis, gout, bursitis, myositis, and fibromyositis).

rubefacient - agent which reddens skin, dilates the vessels, and increases blood supply locally

sedative - exerts a soothing, tranquilizing effect on the body

soporific - inducing sleep

stimulant - temporarily increases body or organ function

stomachic - aids the stomach and digestion action

sudorific - acts to increase perspiration

tonic - a substance that increases strength and tone (top)