Studies of magick and Wizardry always include the lore of herbs and plants. But not all plants are harmless, and even safe herbs can cause harm if used incorrectly. In this class you will learn the basics of herbal practices, and will learn to how handle and work with plants safely. The information will be relevant to all of the work you do here at the Grey School. Note: This class is a core class for all Wortcunning Majors and Minors.
Introduction to the Use of Herbs
You may already know quite a bit about herbs. Perhaps you cook with them, or enjoy drinking herbal tea. You might have a wreath of dried herbs hanging in your home, or you might bathe with herbal soaps or essential oils. If you have a yard or garden, there’s a good chance that it has herbs growing in it, whether wild or intentionally.
What is a herb? The word “herb” is used to refer to a group of aromatic plants that are often used medicinally or in cooking. The scientific meaning is of a plant whose stem doesn’t produce woody, persistent tissue and that generally dies back at the end of each growing season.
Herbalism is the lore and art of understanding and using the magickal, medicinal and other properties of plants—especially herbs, or, in Old English, worts. The study of herbs and their uses is often known in the Wizarding world by its ancient name of Wortcunning.
Wortcunning has a long and rich history. Humans have long used herbs for cooking and medicinal uses. Many cultures have incorporated herbs in their religious or spiritual practices, while in others, herbs and spices have been considered more valuable than gold and jewels! After the fall of Rome in the 5th century, the salt and spice trade routes became so valuable that wars were fought over them. One of the most colorful moments in United States history involved the Boston Tea Party, with colonists rebelling against paying high taxes on their beloved English tea, which they considered a staple of a civilized life.
Today, you can find herbs just about everywhere you look, in foods, syrups, beverages, dyes, fabric, perfumes, decorative items, toothpastes, candles, gardens, and more. The medicinal herb business has also grown tremendously over the past years, thanks to increasing interest in non-traditional (“western”) medicine.
Herbs have always been an important part of the magickal world, whether in charms, candle work, healing, ritual drinks, or a host of other uses. The colors, oils, and fragrances of herbs can have a powerful effect on mood, attitude, and intention, all important parts of Wizardly actions and spell casting.
The Science of Wortcunning
The real power of herbs is found in their constituents, i.e., the substances that they are made of.
Let’s take a look at some things herbs can contain. (Don’t worry—you won’t be required to memorize this information. However you should look it over, as it will give you a beginning familiarity with these terms. Simplified questions about some of this may also appear on the final exam. You may use your class materials and notes in any final exam.)
Alcohols: These are a large group of compounds that are often found in essential oils. They generally evaporate quickly, causing a drying effect. If too much is ingested, alcohols can cause poisoning.
Alkaloids: A group of organic compounds whose main effects include analgesia (pain relief). Hallucinations and respiratory depression are dangerous side effects.
Bitters: A bitter-tasting, usually alcoholic herb-based liquid. Often included in tonics, bitters also have a variety of effects on the digestive system, e.g., stimulating the appetite and reducing inflammation.
Essential oils: Essential oils are mixtures of hydrocarbons and alcohols. They tend to evaporate at room temperature, have the odor of the plant from which they come, and are often used in perfume and flavorings. (Note: essential oils should never be taken by mouth!) Essential oils are distilled from a variety of plant material including grasses, leaves, flowers, needles, twigs, fruit peel, wood, and roots. Several compounds are found in essential oils; some of the most common of these compounds are menthol, alcohol, and camphor. Essential oils can be anti-fungal or antiseptic. They give herbs their characteristic odors, e.g., think about the intense scent of peppermint, rosemary, or onion.
Glycosides: Chemicals which undergo hydrolysis (a type of chemical breakdown) to yield a sugar (carbohydrate) and one or more non-sugar substances. Many glycosides (such a digitalis, which comes from the foxglove plant) have a strong effect on the heart. Others are purgative (causing the bowels to move, often dramatically!).
Mucilage: A gummy, gelatinous, or slippery substance obtained from certain plants. Mucilaginous substances have a soothing effect on inflamed tissues, these are useful in some cosmetic preparations. A well-known example is the gelatinous inner substance that comes from the aloe plant.
Polysaccharides: Large complex carbohydrate molecules. These can combine easily with other chemicals to produce different compounds. Pectin and mucilage, which sooth, relax and protect the esophagus, stomach, and intestines, are polysaccharide-based.
Saponins: Plant glycosides that form a soapy lather when mixed or agitated with water. These may have hormone-mimicking activities, and are also useful as soaps and detergents.
Tannins: Compounds that react with protein to produce a leather-like or tanned coloring. They promote healing, reduce inflammation, and stop infection. Tannins also have strong antioxidant activity; this means that they help prevent tissue changes from age or wear-and-tear.
Volatile oils: (see essential oils):
Using Herbs Safely
In Wizarding terms, herb use is a science, an art, and a magickal practice. It is a science because it uses substances that contain active chemicals and cause specific reactions to take place. The science of herbs requires precision and careful attention to detail. Herb use is also an art, because a good herbalist brings all of their senses into the use of herbs, and learns to make judgments about the patient, the situation, and the best herbal approach. Finally, the use of herbs in magick and ritual makes herbalism an important aspect of magickal practice.
Both the art and science of herbal practices require careful study. If you decide to undertake a serious study of wortcunning, you will need to study and practice for years in order to have a beginning mastery of the craft.
Many herbs are entirely safe, while others may have harmful side effects. A few can be deadly. In the United States, the use of herbs is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); safe use relies on the wisdom, care, and integrity of the individual practitioner. As an apprentice Wizard, it is important that you learn the rules for handling and working with herbs.
Let’s work through a basic list of safety rules, and their explanations.
1. You’re a beginning Wizard. Therefore you should only use herbs in ways that are explained and/or approved by a teacher or mentor.
This is very important, and is an absolute! As you become familiar with herbs in your studies, devote space to them in your magickal journal. Makes notes of your herbal “experiments,” i.e., what you did, how it worked, etc. By doing this, you will gradually built a working file of herbs that you have learned about and can use safely. But for now, the only work you do with herbs should be directed or supervised by an expert.
It’s important to realize that herbs may have many different uses. For example, let’s look at the common herb, peppermint (Mentha piperata).
When used in cooking, peppermint is valued for its minty flavor.When used in cosmetics, it is useful for its cool “feel” and its scent.When used medicinally, it is helpful at soothing gastric upset.When used magickally, it promotes purification, sleep, love, healing, and psychic abilities.
In order to make the best use of herbs, you will need to learn these attributes for every herb you wish to work with.
2. Keep track of what you learn.
Every time you use or study a new herb, take notes.
An easy way to do this is to give each herb a separate page in your magickal journal. Write down everything you know or find out about the herb on its very own page. Sketch the herb, if you can. Add your herbal experiments. If you do this with each herb, soon you will understand more about them.
Some people may prefer to start a separate journal exclusively for their herbal works. Others may set up a card file, with a separate card for each herb, each herbal recipe, etc.
Whatever system works is fine. The important thing is to have a system and to use it. Not only will writing about the herbs help “set” the information in your mind, but it will also give you a reference to look back on later.
3. Just because it’s an herb, doesn’t mean it’s safe!
Many people feel that just because herbs are natural, they are automatically safe. They think that because herbs are natural, they can't be harmful.
Let’s consider some of the things in the world that are both natural and harmful: radioactive uranium… ultraviolet radiation from the sun… freezing temperatures… floods… poisonous plants… tornados… You get the idea.
Even herbs can be harmful. For example, the foxglove plant—which has lovely flowers—provides digitalis. Digitalis is used by physicians to treat people with heart conditions; used improperly, it is a deadly poison and can kill.
Or, consider the cascara plant. It’s lovely to look at, but if you cut and sharpen one of its branches and use it to toast marshmallows, you’ll get a whopping case of diarrhea!
Many herbs which are safe and therapeutic when used correctly may have side effects when used incorrectly, e.g., in too large a dose.
To be safe, all herbs should be treated like a form of medicine.
4. Learn about herbs before you use them.
Here at the Grey School, you’re lucky to have many classes (and experts!) available to teach you about herbs. These include:
Year 1: Safety and Herb use; Introduction to Herbology; Double, Double
Year 2: Herbcrafting 201; Wortcunning and Herbalism
And more.... You can always find a complete list of Wortcunning classes by going to the Wortcunning department menu via the department buttons on the left side of the GSW main page.
This is only a beginning—as the school grows, so will the number of classes in Wortcunning.
The Grimoire for the Apprentice Wizard has some very basic information about herbs. You may also want to invest in one or more books or field guides about herbs. There are also several excellent websites that provides detailed information about herbs, and often feature photos, too. See the “Resources” section at the end of this class and the Grey School Library site for suggestions.
5. Before using an herb, be certain of its identity.
Let’s say this again: Before using a herb, you must be absolutely sure that you know what it is.
The best way to be sure that you are using the right kind of herb is to buy it from a reputable dealer, such as a natural health stores. This might include buying raw, unprocessed herbs or might extend to buying processed herb tablets, capsules, teas, etc. Before you buy any herbal product make sure that the herb’s scientific name, plant part used, date of manufacture, date of expiration, and name and address of the manufacturer are on the label.
Another way to be sure of your herbs is to grow them yourself, using seeds or plant starts from a garden shop that keeps a large stock of herbs.
Wildcrafting is another good way to be sure of herbs. In wildcrafting, herbs are collected from the wild. This isn’t always as easy as it sounds, though. Principles of conservation must be followed, and the collector must also be sure that the herbs have not been contaminated by air pollutants, pesticides or herbicides, etc. As a beginning herbalist, you should not collect herbs by wildcrafting—this is something that should wait until you have more experience.
One of the best ways to know that you have the right herb is to learn to identify herbs form someone who knows how. An herb mentor can teach you to identify herbs by sight, smell, and touch, appreciating all of the subtle differences that make each plant unique.
Another important—and obvious—point in learning herbs is to go slowly. Start with only one or two, then learn as much as you can about them before you move on to new ones.
A good field guide is invaluable in identifying and studying herbs.
Last but not least, it’s a good idea to know and use the Latin names of herbs. This is a good way to be sure that you are talking about exactly the same herb as is your teacher or reference material. If you say “mint,” you could be referring to any number of plants. If you say Mentha arvensis, other herb users will know that you are speaking about a specific type of peppermint used in Chinese medicine.
6. Before using a pre-made herbal remedy, be certain of its other contents.
Herbal remedies may have other unlabeled medicines or materials mixed in with them. Never take a pre-made herbal remedy without knowing each of its components. Reputable herb companies will list each item on the label.
7. Be aware that herbs can interact with each other and with other non-herbal medications.
When herbs are taken with a prescribed or over-the-counter drug, health problems may occur. Some herbal products contain active ingredients that can produce unexpected side effects. For example, Saw palmetto contains an estrogen-like chemical, while Gingko biloba can interfere with blood clotting.
If you are taking medication regularly for any reason, you should discuss possible interactions with your doctor before using herbs.
Also, even if your health care provider gives their okay to use herbs while taking prescription medication, do not take the herbs and medication at the same time, as the two may interact. Also, the absorption of one may be affected by the other.
8. Be prepared!
When a chef prepares to create an edible masterpiece, they begin with mise en place, French for, “everything in its place.” What this means is that before they start cooking, they assemble all of their ingredients and read the recipe through at least once.
You should practice your own version of mise en place with your herbal workings. Before you start, have all of your ingredients ready. Double-check your information and read your instructions through carefully. Make sure that you have enough room and that you’ve thought ahead about safety (see Lesson 5). Have a paper and pencil ready to record the details of your experiment. As you work, double-check your measurements and refer back to the recipe as often as you need to.
9. When preparing an herb, follow directions exactly.
When working with herbs, more is not better! We’ve already talked about how even a safe herb can become toxic when used incorrectly. Make sure to follow directions, measure carefully, and follow exact dosage recommendations.
When using a pre-made herbal preparation, follow the directions on the package precisely.
10. Until you are more experienced as a herbalist, do not administer herbs to pregnant or breast-feeding women, young children (6 and under), infants, or the elderly.
Fetuses and babies lack are unable to detoxify harmful chemicals in herbs. Any chemical that enters their bodies presents a serious stress to their systems. Caffeine provides a good example of this. The caffeine in a cup of coffee is cleared from an adult body in about 5 hours; the same (proportionate) amount of caffeine takes a newborn infant about 80 hours to clear.
Because scientific studies have not been done on many herbs, pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, infants, and young children should not use certain herbs.
Older people (65+) and people with serious health conditions (particularly liver and kidney problems) should also be careful about the use of herbs.
While herbs can be very useful in all of the above groups, apprentices who are just beginning to study herbalism should not work with babies, young children, pregnant women, or the elderly unless they are under the mentorship of an experienced practitioner.
Finally, you must never administer or recommend herbs to a minor child (e.g., under age 18) without first having their parent’s permission.
11. Be aware that in recipes with two or more herbs, unexpected interactions may occur between the herbs. In medicine, this is known as polypharmacy (literally, “many medications”), and it may cause one of several reactions: • One herb may diminish or even cancel the effects of another. • One herb may potentiate (enhance or make more powerful) the effects of another. • One herb may react with another in a way that causes unexpected positive or negative effects. These effects could be new, i.e., they could be completely different from the known effects of the herbs involved. Because of this, it’s always best to avoid using recipes that combine more three or more different herbs, unless the recipe comes from an experienced source who has tested the mixture and is confident that it has no untoward effects.
12. Give herbs time to work.
In this modern world of a “pill for everything”, folks have come to expect instant cures, instant relief. But like many medicines, herbs usually work slowly, their affects making gradual adjustments in the body’s natural defenses and functions.
When starting a course of herbs, the herbs must be given time to work before either changing the dosage or discontinuing. Since you are a beginning Wizard, you will not know anything about dosage regimens, or about how long it will take to judge the effects of an herb. Your instructor or mentor will advise you and will help you gain knowledge in this area.
Like all medicines, herbs work best in a supportive environment. Support herbal effects by maintaining optimal health: sleep well, exercise, and follow the proper diet.
You should note that with chronic illness, even prescription drugs take time to work. The same applies with herbal medicines. Give them time to work. Support them with a proper diet, with exercise, and with proper attention to yourself. If the herbs aren’t working for you, then you either have the wrong combinations, the wrong dosages, or you aren’t adhering to a proper healing regimen. Contact a trained health care professional for guidance as to what works for you and your specific body.
13. If adverse effects occur, stop using the herb immediately.
An adverse effect is anything that is unexpected and that is not a desired effect of the herb that was administered. Examples of adverse effects (also called “side effects”) can include nausea, vomiting, rash, diarrhea, agitation, etc.
If an adverse effect occurs, stop using the herb >U>immediately. If the adverse effects persist, a doctor’s advice should be sought.
14. Store your herbs well marked and out of children’s each.
Make sure your herbs are carefully labeled and dated. This will help you to identify them easily, and will also remind you when an herb is outdated.
Like any medicine, herbs should be stored well out of the reach of young children. Storing them in a dark place and in tightly closed glass containers is ideal. If exposed to light or heat, herbs lose their potency very quickly.
15. Be wary of taking any essential oil internally.
Unless you know otherwise, assume that essential oils are only for external use (in lotions, creams, inhalations, etc.). Many of them can be dangerous when ingested, and you should never include them in preparations that are to be eaten or drank unless you are certain of their safety. Keep them well out of the range of children: essential oils smell great and are stored in attractive little bottles, making them very appealing to small children.
16. When you come up against something you don’t know, STOP and ask an expert.
This may be the most important rule yet. I hope you’re getting the idea that the art and science of herb use is a gradual process. It depends on your attention to detail and your willingness to learn. This also means that when you don’t know something, you have to stop what you’re doing and find out what it is that you need to know. The easiest way to do this is to ask an expert herbalist.
You may not be comfortable asking questions. You might worry about admitting that you don’t know all of the answers. But part of studying Wizardry is always being a seeker. No Wizard has all of the answers, and even the greatest Wizard asks many questions.
The ethics of safe herb use requires that you always consider safety first.
When you don’t know…. ASK.
17. If you are a young Wizard (younger than 18 years old), make sure to keep your parents informed about your work and projects.
As a young apprentice in the Grey School, you take your lessons seriously. If you also want your parents to take your work seriously, be sure to communicate with them, telling them what you’re learning and what you’re working on.
Also, show respect for your home by keeping you Wizardly work areas neat and tidy. If your parents see that you can clean up after yourself, they’re more likely to offer you the use of their kitchen, tools, etc.
Safety in the Kitchen
Much of this will seem obvious, but it’s worth reviewing.
Some herbal preparations will require you to use a knife to peel or chop herbs, roots, etc. If you are under 14, you should get your parent’s permission before handling “sharps.” If you are not certain about how to hold and use a sharp knife, ask someone who knows to show you how.
In general, the sharp edge of your knife should always point away from you, and you should always cut away from your body and into or toward a cutting board. Do not walk around with sharp knives, and when done using them, wash and dry them and put them away. Never leave knives where a child could come in and pick them up.
Some preparations require the use of a stove. Again, young Wizards should first have their parent’s permission. Never work over either fire or a hot stove with loosely hanging sleeves, as they can catch on fire. This also means that you shouldn’t wear a Wizard’s rope of cloak when working with fire or hot surfaces. If it’s important to you to wear your robes while working, tie or wrap them from the wrist to the elbow, as shown in some older books with sketches of alchemists.
Also be aware that the heat can burn your skin directly if you aren’t careful. Use hot pads to move kettles to and from the stove. Keep your face away from the pot to avoid being burned by steam. Set cooking pots on heat-safe objects, such as cutting boards or trivets.
If working with waxes or oils, NEVER place them into a pot and directly on a burner. These substances can easily catch on fire, even at relatively low temperatures. To heat oil or melt wax you should always used a double boiler.
The safest and best way to heat oils or melt waxes is in a double boiler style. A double boiler is really two pans that fit into each other (see photo). You start by adding 1-2” of water to the bottom pan, then nest the other pan on top of the first one. Your oil or wax are placed in the top pan. The stove is then turned on (low or medium; no higher!); the water in the lower pan gets hot and creates a gentle heat that melts the oil or wax.
You can also put the oil or wax into a heatproof glass (Pyrex, for example) or small metal container. Place that container carefully into the center of a larger pot or pan that is filled with 1-2 inches of water. Use a low or medium heat setting as above to heat the water and melt the material. If using this method, use a hot pad or perhaps cooking tongs to carefully remove your Pyrex or metal container from the hot water bath.
If your wax or oil catch fire, cover the pan immediately with a lid, or smother the flames with either salt or baking soda. This will put the fire out. You should always keep one or more of these on hand when working with oil or wax, just in case. It’s also a good idea to know where the home fire extinguisher can be found.
Never throw water on burning wax or oil! It will not put the fire out, and it is likely to splash burning oil and wax around your kitchen, or—worse—on you!
When working with hot or boiling water, keep the pot handles turned toward the back of the stove; this will help prevent you from accidentally bumping one and spilling the pot.
Use extreme care in moving and pouring hot or boiling water. The best method is to place the empty target pot or mug into your kitchen sink. Then, pour the boiling water from your heating kettle into the target pot or mug, working slowly and carefully so that the water doesn’t splash.
Simple Kitchen First Aid
If you are burned, immediately apply ice or ice-cold water to the burn, and seek help from someone nearby.
If you are cut, wrap a clean cloth or towel around the cut, apply pressure, raise it above heart level, and ask someone nearby to look at it. If seeing blood makes you feel faint, sit down and put your head down between your knees until your head clears.
P.S. All herbalists are strongly recommended to complete the Grey School’s “Wizardly First Aid” class in the Department of Healing.
Keeping Records of Your Herbal Experiments
When you take the “Staff and Scroll” class in Year 2, you will learn about record-keeping and “Experiments.”
Experiments can be thought of as tasks that you—an apprentice Wizard—undertake in order to learn.
Examples of experiments include:
Making a ritual tool Learning to prepare an herbal infusion Creating a simple charm or spell Choosing a list of Grey School classes for your upcoming study
Each step in your work with herbs will be a new experiment. In order to learn from these, you must keep a record of your work. That way, you’ll always be able to recreate something that worked very well, or to revise an experiment that didn’t.
As noted earlier in this class, some people choose to incorporate the herbal experiments in their standard magickal journal. Some may set up a separate journal to use just for their work with herbs. Others might use up a computer file for their herbal notes.
Still others might choose to use a card file and 3x5 or 4x6 index cards, with one card for each experiment. One advantage of this approach is that the cards are small and can easily be carried anywhere, tucked into a book, etc.
It doesn’t matter so much how you keep your herbal records; the important things is that you DO IT!
For each experiment, your notes should include the following:
Date and time Purpose or goal of your work Materials Type of project (infusion, charm, etc.) Dosage (if applicable) Any appropriate storage information (Does it need to be used within 48 hours? Kept refrigerated?)
Use your head!
As an apprentice wizard, one of the most important things you can do is to ask questions and seek information about everything. Your brain is the very best tool you own—better than your laptop, your favorite books, or even your magick wand. Use it!
As a Wizard working with herbs, you will encounter words you’ve never heard before. It’s important that you understand them. As your studies progress, you will realize that the Study of Magickal and Medicinal Herbalism comes with a language all its own.
A Note On Wild Mushrooms
About Mushroom Poisoning in the United States
More than 9000 cases of mushroom ingestions are reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers annually. Even though only about 100 types of mushrooms are responsible for most cases of mushroom poisoning, and less than a dozen species are considered deadly, there are approximately 5000 varieties to sort them from in the United States. If a mushroom is poisonous, it will be more dangerous to young children, old people and those already battling illness. Even mushrooms usually considered "safe" have caused death in very young children and very ill adults. Then there are a number of mushrooms that can cause death in healthy adults.
A biologist trained in the study of mushrooms is called a "mycologist". To make a positive identification, a mycologist looks at many factors, such as the color, gills, spores, stalks and base portion of the mushroom. The spores must be examined under a microscope to detect differences. He or she must also consider whether the mushroom being examined was growing in the woods, on a lawn or on a tree. The process is so involved that it is impossible to identify a mushroom from a description over the telephone. It is truly a very difficult and time-consuming art that demands precision and accuracy, as well as many years of study.
For more information on mushrooms © CPCS and Regents, University of California. 2000: Http://www.calpoison.org/public/mushrooms.html
The Human Factor
Okay…. You’ve done the research, gathered the ingredients, and—with the help of your teacher or another expert—have created an herbal preparation.
Before you or anyone else eats, drinks, inhales, or applies the herb, these are still some very important considerations to work through.
Many people are allergic to various plants, or the things contained in the plants. Question them carefully about allergies before using any herbs.
Many people have medical conditions that certain herbs will aggravate. Question your subject carefully, and do not give them herbs if they are very young, elderly, pregnant, breastfeeding, or being treated for a serious medical disorder.
IMPORTANT: It is against the law to “prescribe medicine” without a license. This means you may not recommend a “remedy” for an “illness”, unless you are licensed to do so (i.e., unless you are a physician, nurse, or other licensed health care provider).
Finally, if any part of you is at all uneasy about administering a herbal preparation, listen to that inner voice and DON’T ADMINISTER THE HERB. An important part of Wizardry is learning to listen to one’s intuition. Hopefully, by carefully researching your work and carrying it out according to all of the safety rules we have discussed above, you will have no problems in using your herbal experiments.
Before undertaking work with herbs, review and re-review the above rules and everything you know about safe herb use. It is your responsibility to not cause harm.
A disclaimer is a statement that tells Person S (subject) that the information given to her by Person H (herbalist) is to be used at her own risk, and that Person H cannot be responsible for what Person S does with the information.
Disclaimers protect those (such as Person H) who offer information so they cannot be held legally responsible for the actions of Person S.
Although Wizards (and apprentice Wizards) are responsible for our own actions, disclaimers offer us additional protection. For instance, you may decide to talk to someone about a sage infusion that you whipped up to treat your cough and cold. You are simply telling them about it, and are not recommending that they use it. But then they go home and try it on their own, with disastrous results. And they blame you!
When you’re talking with someone else about herbs, a simple way to issue a disclaimer is to remind them that they shouldn’t try the remedy themselves unless they first seek the advice of an expert.
As a Wizard working with herbs, you are also bound by a code of ethics. You are honor-bound to treat your knowledge successfully. If you have the slightest idea that your herbal workings might not be safely used by another person, you probably shouldn’t discuss herbs with that person—with or without a disclaimer.
It is also important to be sure of your resources. The best field guides have a scientific basis and are written by experts. The same goes for herb-related web sites—beware of following suggestions on web sites that are “personal,” i.e., written by one person who may or may not be an expert or have authentic credentials. When using any resource, always try to determine the expertise of the writer and the quality of their underlying research.
As always, it is your responsibility to use your knowledge and common sense, to practice with as much skill as you posses, and to always seek to do no harm.
Harvesting and Using Herbs—the Basics
This is only an introductory class, and if you want to learn more about wortcunning, you’ll need to sign up for more detailed classes. Nevertheless, for this class it’s important that you understand the basics of handling and using medicinal herbs.
The constituent chemicals—and thus the therapeutic properties—of herbs can be affected by the timing and method of their harvesting. Depending on the plant, the flowers, leaves, stems, roots, bulbs, bark, seeds, and/or sap may be harvested.
In general, the following are true about harvesting herbs:
1. Flowering herbs are best harvested in the morning on a dry day.
2. Roots and barks will have certain seasons in which they are best harvested.
3. Once harvested, herbs should used right away or should be dried quickly, away from sunlight or bright light.
4. Once dry, herbs should be stored in labeled (and dated) glass or ceramic containers in a dark place.
5. Most dried herbs will keep 12-18 months.
As you begin working with herbs, you will learn a brand new vocabulary. Here are some of the more common terms:
Bezoar: An antidote to a dangerous poison.
Charm: One or more herbs (and sometimes other substances) that are placed within a small container or cloth packet/pouch. The properties of the herbs and the user’s intention give the charm its power.
Compress: A pad is soaked in a hot or cold herbal infusion and is applied to the area being treated.
Cream: Herbs are mixed with water, fats, and/or oils to form a creamy mixture.
Decoction: Fresh or dried herbs are added to water and simmered over low to medium heat for up to an hour.
Drying: The process of removing all moisture from herbs, so that they may be stored for long periods. If even a small amount of moisture remains, the herbs will become moldy and will be worthless (and potentially dangerous).
Elixir: An infusion that cures illness or promotes health or longevity.
Infusion: An infusion is like a tea, but is much stronger (i.e., more herbs are used and/or the herbs are steeped in the liquid for a longer time). Sometimes other substances—such as sweeteners—are added to infusions.
Infused oils: Herbs are added to a carrier oil and heated gently for a period of time; the oil is strained and stored in a cool, dark place. In cold infusions, the herbs are allowed to soak in the oil for a long period of time, e.g., 2-3 weeks, without heating.
Liniments: These are prepared the same way as tinctures, but rubbing alcohol is used as the base. The result is for EXTERNAL USE ONLY. (And should always be labeled so!) Liniments are rubbed into aching muscles and joints.
Ointment: Herbs are combined with fats, waxes (e.g., paraffin, beeswax, and/or oils to make a thick creamy mixture.
Philtre: A “love potion.”
Plaster: Same as “poultice.”
Poison: Any substance that is toxic to the recipient, i.e., is capable of causing illness or death. Some items that are medicinal can become poisonous if taken at unsafe doses or if used incorrectly. Universal signs for poison are the skull and crossbones and the “Mr. Yuk” sticker.
Powders: Dried herbs are processed in a food processor or with a mortar and pestle until they become a fine powder. Empty gelatin capsules are then filled with the powder.
Potion: Any type of liquid brew (i.e., infusion, decoction) intended to be drunk by the person it is meant to affect.
Poultice: Whole, chopped, or mashed herbs are heated briefly in water to cause them to wilt. The wilted herbs are then applied to the body part being treated, and are held in place with a wrapping of some sort.
Salve: Same as “ointment.”
Skin wash: An infusion that is use to bathe wounds, rashes, etc.
Syrup: Honey or unrefined sugar is added to an herbal infusion or decoction. Syrups are often used for cough preparations or to flavor medicines given to children.
Tea: A tea is made by steeping (soaking) fresh or dried herbs in a quantity of hot water for a specific period of time.
Therapeutic: If something is therapeutic, it’s either treats illness or adds to one’s well being.
Tincture: Herbs (fresh or dried) are steeped in alcohol or in a mixture of alcohol and water. Tinctures are usually administered in drops (very small quantities).
Toddy: A traditional mixture in which a hot herbal infusion is mixed with a quantity of alcohol. Lemon juice and honey are also typical additions.
Tonic: An infusion that cures illness or promotes health or longevity. Tonics are often associated with season use, as in the “spring tonic.”
You have learned that Wortcunning is serious business, and that it carries great responsibility.
As an Apprentice of Wizardry, you are ethically bound to use all of your care and wisdom to make sure that you handle and administer herbs safely.
As you become more skilled in the uses of herbs, you will find it exciting to talk with fellow Wizards and herbalists about your experiments. In doing so, it is important that you only pass on information that you know to be absolutely correct and safe.
If you’re not certain about an herbal preparation, don’t discuss it with others. Also, if someone else passes on their information to you, ask enough questions and request enough information to satisfy yourself that what they’re describing is safe.
Don’t worry that you may offend anyone by questioning what they tell you. If they are practicing ethically, they will understand and respect your concern. They will also be anxious to show you that their words are valid and can be trusted.
Headmaster Oberon Zell-Ravenheart writes, “There is power to prevent—to keep things from happening that ones does not wish to happen, against the will of others who do. And the choice that stands before anyone who holds such power is the same: to rule or to serve.”
Whats Next? If you’ve completed this class and find that you’re interested in herbs and would like to know more, here are some suggestions.
a. Sign up for additional herb-related classes in the Grey School (see lesson 4).
b. Select a Major or Minor in Wortcunning. You will pick your Major and Minor in Year Two of your studies. Your Major and Minor require you to develop expertise in those areas, and act as a sort of “specialty” during your years at the Grey School. If you’re interested in herbs, Wortcunning may be the perfect choice!
c. Take the “Wizardly First Aid” class in the Department of Healing. This is a general first aid class and will also teach you a great deal about observation and physical assessment. These are valuable skills to have if you’re interested in Wortcunning and medicinal herb use.
d. Read field guides, herbal magazines, and other reference materials. Many of these are available in your local library, or for a reduced price when purchased used (try Amazon.com for this).
e. With the help of instructors, incorporate herbal work into your studies. Charms, infusions, smudges, and more can become vital parts of your ritual practices.
f. Consider planting and tending your own herb garden. It’s fun and will produce a fresh supply of your favorite herbs, with only a little bit of work. ©Grey School of Wizardry 2020, All rights reserved. Current Instructor: Dean Katy Ravensong