New To Plant Medicine? Here Are 10 Perfect Herbs For Beginners

Photo: Trinette Reed

Feeling called to the herbal world? Confused about where to start? As we see a resurgence of collective interest in traditional plant-based healing, we’re simultaneously inundated with a flood of information, recommendations, and herbal products. For serious or chronic health issues, it’s a good idea to seek out a trained herbalist for an in-depth assessment, and for specific questions about herbs and dosing, seek out places that have herbalists on staff as well as regular herb-focused classes and workshops.

If you’re curious about exploring herbs on your own, it’s important to consider the herbs that are around you; oftentimes, potent plant medicine is growing in your backyard—not half a world away! We’re privileged to have so many wonderful, abundant herbs available to us locally. And as an herbalist at the Alchemist's Kitchen, I recommend you get to know these today.

1. Stinging nettle

Nettle, perhaps more commonly known as "stinging nettle," is an herbalist’s best friend. High in minerals like calcium, iron, protein, and vitamin A, nettle is very nourishing and nutritive. Studies show that nettle can supply 90 to 100 percent of dietary vitamin A. Nettle is a wonderful ally for those suffering with seasonal allergies, as it has powerful antihistamine action.

How to use nettle: Drink nettle as a tea; the best method is to make an overnight infusion by pouring boiling water over the dried leaves, covering it, and letting the tea steep overnight. Nettle can also be used as a tincture or a vinegar or purchased in capsule form and even as a food (fresh nettle is delicious in pestos, soups, and the like). Just make sure to process by blending or cooking to break down the stinging hairs!

2. Dandelion

Dandelion, considered by many to be one of the most maligned weeds, is one of our most versatile and beneficial herbs! All parts of the plant can be used—the flowers make a lovely wine, the tender leaves can be picked and used in a salad, and the root may be decocted (boiled) and enjoyed as a coffee substitute. The leaves and root possess a diuretic quality, and the root contains high levels of inulin and fiber. Inulin is a great prebiotic, feeding beneficial bacteria in the intestines and helping to populate beneficial bacteria in the gut. The root is prized for its liver- and kidney-clearing properties as well. Given dandelion’s abundance and versatile uses, it’s a perfect plant for the beginning herbalist.

How to use dandelion: Experiment away and experience the whole plant. Try making wine, a salad, a decoction, a tincture, a vinegar, or an oxymel. An oxymel is a mixture of honey and vinegar and a great way to administer herbs that don't taste that great on their own.

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3. Calendula

Calendula is a beautiful flower as well as another powerhouse herb. Bright yellow and orange, Calendula flowers contain high concentrations of healing resins and flavonoids and have been shown to be antiviral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and have wound-healing properties.

How to use calendula: Calendula really shines as a topical remedy and is an extremely common ingredient in herbal skin care products like balms and salves due to its amazing healing properties. Calendula oil is an effective, gentle remedy for acne, burns, scars, rashes, eczema and psoriasis, skin infections, sties, diaper rash, and is safe to use for babies and nursing mothers. Calendula prepared as a tea or added into medicinal broths can be healing internally as well, for issues like ulcers, stomach upset, colds, and viruses.

4. Elderberry

Elderberry is your go-to herb for immunity! Elderberry and elderflower are both wonderful remedies for colds, flu, fevers, viruses, and all acute respiratory issues. Elderberry has potent antiviral properties and is very high in bioflavonoids with an antioxidant ORAC value twice that of blueberries. Taking elderberry at the first sign of a cold can boost the immune system and reduce the duration and severity. In one study, patients given elderberry extract four times a day for five days had full relief from influenza symptoms on average four days earlier than the placebo group. Elderflower can help to alleviate sinusitis, bronchitis, allergies, cold, flu, and fever.

How to use elderberry: Both elderberry and elderflower can be made into tasty, immune-boosting syrup, cough drops, gummies, and teas-—and is especially good for kids!

5. Chamomile

Chamomile is a quintessential soothing herb, often drank as a tea before bed to induce sleepiness or to quiet an upset stomach—a cup of chamomile tea is like a warm hug in a mug. But chamomile is so much more than a sleepy-time tea! It has also been used traditionally to treat hay fever, inflammation, muscle spasms, menstrual disorders, ulcers, rheumatic pain, and hemorrhoids.

How to use chamomile: Chamomile is often brewed as a tea, but it can be taken as a tincture, honey, or syrup and used externally, too. Topically, chamomile can be used to treat diaper rash, chickenpox, ear or eye infections, blocked tear ducts, conjunctivitis, and poison ivy.

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6. Sage

Sage has become synonymous with wisdom, and for excellent reason! Sage is an indispensable remedy for the elderly or those wishing to sharpen their mental acuity, as it is a very effective herb for preserving memory, cognition, and alertness. Studies have shown that sage offers long-term protection against dementia, as well as elevating mood and increasing feelings of tranquillity. Sage also offers proven relief for women suffering from menopause-related hot flashes.

How to use sage: Made into a tea and gargled, sage can help to heal sore throats and toothaches due to its antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. Not to mention, it’s a delicious addition to many dishes, next time, don’t use sparingly!

7. Lemon balm

Lemon balm is one of the friendliest herbs out there! It makes a lovely tea and has light notes of citrus. But lemon balm packs a powerful punch; it is notably mood-enhancing, has anti-anxiety action, and can help with insomnia—especially when combined with other herbs. It’s also carminative and will alleviate digestive issues, gas, and colic. Most interestingly perhaps, lemon balm is potently antiviral, and studies have shown "...that when Lemon Balm was used to treat the primary infection of HSV I, not a single recurrence was noted. The cream has also been found to reduce the healing time of both genital and oral herpes." Studies of its effectiveness against viral loads showed "high, concentration-dependent activity against HIV infection."

How to use lemon balm: Lemon balm is available as a tincture, tea, or capsule.

8. Tulsi

Tulsi—also known as holy basil—is native to India. It has long been revered in the ayurvedic tradition as "The Queen of Herbs" for its soothing and tonifying effects on the mind, body, and spirit. Tulsi has adaptogenic properties, which means it helps the body adapt to the effects of stress, aids in the stabilization of physiological processes, and promotes homeostasis. Tulsi also has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic properties. In one six-week study, those taking Tulsi significantly improved stress scores, sexual and sleep problems, and symptoms like forgetfulness and exhaustion.

How to use tulsi: Tulsi makes a delicious, harmonizing tea and is healing topically, too. Tulsi can be ingested in syrup, capsule, or tincture form—overall a delicious herb with which to experiment!

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9. Yarrow

Yarrow is an amazing ally to have in your herbal first aid kit, a supreme wound healer possessing antimicrobial properties. Applying a few drops of yarrow tincture, tea, or a few shakes of yarrow powder to a wound will help to stanch blood flow and heal and disinfect the wound. Yarrow tones the blood vessels, works to prevent blood clots, and improves overall circulation. It's also helpful as a women’s herb—yarrow can alleviate cramps, help to stanch heavy bleeding, and also help to provoke scanty bleeding. Yarrow has an antiseptic action on the urinary tract and can prevent and fight urinary tract infections.

How to use yarrow: Experience yarrow as a tea, tincture, powder, or poultice (when the herb is softened, heated, spread on a cloth, and applied on sores or other lesions).

10. Mugwort

Mugwort is a very abundant herb with an affinity for the dream world. In acupuncture, mugwort is used in moxibustion, during which it is burned in a tight cigarlike shape and held near the surface of the skin to warm and invigorate the flow of chi and relieve muscle spasms and cramping. This healing practice should, of course, be performed by a trained professional. Moxibustion and topical applications of mugwort are wonderful remedies for muscle and menstrual cramps!

How to use mugwort: While it’s not recommended to ingest, mugwort can easily be dried and hung in the bedroom or made into a pillow sachet to induce lucid dreaming. Mugwort can also make a nice smudge stick, which can be burned in the bedroom to achieve the same effects!

To source fresh herbs in your community, seek out local farmers markets, CSAs, and farms in your area or look for outdoor classes sometimes called "Herb Walks" or "Plant Walks," lead by herbalists or foragers. If you live in New England or New York, check out Sawmill Farm's Fresh Herb CSA, which runs May-October. If you can't source fresh herbs in your community, seek out herb shops or health food stores that carry organically cultivated and ethically sourced dried herbs. Flower Power, Radicle, and Remedies herb shops all carry dried, bulk herbs. You'll want to purchase at least an ounce of dried herbs with which to experiment. Make sure you consult a recipe for exact measurements though, if you have something specific in mind.

Alternately, shops like The Alchemist's Kitchen carry finely crafted, small batch herbal remedies and tinctures, salves, and teas as artisanal, finished products. Store all herbs and herbal products in a cool dark place. When stored properly, many herbal products will have a shelf live of several years; aim to use up dried herbs within a few months. Its recommended to spend some quality time with your herbal allies, so that you can truly understand their particular medicine

Curious about elderberry? Here's why our health editor always has it in her medicine cabinet.

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