The longer I live this seasonal lifestyle, the longer I work with plants the more I realize I have to learn. I grew up in a gardening family and I learned a lot from simply being in a family that raised a few vegetables and flowers and the more I do myself, the more I want to learn. There are books and websites and classes and so much more readily available to us these days that it can get overwhelming. It’s taken me a while but I’ve finally figured out a system that works well for me. We all learn differently but if you’re looking to learn how to study herbs and other plants, start with these simple ideas and refine as you go.
Any plant study has to begin with proper identification. For some plants, we may inherently know what they are and simply want to understand more about it for others, we might be starting from scratch. When starting from scratch consider these tips to get accurate information:
- Get a good plant identification guidebook for your particular geographic region.
- Ask someone local. This tends to be the best source most of the time
- Take a local class. Many herbalists offer herb walks and often there are local folks willing to teach. Take a class from someone knowledgeable and write copious notes and take photos.
Once identification, at least with a local name, is made find the scientific name. This is important because often the same plant will have different local names. For example, pigweed to me is a type of wild amaranth but I saw someone else in a different part of the country call purslane pigweed – confusing because they are not even remotely the same or have the same uses or harvest. Find the scientific name and commit it to memory (this takes practice but it’s worthwhile), this way you can always be sure everyone is talking about the same plant.
Once a plant has been positively identified, research its uses. Take time to delve into books and websites to discover edible, medicinal, and any other potential uses. It is so much easier to jot this all done on a page or two dedicated to that plant rather than have to look it all up again every time the plant is found. Simply make notes of the plants that are used (leaves or roots for example) and how it’s eaten (raw or cooked). This doesn’t have to take hours unless an in-depth study is the goal, but rather just a few minutes to compile all that info in one place. I’ll often jot down a note and include a reference citation with the source and page number so I can go back later, if necessary. Some great sources of plant information include:
- If you’re in the United States, the USDA has an amazing online plant database that often includes information about historical uses of the plant as well as growing information (assuming it’s a type of wild or native plant). Their plant profiles are available as pdf files which are easily printable for future reference.
- Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health: This book contains a multitude of recipes but also plenty of basic information on herbs and plants and their many uses.
- Because I try to stick to things that are growing close at hand and that truly aren’t all that exotic the book, Backyard Medicine, comes in handy often. It covers things you’ll find growing in yards and parks – things most of us think of as weeds and gives us lots of healing ways to use them.
Keep It Organized
Keep all those notes organized in a binder or journal of some sort. I have a journal template that I use to glue in a photo of the herb as well as spots for common and scientific names, information on when and where I saw the plant and big spaces for edible and medicinal uses. I file these sheets in a binder behind alphabetical tabs. I often also put any printouts from online or copies from borrowed library books here as well. This helps me create my own home herbal library to refer to later on.
Keep an index of sorts as well. Write down common ailments and the names of the herbs that work for that, this way you can go to the herb pages you have completed. Keep a list of leaves that are edible in one spot, roots in another, etc. Having that organized will save tons of time thumbing through pages later.
Each time a wildflower or herb catches my eye. I take a photo, I’m not much of a sketch artist but if that’s more your personal style, go for it. I research that flower, identify it look for uses and write it all down on my herb page. Doing this consistently is helping me better understand the multitude of things available to me and their many uses.
Having a Use Does Not Equate Personal Usefulness
As I write and learn about herbs and plants, I find it fascinating to learn about how things are edible or medicinal. Many times, those medicinal uses simply do not apply to my family – we don’t need herbs that lower blood pressure for instance. At least not at the moment. However, having that knowledge might come handy for us or someone else later on and having it all in my herbal journal means I can find it quickly. Also, just because something is edible doesn’t necessarily mean we enjoy it. That’s okay, too, we know heaven forbid we ever actually need it as food.
Use these ideas to create an extremely personalized and hopefully incredibly useful home herbal library.
How do you study plants?