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. This upbringing taught me a bunch, however; the more I do myself, the more I realize I have to learn. This desire has lead me to figuring out a system to study herbs and other plants that is easy and organized.
There are books and websites and classes and so much more readily available to us these days that it can get overwhelming. Let’s skip all that overwhelm by finding the information we need and putting it together in a fashion that works for us and our homes.
Any plant study has to begin with proper identification. There are many plants we may inherently know. We 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 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. However, I saw someone else in a different part of the country call purslane, pigweed. This is 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 parts 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. Rather take 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 (you can get my template when you subscribe to my newsletter). I glue a photo of the her on that page and jot down common and scientific names, information on when and where I saw the plant. I also keep track of 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.
Use 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.
Practice & Study Herbs Consistently
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 grow my herbalism skills.
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. There are so many wild edible and medicinal plants. However, 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. We don’t have to make use of every plant we find but the study of it is a valuable exercise.
Use these ideas to create an extremely personalized and hopefully incredibly useful home herbal library.
How do you study plants?
Sunday 10th of April 2022
Love your stuff. My thinking is very similar to yours about living in this world and knowing what we have right-in-front-of-us to live and heal.
Wednesday 31st of March 2021
Thank you for this post! I've been studying and learning about the plants native to just the 40 acres that I've lived on for the last 5 years. It's overwhelming how many! For instance, last year I stumbled across an entire meadow of wild bergamot that I was unaware of. I have been in that meadow hundreds of times, but never when it was in bloom! I've got teams of information written down, but i haven't been able to get organized. Your toys will certainly be a big help. Thank you so much!
Tuesday 19th of January 2021
Thank you so much for the worksheet. I have so much of my information stored on line but I have been thinking lately about what I would do if I lost the internet. This will allow me to continue to work on creating a full materia medica. Thanks so much!
Friday 26th of July 2019
I blog my garden journal. It helps me not only show others what I am doing, it helps me to learn what I did. I take tons of photos and simply log my garden projects. It helps me keep track of plants, the seed I have, and so much more.
Monday 23rd of January 2023
@Karen, great idea. — I like the “log” part of a blog.
Wednesday 4th of July 2018
Dear Kathie, The information you provided about studying plants & herbs was very simple. Most articles seem overwhelming & discourage me from pursuing my love for gardening, and medicinal or homeopathic plants and herbs. Thank you for putting things in perspective, keeping it simple. Thank you, Christina