It’s sometimes hard for me to sit down and study my single herbs. At NCNM we learn single herbs for a year, dabbling in combinations during our last term of that series and finally progressing to formulas, the holy grail of herbal education. So this summer as I work hard to drill everything I learned last year deep into my bones I find it a little odious to continue going over single herbs when formula class is so tantalizingly close. Single herbs was difficult the first time around, anyway. It’s hard to know what to do with all the information! It’s hard to figure out why you should know much about the single herbs when it’s really all about formulas. Here are 7 tips, drawn from my own experience, to help you learn your single herbs well and even enjoy the process. Oh, all of these tips assume you are going to lecture and paying attention! Ready?
- Play with dried samples of the herbs: engage all five senses
- At my school, we were given the option of buying a set of 3-5 grams of each herb we would be studying during the year. If you don’t have that option just head to the medicinary at your school or at a local clinic and obtain a few grams (3-4 is usually enough) of each herb you will be studying. Every single time I studied herbs, I had the samples right next to me. I smelled them, tasted them, made small decoctions out of them with hot water, pulled them apart to look at the inside, and closed my eyes to fully experience the texture. Sometimes simply sitting with the herb in your hand gives you a better understanding of it. I cannot adequately stress how important this was to my success in herbs class.
- Find the living plant, growing it from seed is even better
- In Portland we are lucky to have a Classical Chinese garden that stocks several medicinal herbs. Once or twice a year they even have plant sales! There are online sources for the seeds of Chinese herbs, and more garden stores are carrying the plants. Seek out any sources available and grow them! Not a green thumb? Do your best – buy a basic gardening book and learn more about growing things! If you absolutely cannot grow anything for whatever reason, try to seek out a public garden in your area that features some Chinese herbs. Watch them through the seasons, spend some time observing their growth habit and the insects that enjoy hanging out with them. Remember, most of our herbal medicine was a plant first – doesn’t it seem like understanding the plant is a key to understanding the medicine?
- Learn about the plant’s biology
- Using Bensky’s Materia Medica or another basic herb book you trust, find out the Latin name for each species. Armed with this information, use the Internet, books on botany and your own knowledge to come to an understanding of the plant on a Western scientific level. Where does the plant grow? What kind of soil does it need? How does it propagate itself? What part of the plant do we use for medicine? What are the pharmacological compounds in the part that we use? All of these questions can help you to fully understand the medicine you are prescribing to your patients.
- Read from more than one book
- Although I am clearly a fan of Bensky, I do occasionally read other books. I enjoy going to my school’s library and cross-referencing the information I get Bensky with other sources. I sometimes use online sources as well. I’ve found information in unlikely places as well, such as books on Western herbs and even in Readers’ Digest! Since each source is going to have a different angle on the information, you will get a more complete picture if you use many sources. This may seem to contradict the point I made about avoiding over-reading, but I’m not suggesting you read entire books here – just find the information you need in more than one source.
- Draw the plant and the dried herb
- This tip is particularly useful for people who don’t learn as well by reading or listening. Sometimes the simple act of sketching (even badly) the herb in its dried and living states can help to gain a better understanding of its structure – and thus – its function. I bought a nice set of colored pencils and a beautiful sketch book for this purpose and tried as hard as I could not to censor myself. You may not be the next Picasso, but your patients will benefit from your willingness to get over your self-judgement and come into deeper understanding of the herbs.
- Understand cultural and historical information about each herb
- My understanding of herbs really took off when I started delving into the culture and history around them. Study the characters used to name and describe the herbs. Learn the myths and folklore related to the herbs. Find out how other cultures used the herb or herbs like it. Understand how the usage of the herb has changed by looking into Classic Chinese texts like the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing. Some books about herbs include basic cultural information about each plant, but you may have to look elsewhere – ask your professors for guidance!
- There’s no substitute for the act of memorization. There’s just something about memorizing the basic information that gets it into your bones like nothing else. Memorize the basic properties (flavor, nature, channel), English and Chinese names (including characters) and the basic actions of each herb. Your understanding of all of this will grow and change as you go through your education as a Chinese medicine student but you have to start somewhere! No one really likes to memorize and many of us aren’t that good at it – but grab your flashcards and get to work anyway.
What helped you to learn your single herbs? How important is learning single herbs to you? Let us know in the comments.
About Eric Grey
Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.