The relational method of learning Chinese herbs : herb families

This is another repost of archived content.  In this case, it relates closely to the type of information I work with when teaching the relational herb method.  This is actually more advanced stuff – the kind of thing we dig into during the second stage of the training.  But, I thought folks might like to check it out, again, anyway!

Remember : if you’re interested in getting in on the ground floor of the new training (starting in mid October) AND receiving a free framework to help you transform your understanding of Chinese herbs – be sure to sign up for the special Shennong course interest list.  Thanks!

I think about herbs in a similar way as I think about people.  They have names, faces, general personalities.  They have families, friends, favorite activities.  They like certain climates and not others.  They have jobs and hobbies.  If you really want to get to know a person – you are going to have to access a broad slice of their life.  The same is true of herbs.

What happens when we understand a person more deeply?

Well, for one, you reap great personal benefits from these kinds of relationships. It’s a personal benefit – close human friendships can be the difference between having a long, happy life and a shorter, more stressful one.  I honestly think the same is true of my relationships with herbs.  Certainly it’s a different kind of relationship, but it does have that kind of benefit.  It is, of course, also beneficial for your patients.  When you understand the herbs deeply – you prescribe with more accuracy and shooting for a deeper level of pathology.  You’re a better practitioner, in short.

In the Family

Those of you who have a significant other know that you learn quite a bit about that person by hanging out with their family.  The same is true of herbs, though certainly for different reasons.  I’m not talking ONLY about plant families from a Western botanical perspective, though I’m including that as well.  To learn the family life of an herb deeply you need to look into:

  1. Western botanical herb family
  2. TCM herb category
  3. Shennong Bencao Jing herbal class
  4. Related to #3, a family based on the broad “plant/animal/mineral” distinction and the specific part within it

Let’s look at these in turn, using an example – the seldom mentioned herb Xuan Fu Hua / Inula / 旋覆花.

Western botanical information

Inula (either japonica or brittanica) is a member of the Asteraceae family – a family it shares with sunflowers, goldenrod, dandelions among many others. It is a largely herbaceous family, without trees or significant  numbers of climbing and vining plants.  Now, I should note right now that I’m not a botanist, and while I do have a science background, this kind of information always sort of baffled me.  That’s why I’m so happy to be an herbalist – it gives me an excuse to learn this information as deeply as I please.

Now there is a ton of information we can find out about the species itself, and that’s definitely part of the method.  But here, we are largely concerned with the group that the plant is associated with – its family.  One interesting thing about this group of plants is that what looks like a single flower (the yellow mass in the middle) is actually a packed together bunch of little flowers – a composite flower head.

There is a ton of information we could get into with this family – but one of the most simple and common observations is how these flowers look much like a representation of the sun.  Sunflowers, dandelions and many of the members of this family all have a sunny disposition and thrive in sunny locales.

What does this tell us about Xuanfuhua?

Well – the association with the sun can certainly get us thinking.  There must be some kind 0f Yang affiliation, perhaps a Fire association.  Now, in some cases, the information we get from family is going to seem to contradict what we commonly know about the herb, or simply seem irrelevant.  I’m going to suggest that this is almost never the case.

In Xuanfuhua’s case, we don’t need to dig too far to help us find some confirmation for this information.  In the Tang Ye Jing, Xuanfuhua is considered to be the “fire herb of the fire class.”  In other words, it is the ultimate exemplar of fire within the 25 herbs mentioned in this text.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with this text, we’ll discuss it in more detail in the future.

So, in my opinion, we need to think about Xuanfuhua a little differently in light of this information.  While it is commonly thought of as an herb that deals with phlegm and counterflow, perhaps we understand this function in a slightly different way knowing of it’s strong sun, Yang and Fire associations.  Perhaps we even start to expand our understanding of the herb – can you think of some unique uses, or some more advanced understanding, that might transform the way you use this herb in clinical practice?

So many ways to look at family

We don’t have space in this short article to go through the example with each of the four family categories above, but I will provide a brief description of each…

TCM herb category

This is a family of another kind – an affinity group bound by basic effect.  Now, there’s information to be gained by diving deeply into the TCM category, but here we’re looking at the similarities in herbs within that family.  It can also be instructive if we find differences.  That tells us something about the herb, but also something about the ultimate utility of this method of categorization.

Shennong Bencao Jing herbal class

Now, obviously, this is only going to work for herbs that are actually contained in this text.  However, I think it’s pretty interesting to look at which herbs are put together within the SNBCJ.  This goes both for the categorization of upper, middle and lower class herbs as well as the various plant, mineral and animal classifications.  As an early record, perhaps more influenced by the Shamanic traditions in use at the time, the SNBCJ categorizes herbs in a different way than, say, TCM categories.

Layperson family classification

Is the herb animal, plant or mineral?  Within that categorization, what part of the plant (or whatever) is the herb in question?  In the case of Xuanfuhua, we are discussing the flower of an herbaceous plant.  What can we say about flowers, in general?  These are the kind of questions we ask as we examine this “family.”

Pulling it together

Along with all the information we gain from earlier layers of the relational herb method, this information about family can really supercharge our understanding of the herb in question.  Instead of being a couple of data points and some vague reference in a book, each herb becomes as rich and knowable to us as any person walking by on the street.  Because of this deeper knowing, we are better able to understand strange passages in classical texts, odd statements our revered teachers make, and most importantly, the right time to prescribe the herb to our patients.








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.

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