When I started my herbal studies I was so friggin’ excited!
I could make tea that could take care of my cold! Look an herbal oil for hair care! Ahhhh, that weed growing up through the concrete does a really useful thing!!!
And then I realized that there are a bajillion herbs in the world (that is a completely accurate measurement of the number of plant kindred on our planet). Holy heck, how was I supposed to learn them all, their names and uses and contraindications? How about their folklore? Their favorite color? The dreaded student overwhelm settled in.
Fortunately, some of my earliest teachers (both of person and book form) emphasized the following:
It is not about knowing all the herbs, but knowing a few very well.
I have continued to follow this simple guideline and it has served me well in my practice. While I’m always interested in learning about new herbs, especially ones that show up in my travels or are introduced to me by others (aka nerding out with other herbalists about their favorite plants), I tend to return to the same herbs again and again in my practice. These plant kindred are what I call my indispensable herbs - without them I would practice very differently and they are some of my greatest herbal teachers. I first came across the idea of a indispensable herb list from Matthew Wood who has posted his own list on his website, though, the idea of practicing with a small list of herbs for many ailments was initially introduced to me through Susun Weed’s Healing Wise.
If you’re new to herbalism, studying plants from a foundation of developing an indispensable herb list can help you to focus your studies and begin to better understand how to use one herb for a wide range of complaints. If you’ve been at the herbal game for a while, creating an indispensable herb list can freshen up and focus your practice. An indispensable herb list is a great teaching tool for your own clients and students, as you can focus on speaking confidently on and sharing information about these select herbs in a way that is concise and accessible.
My indispensable herb list structure is an adaptation of Matthew Wood’s since we both work with Traditional Western Herbalism (TWH) energetics (clever ones, if you haven’t read The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism by him yet you really should) which work with the six tissue states. I also include a magickal herb and tonic herbs that are indispensable for me but didn’t fit into the initial list. If you work with other herbal traditions I encourage you to adapt the list appropriately. An Ayurvedic list, for example, might have herbs that cultivate or curb the energy of each one of the three doshas and dosha combinations. Another option would be to come up with an indispensable herb list for each organ and/or body systems. If you are an herbal practitioner that works with clients your indispensable herb list for your professional practice might be different than your list for your personal practice. Or, you could take an astroherbology approach and have indispensable herbs for the signs and planets. As you can see, creating an indispensable herb list is endlessly customizable.
But what makes an herb indispensable? Well, that is up to you. For me an indispensable herb is one that has the following qualities:
- The herb is one that I am very familiar with and know how to use for a variety of conditions.
- The herb is easily accessible meaning that I can either grow it myself, wildcraft it, or source it from a reputable supplier.
- The herb is generally considered safe with little to no side effects and many can be taken for an extended period of time.
In all, there are thirteen herbs on my indispensable herbs lists (because witchcraft). Here is how my indispensable herbs list is structured:
The Nine Foundational Herbs are as they are described - foundational to my practice and often the foundational herb in remedies that I make. But they are also the pillars of my practice and my beloved teachers and guides. They correspond to the six tissue states as well as three additional herbs that cover the blood, muscle and bones, and heart of the body more explicitly. These nine herbs are the sacred structure of the temple of my practice.
My Nine Foundational Herbs
- Warming Remedy: Ginger (Zingiber officinalis)
- Cooling Remedy: Rose (Rosa spp.)
- Drying Remedy: Sage (Salvia spp.)
- Oil/Moistening Remedy: Burdock (Arctium lappa)
- Stimulating Nervine Remedy: Basil (Ocimum spp.)
- Relaxing Nervine Remedy: Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)
- Blood Remedy: Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
- Musculoskeletal Remedy: St. Joan’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
- Heart Remedy: Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
The Three Tonic Herbs are ones that didn’t fit in neatly to the above list because their healing reach is so expansive in my practice, but mostly because I use them as tonics very often. Tonic herbs are plants that can be taken long-term and have a nourishing and restorative effect on the body. I always recommend a tonic herb or herb blend in my consultations along with whatever remedies I’ve created to address more acute conditions. These tonic herbs are the attending Priest/esses and Weavers of the sacred temple of my practice.
My Three Tonic Herbs
- Elder (Sambucus nigra)
- Nettles (Urtica dioica)
- Oats (Avena sativa)
The Magickal Herb is one that some folks may have on their list but many others won’t. I practice both medicinal and magickal herbalism, so all of the herbs on my list are ones that I also incorporate into my magickal practice. My Magickal Herb is one that I would be pretty sad to live without and one that I use in many a ritual and charm, but more importantly, my magickal herb is my teacher and guide to my clients on the magickal arts. This herb is the crystal-heart of the temple of my practice.
My Magickal Herb
- California Mugwort (Artemisia californica)
So you’ve created your list - what next?
If you’re a member of my free Magick Mail (if you’re not already, it’s quite easy to join) you can download my indispensable herb chart worksheet which uses the format I've described above. I regularly pull out and review my indispensable herb list because as my practice grows and changes so does my list. Angelica (Angelica archangelica) used to be my primary oily remedy, but I find myself using the more accessible (meaning it has wider range of use amongst a variety of folks) Burdock (Arctium lappa) these days. Angelica has grown more and more into an indispensable magickal herb for me, in fact. These regular reviews of your indispensable herb list are like sit down chats with your plant allies where everyone convenes and compares notes on where we’ve been and where we might be going.
Consider working with each herb on your list through the Plant Ally Project. Or begin creating your custom seasonal apothecaries based on your list. Name your children after each of your indispensable herbs! Or pets! Or your favorite rocks!
Oh and will someone please create a beautiful oracle deck of their indispensable herbs and then show me some pictures so I can jump up and down excitedly in glee? #IndispensableHerbOracle
In the meantime, cast some cards with the Indispensable Interview spread.
Check out the rest of the Plant Ally Project series and be sure to comment below with questions or musings. Better yet, share your list!