How to recognise the Herb you need

How to recognise the herb you need

We begin with the question: What is a herb?

You could get as many answers to this question as to the number of people you asked.   If we take the word herb back to its roots, its origin, we will find that it comes from the Latin ‘herba’ meaning “springing vegetation, or ‘a stalk’”

The most common explanation is that a herb is “fleshy stemmed and not woody”, which, if we went with this one, would remove some of the most effective trees and roots that herbal medicine uses.

To provide clarity; we recognise that herbs are anything of a vegetative nature that can be useful.


The first and most important consideration when using herbs to make herbal medicines is to make sure that the herb you think you have, is the correct one. This is the starting point of using herbs safely.   It’s a matter of recognising, not only the herb you have in front of you but of recognising other herbs that can seem to be very similar yet are very different.

If you are buying seed to grow your own herbs, or are buying plants from a nursery then do a little research as to which herb you need and determine its Latin name.   The best way of making sure that what you have is what you know to be correct for making herbal medicines is to read the label.  If it doesn’t have the herbs botanical name ie. Latin name on the label then don’t buy it.

Latin Names

People often shy away from herbs Latin names, it seems to be a difficult subject unless someone understands Latin.  But it isn’t necessary to know the whole of the Latin language to start to recognise growing things by their Latin name, all it takes is a beginning on the subject of the language, an understanding of how Latin names work, and using Latin names quickly starts makes sense when you start to understand them.

An important historical figure in the history of herbal medicines is Carl Linnaeus, a failed medical student with an avid interest in the study of plants.  During the early 1700s, the study of medicine included the study of plants as prescribed medicines were still then derived from a herb base.

Linnaeus was responsible for the classification of all plants, herbs, flowers, trees, anything plant-based, into the classification of the ‘Plantae Kingdom’, and the classifications we use today, although updated from time to time as new plants are found, are still based on the work that Linnaeus did in the 1700s.

In 1753, Linnaeus published his natural science masterpiece in two volumes and 1200 pages: Species Plantarum (Plant Species). In this work, he listed all of the plant species that had been discovered at that time, almost 6000, and classified them into approximately 1000 appropriate genera. This enabled him to use two-part names for all plants throughout Species Plantarum; the first time all plants had been named in this way.  The names are part of a system called binomial nomenclature, which is Latin for “two-name designation,” and they tell you first, the genus, and second, the species of the plant.  It is the species name that separates one herb from all others.

Occasionally new specimens are developed, perhaps a hybrid of two of the same genus or species providing a new herb or plant that will have the same Genus and Species name, bringing with it the lineage of its parent plant.  When this happens the developer may choose a new name to be written after the species name, this is called its Cultivar; a name going after the species name, usually written in English rather than Latin.  This happens more often with the ornamental shrubs that can be used also within Herbal Medications.

For instance, Rosemary, the beautifully scented bush in most herb gardens, comes in different cultivars.

Rosemary officinalis is the Latin genus and species name and is the name you need to look for before buying this herb.

Rosemary officinalis “spice islands” is a Rosemary with dark blue flowers, and is a shrub growing to around 4 ft. high, the name “spice islands” is its Cultivar name.

Rosemary officinalis “Joyce de Baggio” is a Rosemary with yellow leaves in spring, turning to green in autumn, the name “Joyce de Baggio” is its Cultivar name

Rosemary officinalis “Blue boy” is a Rosemary that’s habit is to creep across the ground, its leaves and flowers are very small, but its constituents are just the same as the bigger cultivars.  The name “Blue boy” is its Cultivar name.

All these herbs can be used in Herbal Medication, as they are all Rosemary officinalis, but note how their ‘cultivar’ names have been added using English rather than Latin.

Plant classification uses the Latin language because it’s a dead language, it doesn’t evolve, and therefore once a plant has its name, that name will not change and will be recognised throughout the world.  Sometimes the family name of the plant may be written, and this would go before the genus and species, but it is more usual to just have the genus and species as it is these two that define the plant you have before you.

Recognising that the herb you hold in your hand is, in fact, the one you need is very important, some herbs can kill others can cure, and the difference is often very small.

Take for instance the herb ‘Marigold’, it’s one of the most useful of herbs to have in your garden or dried herb store, but a look around your local garden centre will tell you there are many types of marigold you can buy.  Most of these will be useless for herbal healing, others can actually harm.  The only one that can be used safely to heal is the one with the Latin name of ‘Calendula officinalis’.

 Explanation of the herb Common Marigold’s Latin name of ‘Calendula officinalis’.

A member of the plant family Asteraceae, sometimes known as the Compositae family, and is said to be the biggest plant family in the known world, sometimes called the aster, daisy, or sunflower family.

The Kew Gardens website describes the Asteraceae or Compositae as follows:

“The Compositae are instantly recognisable, through their compound inflorescences consisting of many tiny flowers: a daisy has a yellow "core" of 200 disc florets, surrounded by 50 marginal, white ray florets with a conspicuous limb. A single daisy "flower" contains about 250 separate flowers! A sunflower has basically the same format. A dandelion consists of one kind of florets ("ligulate") only, but still has many florets combining to look like a single flower.”

The genus is ‘Calendula’ meaning annual (growing year after year)

Its species is ‘officinalis’ meaning ’official, the correct one.’

It is the genus and species name that sets the plant or herb apart from all others, this is the only ‘marigold’ that can be safely used to make herbal medicines.  Herbs, and indeed all growing things each has a Latin name that is unique to one specific plant.  Before using any herb to make herbal medicines, it is very important that the Latin name is identified with the herb you hold in your hand.

Many herbs used for medicinal purposes have ‘officinalis, officinale, or vulgaris’ as a Species name, but not all.   Always check, either online or in any good herbal book that when you buy seeds or an herb ready grown, it has the correct Genus and Species name on the label or packet.

Latin names are usually descriptive, and in the short video detailed below, we take a look at the herb Rue and investigate its Latin name to determine further how descriptive its name of Ruta graveolens really is.

Explanation of the Doctrine of Signatures

The Doctrine of Signatures originated as far back as 40AD with the Greek botanist Dioscorides.  The actual name ‘Doctrine of Signatures being created by the Renaissance alchemist Paracelsus in the 1500’s.  It was his belief that every plant (herb) shared its characteristics with the organ or body part that it can help or cure, or portraying what the illness looked like.  The characteristic may be its shape, colour, taste, etc.

This thought gathered pace when the Christian mystic, Jacob Boehme (1622 AD), claimed to have had visions where ‘god’ revealed nature’s secrets to him resulting in his book ‘The Signature of all things’, which further promoted the Doctrine of Signatures philosophies.

What is interesting about the Doctrine of Signatures is that the cunning folk of tribal society had used certain names for the herbs they used for healing that plainly pre-existed before the famous began to write about it.

For instance, the herb is known as ‘pilewort’; a beautiful yellow herb which is one of the first to flower in spring and is often ignored apart from its habit of covering the floor of a woodland.  Its botanical name is ‘Ranunculus ficaria’ or ‘Lessor Celandine’.  Its root is indicated for shrinking piles, a very painful ailment often said to be like bunches of grapes hanging from the anus.  If you were to dig up the lesser celandine and shake the soil from its roots, it has the appearance of bunches of long grapes hanging down, looking extraordinarily like the affliction Piles.  The word ‘wort’ by the way, means ‘plant’.

It is worth doing a little research into the Doctrine of Signatures can be an aid when determining the herb you have found growing in the garden or out in the wild and then checking with your wildflower book, it is another tool in the arsenal of your hopefully growing herb wisdom.

Folk Names

An herbs folk name can often give clues that help where recognition of the herb you may find growing outside as it often describes either what the herb looks like or what it does.

Take for instance the Dandelion, Latin name Taraxacum officinale, its Folk name is ‘piss-in-the-bed’, and it is a powerful diuretic.  Another of its Folk names is ‘lions teeth’ and nicely describes the shape of its leaves

Some methods of recognising herbs may take second place to the herbs Latin name, but using all the tools you may have at your disposal is an effective beginning to recognising herbs growing in the garden and in the wild.

A good idea is to grow some of the more difficult to determine using seed from a seed packet with the herbs Latin name on the packet.  Once you have grown the herb from seed, watched it grow, used all your senses to get to know the herb, this makes it far easier to recognise the herb when you find it in the wild or perhaps growing in someone else’s garden.

A really good wildflower book is also a key to allow recognition of a herb or plant you may find while out walking, people often forget that a tree can also be a herb for healing, yet trees are classified by the same Latin name system as are flowers; trees can be the source of some medicines that are a staple in the world of the herbalist.