3 basic principles for properly identifying medicinal plants

April 29, 2016

The correct identification of the plant to be taken in treatment is not always easy, especially if you collect it yourself. Here's how to stay safe and ensure you're picking the right plants.

3 basic principles for properly identifying medicinal plants

1. Safety rules

Plants of the same family can have radically different effects, like hemlock, a deadly poison of the wild carrot family.

  • The first of the safety rules consists of never harvesting a plant that you are not sure that you have thoroughly identified.
  • In your garden, this should not be a problem but, otherwise, the task may be more complicated.
  • Remember that the same common name may refer to several plants, and plants as different as comfrey and foxglove may be confused outside their flowering period.
  • Once dried, the plants are even more difficult to identify. To avoid undesirable mixes, only harvest and dry one plant at a time, and always label it in order to ease its identification.

2. Part of the plant to use

The different parts of a plant do not have the same chemical characteristics and therefore do not produce the same effects on the body. Just as the leaves and seeds of coriander (cilantro) have different tastes, the leaves and roots of dandelion do not have the same medicinal properties.

  • Before harvesting a plant for a culinary or medicinal use, make sure to thoroughly verify which part of it that you need.
  • Think carefully about this, as the consequences of a mistake can be terrible.
  • Cramp bark (Viburnum opulus), for example, has remarkable medicinal properties, but the berries of this shrub are poisonous and should not be consumed.

3. Botanical name to your rescue

  • It is also very often that the same common name is used to refer to several species of plants. For example, the name balm of Gilead corresponds to the least five different plants, which can be confusing or even be dangerous to the untrained user.
  • To overcome this problem, herbalists designate plants by their botanical name (Latin name).
  • This designation system was developed by the eighteenth century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (also known as Carl von Linné).
  • The first part of the botanical name of a plant refers its genus (for example, all of the mints fall within the genus Mentha); the second refers to the species. Thus, the botanical name for spearmint is Mentha spicata.

When collecting your own plants, remember that some plants that resemble one another can be equipped with very different chemical properties.

In order to avoid problems, it is essential to clearly identify the plant before using it. Make sure you put these tips into practice to keep yourself safe when collecting herbs.

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