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Herb Identification

     S ince almost none of us have access to human herbalist mentors, we have to acquire such knowledge the best way we can. Unlike in the past where books were very scarce and VHS/DVD/CD media forms were unavailable.  Now they are!  In these modern times, a live herbal teacher is not absolutely necessary. Thank goodness for small favors! Many herbal books, DVDs and audio CDs that are to be found out there are of minimal value, but a few are priceless and can go a long way in educating our minds to identifying wild plants and plant knowledge which has been saved and developed throughout the many years of Herbal medicine. Oh this page, I would like to save you a little money and time and suggest the texts that were of value to me.  These suggested texts are designed to give the novice herbalist a reference to identify wild plants that may be growing in their locale. Luckily there are few truly poisonous plants to be generally found in the wilds, but those that do exist, one should be absolutely familiar with by sight and in deed. One should also be aware of valuable plants that are very similar in appearance to these poisonous plants and know how to differentiate the two. A mistyping of a wild plant is often the most troubling and commonly heralded danger by our so called conventional medical authorities. I think much of this danger is overblown, but be careful, study, ask around, and never get in too big of a hurry to harvest or process a plant you are not sure of. It is much better to live another day in health than to guess. Also, always remember that many of your important medicinal plants are the more toxic or poisonous plants. It is simply the dose measurements that make a medicine, healing or a poison. Plants are no different. Luckily most of the commonly used plants are very benign and have very low toxicity. This is the beauty and the scourge of Herbal medicine, depending on what perspective you may take. Many herbs can be overdosed many times with minimal chances of such dosing proving toxic. Thus, the absolute amount of dosage one would need to take is relatively unimportant when compared to what we have become accustomed to expect when we move into conventional synthetic medicines. Our modern medicines are often much more toxic with precise milligram doses being necessary. With most herbs this is not the case! The key thing with most herbal protocols is to remember to dose ourselves 3-4 times a day. Such frequent dosing is a must.

     Many flora field guides will use different formats for identifying plants. I have found that the color and shape of the flower to be the easiest to use as a cue to what plant we are attempting to identify. This has the disadvantage that we can only identify a blooming plant and many plants only bloom for a few days out of the year. Nevertheless, flower ID was the basic valuable tool that allowed me to know the rest of the plant in all of its distinctive characteristics and I suspect you may be no different. 

Field Guides that have proved valuable for me:


Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs. . . . . . . . . . by Steven Foster & James A. Duke may be the one most valuable field guide anyone can own in the USA. It is one of the Peterson Field guides devoted to the medicinal aspects of flora found in the United States. This book divides the various herbs into flower color and types which to the novice is very simplifying.

Newcomb's Wildflower Guide . . . . . . . . . by Lawrence Newcomb is a very valuable field guide in its own right. It too classifies herbs by flower type. This book has less emphasis on color and more on flower anatomy. As one will find out, color is not always a very good cue to identifying an herb.Also, this book is invaluable to identifying non-medicinal plants which we will all run across and wonder what they are. This is an excellent text that will help in identifying plants that will not be found in medicinal plant guides.  Just this morning, I was trying to find a name for a plant that was growing outside of my house. It could not be found in either my Perterson's or Missouri's Flora. I found it in this guide!

National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers . . . . . . . (Eastern Region) is my least favorite guide of the three, though it is of value and has aided me at certain times in supporting my identification of any particularly perplexing plant that seemed not quite the type described in print. Like the other two, this guide also classifies the blooming flower by color and type.

 Steyermark's Flora of Missouri . . . . . . . . . Volume 1 (1999) by George Yatskievych is a process in work with the first volume now in publication. Don't let the title fool you! This text is of value to an herbalist in most any part of the USA. Missouri is just lucky to have been the location where the great Julian Steyermark plied his studies.  Steyermark published his first text in 1963 and was a complete work until itself. This revised edition will be bigger and more complete than ever, however Volume one is the first to be published and lacks many of the common herbs which we need to know. Future volumes will be of more value to most herbalists. I would suggest the 1963 text if it can be found until the revision of this book is complete. This is a superb text for herbalists that have identified a plant via the previous suggested field guides but still need more information to be absolutely sure. It goes without saying if you reside in Missouri that this text is even more valuable in placing plants in specific counties.

Flora of the Northern United States and Canada . . . . . . . . . . by Nathaniel Lord Britton & Hon. Addison Brown comes in three volumes and is a Dover Publication's reprint of the unabridged 1913 work. This monumental classic of botany remains unsurpassed as the most comprehensive and reliable work on the flora of the northeastern United States and adjacent parts of Canada. Whether it is used as a student manual or as a ready means of comparison and identification of the plants that grow around us, this set will be found always useful and often indispensable. This set has often been my final authority consulted when I have come up against a very hard to identify plant. I would dare suggest that almost any plant known in that part of the United States will be listed in its pages. These texts are valuable in that you may have a plant you want ID'd that will not be found in a medicinal field guide. You can often find that plant here and know that it exists, and conclude that it is not generally considered medicinal in nature--a valuable fact.  

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