Classification of Herbs


The most important part of herbology is the combining of herbs to make effective remedies, yet it is the least understood. Part of the reason for this lack is the understanding the the lack of an effective classification system for herb use. Many systems have been tried, some classifying by plant part or by humoral theories or by botanical family or by color and morphology.

Regardless of the particular system used, however, it is apparent that herbs fall generally into five major categories based on their active constituents. These are: Aromatic (volatile oils), Astringents (tannins), Bitter (phenolic compounds, saponins, and alkaloids), Mucilagnious (polysacharides), and Nutritive (food stuffs).

Understanding this classification system simplifies the analysis of herbal combinations and allows the herbalist to readily propose useful new ones, and it becomes easy to substitute one herb for another. Additionally, the categories are easy to identify using the senses of smell, taste, and touch.

Aromatic Herbs

Aromatic Herbs owe their properties mainly to volatile oils, and the name is a reflection of the pleasant odor that many of these herbs have. Most have a fragrant, spicy taste and stimulate the gastro-intestinal mucous membrane. They are used extensively both therapeutically and as flavorings and perfumes. Aromatic herbs are divided into two subcategories: stimulants and nervines.

Stimulant Herbs increase energy and activities of the body, or its parts or organs, and most often effect the respiratory, digestive, and circulatory systems.

Properties of Stimulant herbs include analgesic, antipyretic, antiasthmatic, antibiotic, antiseptic, carminative, diaphoretic, expectorant, galactogogue, parasiticide, rubefacient, stimulant, and stomachic.

Some examples of Stimulant herbs include capsicum, damiana, fennel, garlic, ginger, peppermint, sage, thyme, catnip, feverfew, lemon grass, penny royal, and damiana.

Nervine Herbs are often used to heal and soothe the nervous system, and often affect the respiratory, digestive, and circulatory systems as well. They are often used in teas or in encapsulated form.

Properties of Nervine herbs include analgesic, antipyretic, antiasthmatic, antibiotic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, carminative, sedative, and stomachic.

Some examples of Nervines include chamomile, crampbark, dong quai, ginger, hops, lobelie, scullcap, valerian, catnip, lady’s slipper, and sarsaparilla.

Astringent Herbs

Astringent Herbs owe their properties mainly to their tannins, which have the ability to precipitate proteins, and this “tightens,” contracts, or tones living tissue, and helps to halt discharges. They effect the digestive, urinary, and circulatory systems, and large doses are toxic to the liver.

Properties of Astringent herbs include analgesic, antiseptic, antiabortive, astringent, emmenaggogue, homostatic, and styptic.

Examples of Astrinigents include bayberry, comfrey, eyebright, golden seal, pau d’arco, peppermint, red raspberry, slippery elm, white oak, white willow, black walnut, crampbark, mullein, and penny royal.

Bitter Herbs

Bitter Herbs owe their properties to the presence of phenols and phenolic glycosides, alkaloids, or saponins, and are divided into four subcategories: laxative herbs, diuretic herbs, saponin-containing herbs, and aloaloid-containing herbs.

There are three basic types of Laxative Herbs: bulk laxatives (see mucilaginous herbs), lubricant laxatives (such as mineral oil), and stimulant laxatives (the antraquinone type). The laxative herbs of the Bitter Herb type mildly stimulate contraction of the intestinal system and stimulate bile secretions rather than acting as irritants to the bowel. Purging the digestive tract of toxins is one of the oldest and most common forms of self-medication.

Properties of Laxative Bitter herbs include alterative, anticatarrhal, antipyretic, cholagogue, purgative, hepatonic, sialagogue, vermifuge, and blood purifier.

Examples of Laxative herbs include aloe, cascara, licorice, pumpkin, senna, yellow dock, yucca, barberry, gentian, safflowers, and golden seal.

DiureticHerbs induce loss of fluid from the body through the urinary system. The fluids released help cleanse the vascular system, kidneys, and liver.

Properties of Diuretic herbs include alterative, antibiotic, anticatarrhal, antipyretic, antiseptic, lithotriptic, and blood purifier.

Examples include asparagus, blessed thistle, burdock, butcher’s broom, buchu, chaparral, chickweed, cornsilk, dandelion, dog grass, grapevine, hawthorn, horsetail, ho shou wu, hydrangea, juniper berries, milk thistle, nettle, parsley, peach bark, and uva ursi.

Saponin-containing Herbs are known for their ability to produce frothing or foaming in solution with water. The name “saponin” comes from the Latin word for soap. They emulsify fat soluble molecules in the digestive tract, and their most important property is to enhance the body’s ability to absorb other active compounds.

Saponins have the ability to effectively dissolve the cell membranes of red blood cells and disrupt them. However, when taken internally they are comparatively harmless or not absorbed at all. Saponin-rich herbs like yucca and sarsaparilla give root beer its foamy properties.

Their properties include alterative, anticatarrhal, antispasmodic, aphrodisiac, emmenagugue, cardiac stimulant, and increased longivity. Aome are also diuretic and antispasmodic.

Some examples of saponin-containing herbs are wild yam root, schizandra, black cohosh, blue cohosh, devil’s claw, licorice, alfalfa, yucca, ginseng, and gotu kola.

An aloakoid means any organic compound that contains nitrogen and has physiologic activity. Since each group of alkaloids has very different physiological effects, Alkaloid-containing herbs are difficult to classify. Thus many alkaloid-containing herbs, such as valerian and capsicum, are also found under additional classifications.

Properties of Alkaloid-containing herbs include emetic, astringent, expectorant, antiseptic, respiratory tonic, stimulant, and nervine. Examples include ephedra, golden seal, lobelia, pau d’arco, valerian, and capsicum.

Mucilaginous Herbs

Mucilaginous herbs derive their properties from the polysaccharides they contain, which give these herbs a slippery, mild taste that is sweet in water. All plants product mucilage in some form to store water and hydrates as a food reserve. Since most mucilages are not broken down by the human digestive system, but absorb toxins from the bowel and give bulk to the stool, these herbs are most effective topically as poultices and knitting agents, and are also used topically in the digestive tract. When used as lozenges or extracts, they have a demulcent action on the throat.

Mucilaginous herbs produce four major effects. They:

reduce bowel transit time
absorb and eliminate toxins from the intestinal system
help regulate intestinal flora
produce a demulcent/vulnerary action

Properties of Mucilaginous herbs include antibiotic, antacid, demulcent, emollient, culnerary, and detoxifier. Herbs in this classification include althea, aloe, burdock, comfrey, dandelion, echinacea, fenugreek, kelp, psylium, slippery elm, dulse, glucomannan from Konjak root, Irish moss, and mullein.

Nutritive Herbs

These herbs derive both their name and their classification from the nutritive value they provide to the diet. They are true foods and provide some medicinal effects as fiber, mucilage, and diuretic action. But most importantly they provide the nutrition of protein, carbohydrates, and fats, plus the vitamins and minerals that are necessary for adequate nutrition.

Examples of Nutritive herbs are rosehips, acerola, apple, asparagus, banana, barley grass, bee pollen, bilberry, broccoli, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, grapefruit, hibiscus, lemon, oatstraw, oniono, orange, papaya, pineapple, red clover, spirulina, stevia, and wheat germ.

Herbal Glossary

A substance used to change (alter) existing nutritive and excretory processes to regulate body functions.Analgesic
A substance that relieves pain when taken orally.Anodyne
A substance that that relieves pain when applied externally.

Anthelmintic (Vermifuge)
An agent that destroys or causes the expulsion of parasitic intestinal worms.

A substance that is used to help avoid miscarriages.

A substance that relaxes the bronchials and aids free breathing.

A substance used to kill or stop growth of harmful micro-organisms (literally “against-life”). Kills both harmful and helpful micro-organisms.

A substance which reduces inflammation of the mucous membranes.

A substance that prevents or relieves depression.

A substance used to remove excess body fluid.

A substance that prevents or reduces inflammation.

Antipyretic (Febrifuge)
An agent that reduces fever.

A substance that prevents cell damage and other changes caused by oxidation.

A substance capable of preventing, combating, and neutralize toxic microorganisms by inhibiting their growth.

Substances used to prevent, calm, or relieve muscle spasms, cramps, or coughing.

A substance used to allay venereal diseases, particularly syphilis.

A substance capable of relieving or suppressing coughing.

A substance used to correct problems of impotency and to strengthen sexual function.

A substance that draws together or constricts body tissues and is effective in stopping the flow of blood or other secretions.

An agent that destroys bacteria.

Blood Purifier
A substance that cleanses and purifies the blood.

A substance that widens the air passages of the lungs and eases breathing by relaxing bronchial passages.

An agent used to calm the nervous system.

A substance used to strengthen the heart.

An agent that induces the expulsion of gas from the digestive system.

A substance that increases the rate of a chemical or bio-chemical reaction.

Substances used to stimulate purging from the bowel.

Cell Proliferant
Agents used to promote rapid new cell growth and healing.

A substance used to increase flow of bile from the gall bladder into the duodenum.

A substance that stimulates the secretion of bile by the liver.

Substances that are soothing and provide coating to irritated or inflamed internal areas.

Blood purifiers that cleanse or purify by stimulating eliminative processes.

Diaphoretic (Sudorific)
A substance that stimulates or increases perspiration.

Digestive (or Digestant)
Nutritional products that contain enzymes, amino acids, or probiotics to aid digestion of food.

An agent that dissolves and removes tumors and other abnormal cellular growth.

A substance that tends to increase the flow of urine.

A substance used to induce vomiting.

A substance that encourage or promotes suppressed menstrual flow.

A substance applied externally to soften and soothe the skin or internally to soothe inflamed or irritated mucous membranes.

Hormones produced by the ovaries during the female reproductive period, or herbs that support the body’s production of those hormones.

A substance that promotes the expulsion of mucus from the respiratory tract.

Febrifuge (antipyretic)
An agent that reduces fever.Fungicidal
A substance that destroys or inhibits the growth of fungi.Galactagogue
A substance that promotes the secretion of milk from the nursing mother.

A substance that arrests bleeding or hemorrhage.

Hepatic or Hepatonic
A substance that strengrthens and tones the liver and stimulates the secretive functions of the liver.

Herbs that contain the properties of hormones.

Excessive activity or agitation.

A substance that increases the concentration of glucose in the blood.

A substance that increases blood pressure.

a substance that lowers the concentration of glucose in the blood.

A substance that decreases blood pressure.

A substance that increases the immune response in order to induce resistance to infection.

A substance that stimulates evacuation of the bowels.

A substance that helps dissolve and eliminate urinary and gall bladder stones.

A substance used to stimulate and cleanse the lymphatic system.

A substance that has mucilaginous properties used to soothe inflamed parts.

Herbs that have an adhesive, coating, expansive property and contain soothing qualities for healing.

A substance that acts as a tonic to the nerves.

a substance that supplies a substantial amount of nutrients and aid in building and toning the body.

A substance kills parasites.

An agent that facilitates childbirth.

A substance that has the power to ease coughing and promotes expectoration.

A substance that stimulates the natural waves of contraction of the muscles of the intestinal walls, helping move food through the digestive tract.

“Friendly” bacteria that inhabit the healthy digestive system to process food and produce vital nutritional elements used by the body.

Substances used to cause purging from the bowels. Usually used in combination with other herbs to control their action.

Relaxant (Sedative)
A substance that has a soothing, calming, or tranquilizing effect, and has the property of lessening excitement, irritation, or pain.

A substance that reduces inflammation or swelling.

A substance that causes counter-irritation to reduce inflammation or increases the blood supply to the affected area.

A substance that reddens the skin.

Sedative (Relaxant)
A substance that has a soothing, calming, or tranquilizing effect, and has the property of lessening excitement, irritation, or pain.

An agent that increases and promotes the flow of saliva to aid digestion.

An agent which increases energy and functional activity of the body.

An agent that strengthens, tones, or stimulates the stomach and increase the appetite.

A substance that has an astringent effect which helps control bleeding.

Sudorific (Diaphoretic)
A substance that stimulates or increases perspiration.

A substance that that invigorates and stimulates tone and energy of the body.

An agent that causes constriction of blood vessels.

An agent that causes dilation of blood vessels.

An agent that kills parasites or worms.

Vermifuge (Anthelmintic)
An agent that destroys or causes the expulsion of parasitic intestinal worms.

An agent used in healing or treating wounds.


Keith, Velma J. and Monteen Gordon. The How to Herb Book. Pleasant Grove, UT: Mayfield Publications, 1984.

Pedersen, Mark. Nutritional Herbology. Bountiful, UT: Pedersen Publishing, 1987.


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