Herbalism & Medicine-Making: Session Two

by Marina Vernovsky

This article is part two of a six-part blog series about Marina Vernovsky’s experience in the Santa Cruz Permaculture Herbalism & Medicine-Making Course, a 6-weekend course beginning every April & October. Read part one here.

Botany is important in learning herbalism and plant medicine.

Rusty Botany at Pogonip and a Woodshop

The second weekend session took shape from a framework of botany. Throughout the weekend, we were reminded again and again of the intricate intertwining of botany and herbal medicine. The first day began with a short lecture by Max, a woodworker who moonlights as the Rusty Botanist (so-called by those who have witnessed his propensity for pulling out the hand lens hanging as a pendant from his neck to get a closer look at a plant). The discussion covered basics of plant structures as well as plant classifications and relationships, which created opportunities to veer back to considerations of the constituents that exist on a microscopic level within the structures of plants. 

Experiencing Activity

The doctrine of signatures is demonstrated during the Santa Cruz Permaculture Herbalism Course.

Herbal constituents are the active compounds in plants that are formulated into medicine. These plant metabolites – phytochemicals – can be extracted from roots, berries, barks, seeds, stems, leaves, flower heads, flower petals, and other projections of plants. These constituents, along with the herbal actions they generate when prepared for medicinal application, may be invisible to the human eye; however, they can often be witnessed through a principle known as the “doctrine of signatures.” This doctrine dictates that, often, the action that an herbal preparation may have is indicated in the visible forms of the plant from which the preparation has been extracted. This is illustrated by the vine, Passionflower (Pasiflora incarnata), which is known for its sedative, anxiolytic, and hypnotic effects. Passionflower can be seen with many tightly-curled tendrils emerging from axillary buds (the nook where a leaf connects with a stem). Quite ironically, Passionflower is indicated for insomnia, anxiety, and has historically been used for subduing seizures. The curly-cues growing along the vine can, then, be associated with the treatment of patterns of circular thinking and the apparently uncontrollable electrical neurological activity occurring during seizures.

We covered plant identification along simple lines like those of monocots and dicots, though going as far as the intricacies of delineating grasses into grasses, sedges, and rushes. Grouping the plants into families, such as mints (Lamiaceae) and aster (Asteraceae) would support our foray into linking members of those families with their constituents. To elaborate upon the example above: members of the Lamiaceae family contain a mixture of terpenes which are antifungal, antibacterial, astringent, and are said to support against environmental stressors; members of Asteraceae contain flavonoids, which are touted for their anti-cancer, antiviral, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, neuro-protective, and cardio-protective effects. 

Students sample herbal tinctures during their medicine-making course near Santa Cruz.

Preparations and Sensations

Much to everyone’s delight, the next step in experiencing herbs was to engage with medicinal preparations in the form of tinctures. Deva selected individual amber-colored bottles from the display she had set up on the low table in front of her and introduced them to us first by describing their medicinal uses, and then by demonstrating how to best sample the tinctures (a product of an extraction process that would be covered in more detail in a future session). Tinctures are incredibly potent considering the efficacy with which the menstruum – alcohol in this case – can extract herbal constituents from macerated plant matter, so we were urged to try only a drop or two. One by one, the tinctures were passed around and the droppers were lifted out of the bottles, aimed at the spot on the back of the hand between the knuckles of the thumb and index finger, and a drop (…or two…or three…) was let loose onto the skin. The drops did not stray too far down the hand before we were able to lick them up. As can be imagined, the taste was intense: a mixture of seriously concentrated herb and the alcohol that did it. Tinctures extract and amplify herbal constituents and their actions, so even a single drop was enough to set off cascades of sensory experience from the moment the tincture touched the skin. This was a solid reminder of how much respect, consideration, practice, and specificity is called upon in working with herbal medicine. 

The sensory experience was made much more intense once the tincture was tasted.

What was the color of the tincture as it appeared on the hand? What was the initial taste? How did the tongue feel? What were the sensations in the throat, in the head, throughout the rest of the body? What was the aftertaste? How did it impact emotion and proprioception? Consideration of these questions was made easier because we were stationary during the sampling of tinctures. This stillness made for a clearer comparison; we sat and experienced any pre-tincture sensations to create a baseline, and awareness of the impact of the tincture was heightened because our bodies remained relatively motionless during and post-sampling. 

An interesting aspect of ingesting medicinal tinctures is that their intensity creates a certain distraction from what ails the person consuming the tincture; the sensation may provide a much needed break for pain receptors, alleviating the sensation of pain through the whole body as the tincture is experienced. 

Making plant presses for herbalism class in Santa Cruz.

In the Woodshop

Next was a field trip to Max’s woodshop, where we made plant presses. The process was a simple one: each press would be made from two flat rectangles of wood, some cardboard in between, and wax paper between the cardboard. We made a stack of the materials and drilled holes through the corners, stuck screws and wingnuts into the holes to secure the press, and then sanded the edges, burned designs onto the wooden rectangles, and oiled the wood. These presses resembled books, books made of cardboard but soon to be brimming with aerial plant parts. Upon returning to homebase, people immediately took to collecting flowerheads and stems and leaves to put in between the wax paper pieces that lined the cardboard pages of their presses. A suggestion was made to create a sort of scrapbook or album and dedicate entire pages to single plants, their defining characteristics, herbal actions and constituents, and anything else we deem pertinent to engaging with herbs. The pressed plants would emerge  from the presses dried, since the moisture is squeezed out through pressing, so they would make excellent additions to these pages.

Herbal foraging best practices are an important part of the Santa Cruz California Herbalism Course.

Herb Walk in Pogonip

We spent a portion of the following day at Pogonip Open Space Preserve in Santa Cruz. The intention there was to gain further exposure to plants in various contexts (aside from just appearing out of thin air in a bowl or basket in front of us during lectures). Of course, questions were asked regarding plants beyond those specifically medicinal, since we had extra guests join for the plant walk, some of whom were experts in botany. In Pogonip, the added layer of wilder growing patterns, outside of gardens or cultivation, was a fascinating one to stop and ponder every so often. Medicinal herbs grew right alongside plants to be avoided, such as Poison Hemlock. We ran into Burdock, Plantain, Madrone, Hedge Nettle, Hazelnut, Soap Root, Oat Straw, muddy trails, forested paths, open meadows, an encampment, and some hikers. The precarity of harvesting practices was illuminated once more. Where should we harvest? How much should we harvest? Which part(s) of the plant do we harvest? When is it best to harvest? What kind of activity occurs near where this plant is growing? Why is this plant growing right here? How might harvesting affect the surrounding area?

A Foray into Wellness

This second weekend was a general introduction into more specific aspects of medicinal herbal practice and the decision-making involved in pairing herb(s) with ailments. Naturally, a place to start is one of the initial points of ingestion: the oronasal cavity. This is also a window into an individual’s general health, given that everything we eat goes through our mouths first, followed by a complex process to ultimately be assimilated or excreted. Have you thought about how you eat as you’re eating? Have you considered how you approach the food you’re about to eat? Have you paused before taking the first bite, in order to feel what is happening throughout your gastrointestinal tract? Simply smelling something is enough to begin the process. Try it: take a whiff of something edible, something delicious, and note what happens. How much saliva is produced? What do you feel in your abdomen? Perhaps your stomach growls, or you feel hunger pangs when you thought you were perfectly satiated. Or, on the other hand, perhaps the smell is something less palatable; still, notice what happens in this case as well. Can you envision how the food was prepared, or by whom, or in what circumstances, or in what state of mind?

The second largest microbiome exists in your mouth, so there is an almost unfathomable amount of activity occurring in that area. Apropos of this complexity, there are herbs that are targeted at the mouth: nutritive herbs help build teeth; gargles help treat and prevent infection and alleviate symptoms of pain or soreness; sialogogues increase production of saliva. 


Herbs are supplemental. They support us as we move through our lives, as we behave toward ourselves and our environments.  Before turning to bitters, carminatives, pro-kinetics, something as simple as chewing a few more times may work to ease dis-ease. 

Chamomile grows in our permaculture farm field and is harvested by herbalism students.

Join us October 7th on the farm for a celebratory fall harvest dinner and festival!

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