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What is a Materia Medica?

Posted ByAgatha Noveille
Tagsherbal education, materia medica
Every field of study employs its own language, words and phrases that become an integral part of
engaging with the discipline. In herbalism, one such phrase is materia medica, which comes from
Latin and literally means healing materials. More specifically, a materia medica is a body of
knowledge that describes how plants have been used therapeutically throughout the ages. These
published works span from ancient times all the way to our modern texts.
These materia medica serve an important role in herbalism. The oldest ones give us insight into how
plants were used in the time periods in which they were published. At first, some of the language is
puzzling, and it often takes a willingness to study the historical context of the writing before the older
materia medicas begin to make sense. But once they do, we can begin to discern the common threads
from history that have woven their way into our modern uses and that inspire modern clinical trials and
scientific research. Some of our modern herbalists have also written brilliant materia medica, and the
patterns they discuss and connections they describe can help us build our own herbal skills in
significant ways.
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Crafting Your Own Materia Medica

You should first decide on the basic form your materia medica will take. Would you like a notebook or
journal format, or would you prefer to use notecards in a file box? Some herbalists use a three-ring
binder so they can easily add and organize pages, while others prefer a computer file for quick editing
or better legibility.
Some older manuscripts have beautiful illustrations, and you might want to add sketches, drawings, or
photos of plants to help with identification. Other materia medica are word based, with no visuals or
illustrations, but if you dont know an herb by sight, adding a visual representation to your materia
medica is a good idea.

Creating Each Herbal Profile

The list that follows will help you create a framework for your materia medica, but as learn more about
a specific herb, you can include as much information as you desire. Dont let yourself get overwhelmed
with the process, though take each herb a little at a time and work at it over several sessions. It may
be best to leave room in your materia medica so that you can add more information later on as you gain
more hands-on experience with your herbs.
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Information To Include In Your Materia Medica

Herb Identification
Latin binomial; common names; parts used; growing information or preferred habitat; how and when to
harvest. A visual reference is great for this section, and you may want to include a botanical
description, too.
Actions and Energetics
The actions of an herb are the traditional pharmacology notes that describe what the herb does (like
whether the herb is astringent or diuretic); Energetics are descriptions of how the herb behaves in the
body (These take constitution into consideration- an herb can be cooling, moistening, warming, or
Specific Indications
Sometimes, you may read about or discover times when an herb is particularly well suited to a specific
purpose. Whether the herb is appropriate for a specific kind of individual or a detailed circumstance,
this is the place to note this information.
Clinical and Contemporary Use
This is the place to add notes from modern news sources and references to scientific literature and
clinical trials.
Traditional Use and Folklore
This section is perfect for the interesting historical uses and lore associated with an herb.
Safety Issues and Precautions
Any known side effects should go in this section; cautions regarding use by children or use during
pregnancy; potential drug interactions or allergies.
Combinations and Similar Herbs
Recipes or formulas (historical, or of your own devising); other herbs with similar uses (These become
a great tool for cross-referencing.)