Glossary of Herbal Terms

Here is a list with definitions to help you navigate through the herbal terms (words) that you may have read or heard about.


Acid Tincture: A tincture made using vinegar (usually apple cider vinegar) instead of alcohol. Tincture of Lobelia inflata has a long tradition of being made into an acid tincture.

Adaptogen: improve the ability of the body to adapt to stressors (whatever form that stress takes). They promote well-being, homeostasis, and health. By definition these are relatively non toxic – as in, when taken in normal doses it is nontoxic. They promote a nonspecific ability to adapt and resist stress in the entire organism. They tend to help regulate or normalize organ and system function on a broad basis. This is a modern term.
Alterative: once known as “blood cleansers”, alteratives gradually help the body to restore normal function, vitality, and health. It is worth noting that adaptogens are all alteratives, but not all alteratives are adaptogens.
Amphoteric: normalizes function of an organ or tissue. For example, if some tissue or organ is over active then it helps lower the activity of that organ or tissue, but if the organ or tissue is under active it helps raise the activity.
Analgesic: analgesics reduce pain.
Anodyne: anodyne is another term for something that reduces pain. From the Greek an = without, and odune = pain.
Anthelmintic: These help to destroy or get rid of worms from the digestive system. Another term for this is Vermifuge.
Anti-bilious: aids the body to remove excess bile.
Anti-biotic: aids the body in the destruction or inhibits the growth of bacteria.
Anti-catarrhal: aids the body to remove excess catarrh (mucus). This could be in the sinuses or other parts of the body.
Anti-emetic: help reduce the feeling of nausea and may help prevent or relieve vomiting.
Anti-inflammatory: help reduce inflammation.
Anti-lithic: help prevent the formations of, or remove, stones or gravel in the urinary system.
Anti-microbial: help the body to kill or resist infecting micro-organisms such as bacteria.
Anti-pyretic: aids the body to bring down fevers.
Anti-spasmodic: help prevent or reduce cramping or spasm.
Aperient: very mild laxative. From the Latin aperire or aperient = opening.
Apothecary: A person who formulates and dispenses materia medica. Place where materia medica is prepared and stored.

Aromatherapy: The use of aromatic plant materials, usually but not always essential oils, to improve health and wellbeing. Often used in baths and massage.
Aromatic: in the case of plants, these are plants that have strong odours. These can often be pleasant. They are also usually stimulating to the digestive system.
Astringent: astringents constrict tissues. In the case of astringent plants, they usually contain tannins, which bind proteins, leading to reduction of secretions or discharge.


Bile: an alkaline fluid, that is produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder for release into the digestive system, to aid in the process of digestion. Primarily it aids in the digestion of fats and elimination of waste products from the blood, it is also the body’s own natural laxative.
Bitter: referring to the bitter taste. Bitter herbs cause a reflex action, through the taste buds, that stimulates the digestive system.


Carminative: the volatile oils in these plants aid in the stimulation of peristalsis of the digestive system and relaxation of the stomach. They support digestion and help prevent gas.

Catarrh: another term for mucus.
Cholagogue: stimulate the release of bile from the gall-bladder.
Compress: topical application used to soften tissue and relieve inflammation or pain. Made by placing a piece of soft cloth in hot water that has had herbal materials added (i.e. tea or decoction). This is then wrung out and placed on the area.
Cream: a thick liquid or semi-solid cosmetic or medicinal preparation for topical use. Usually made from a combination of oil and water, which would also classify it as an emulsion.


Decoction: a water extraction of plant material made through boiling or simmering.
Demulcent: Usually rich in mucilage, they soothe and protect irritated, inflamed tissue. This term is used when referring to internal use. See Emollient below.
Depurative: Depurative herbs are ones that are considered detoxifying or purifying.
Diaphoretic: promotes perspiration. Useful for supporting the body to regulate temperature (i.e. during fever) as well as eliminating toxins that are excreted in sweat.
Diuretic: increases the production and elimination of urine.


Emetic: promote vomiting.
Emmenagogue: stimulates and normalizes menstrual flow.
Emollient: protect, soften, and soothe the skin. This term is used when referring to external use. See Demulcent above.

Emulsion: A mixture of two or more liquids that are normally immiscible (un-mixable) with the aid of an emulsifier. For example oil and water. A couple examples of emulsions include: our skin creams and soap. Two more examples of emulsions are mayonnaise and vinaigrette.

Essential Oil: Contrary to their name these are not oils at all. If  they are good quality, they are usually made by distillation. Their chemical composition can be subdivided into two main groups, hydrocarbons (terpenes, monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, and diterpenes) and oxygenated chemicals (esters, aldehydes, ketones, alcohols, phenols, and oxides). They are highly aromatic.
Expectorant: these support the body’s removal of excess mucus from the respiratory system.


Febrifuge: aids the body to bring down fevers.


Galactogogue: used for breast-feeding moms to increase milk flow

Glyceract: A tincture made using vegetable glycerine instead of alcohol. Although chemically speaking glycerine is also classified as an alcohol it doesn’t have the same problems associated with it, i.e. intoxication. Typically used for children, pets, and those with a sensitivity to alcohol.


Hepatic: aid in the toning and strengthening of the liver. They also increase the flow of bile.
Homeostasis: the healthy tendency to equilibrium between interdependent systems.
Hydragogue: a substance that increases water discharge.
Hypnotic: hypnotics induce sleep. They do not cause hypnotic trance.


Infusion: a drink, remedy, or extract made by soaking the plant material in liquid (usually water).

Infused oil: an oil that has had plant material infused into it. Some are done by solar infusion and some by low heat, for example on a stove. They are very useful for making topical preparations.

Inhalation: this refers to the use of steam, which is inhaled. Typically the hot water contains essential oil containing herbs or essential oils.


Currently none.


Currently none.


Laxative: promote elimination from the bowels.
Liniment: a liquid or lotion made with oil that is used topically to relieve pain.
Lotion: a thick smooth liquid that is used for application to the skin for medicinal or cosmetic purposes.


Materia Medica: Term for the body of knowledge collected about materials used for their therapeutic properties. In the case of herbalists this would be herbs and other plant materials.
Mucilage: the polysaccharide substance in some plants that when extracted forms a gelatinous consistency.


Nervine: beneficial to the nervous system. Actions can vary – some stimulate, some relax, some tone and strengthen.
Nootropic: these enhance cognition and memory and facilitate learning.


Organoleptic: being, affecting, or relating to qualities such as taste, colour, odour, and feel.
Oxytocic: these stimulate the contraction of the uterus and are thought to be helpful in childbirth.


Pectoral: help to strengthen and aid healing of the respiratory system.
Peristalsis: the involuntary wavelike muscle contraction in the digestive tract that mix and move food along towards the anus.

Pharmacognosy: the study of medicines that are obtained from natural sources. The American Society of Pharmacognosy defines it this way: “the study of the physical, chemical, biochemical and biological properties of drugs, drug substances or potential drugs or drug substances of natural origin as well as the search for new drugs from natural sources”.

Poultice: a soft, moist, mass of plant material that is applied topically to the body and held in place, often with a cloth but can be a leaf, bandage, or other suitable material.


Currently none.


Rubefacient: when applied topically they cause gentle local irritation that stimulates circulation to that area of the skin. Often they can bring relief to deeper (internal) pain.


Sedative: calming to the nervous system, they reduce stress and nervousness. They can also help areas of the body that have been affected by nervous problems.
Sialgogue: stimulate saliva secretion.
Solar Infusion: Typically made using plant materials soaked in oil, which are placed in a sealed jar and allowed to sit in a sunny location to allow the suns rays to heat it up and cause the phytochemicals to be extracted into the oil. Plant material is then strained out and the infused oil is what is used. St John’s Wort infused oil is traditionally made as a solar infusion.

Soporific: induce sleep. See hypnotics above.
Stimulant: raises the levels of physiological or nervous activity (functions) in the body.
Styptic: astringents that reduce or stop external bleeding.


Tea: a water extraction of plant material by infusing the material in hot water (water is usually boiled before adding plant material).
Tonic: strengthens and invigorates specific organs, systems, or the whole body.


Currently none.


Vulnerary: applied topically, they aid the body in the healing of wounds and cuts

Vermifuge: Something that acts to cause the expulsion or death of intestinal worms. From the Latin vermis = worm, and fugere = to cause to flee. Another term for this is: Anthelminitic


Currently none.


Currently none.


Currently none.


Currently none.

If you have a term you wish to have added to our Glossary please send us an email with the subject line “Please add to Glossary – [INSERT WORD]”