Herbal Terms and Definitions
Terminology. “Understanding terms or words commonly used in herbal literature provides a basic foundation for people new to herbs and reinforces the basics for those with some experience with herbal medicine.” 
aetheroleum: refers to the essential or volatile oil as a distinct aromatic product obtained from the plant.
abortifacient: inducing abortion
adaptogen: a class of herbs that enable the body to adapt more efficiently to stress and to maintain homeostasis through stressful shifts in the environment
adjuvant: serving to help or assist
allopathy: also known as “conventional medicine” in Western societies. Allopathy focuses on treating the symptoms of diseases primarily through prescription drugs. This approach utilizes a process of reductionism (focusing on the symptoms exhibited in a part of the organism rather than focusing on the organism as a whole.)
alterative: a substance that gently increases elimination of metabolic wastes through the major eliminatory organs (lungs, lymph, skin, kidney, liver, and bowel) thus improving the body’s abilities to heal and function in a healthy manner
analeptic: restorative or stimulating effect on central nervous system
analgesic: relieve pain
anaphrodisiac: reduces capacity for sexual arousal
anesthetic: induces loss of sensation or consciousness due to the depression of nerve function
anxiolytic: anxiety relieving
anodyne: In medicine before the 20th century, an anodyne was a drug that was believed to relieve or soothe pain by lessening the sensitivity of the brain or nervous system. It was essentially an analgesic. Some definitions restrict the term to topical medications, including herbal simples such as onion, lily, root of mallows, leaves of violet, and elderberry. Other definitions include ingested narcotics, hypnotics, and opiates
anthelmintic: destructive to parasitic worms; called also antihelmintic and vermifugal
antianemic: preventing or curing anemia
antibacterial: destroying or stopping the growth of bacteria
antibilious: easing stomach stress
anticatarrhal: helps dissolve and prevent the formation of mucus and inflammation of mucus membranes
antidepressant: therapy that acts to prevent, cure, or alleviate mental depression
antidiabetic: preventing or relieving diabetes
antidiarrhetic: substances use to prevent or treat diarrhea
anti-emetic: stopping vomiting
anti-fungal: destroying or inhibiting the growth of fungus
anti-hemorrhagic: controlling hemorrhaging or bleeding
anti-infectous: counteracting infection
anti-inflammatory: controlling inflammation, a reaction to injury or infection
anti-lithic: preventing the formation of calculi or promoting their dissolution.
anti-malarial: preventing or relieving malaria
anti-microbial: destructive to microbes
anti-nauseant: destructive to microbes
antioxident: prevents or inhibits oxidation
anti-periodic: preventing regular recurrence of the symptoms of a disease, as in malaria
anti-pruritic: preventing or relieving itching
antipruritic herbs include calendula, oats, licorice, and chickweed.
antipyretic: agent that reduces fever (febrifuge)
anti-rheumatic: easing pain of rheumatism, inflammation of joints and muscles
anti-scorbutic: effective in the prevention or relief of scurvy
antiseptic: agent used to produce asepsis and to remove pus, blood, etc.
antispasmodic: calming nervous and muscular spasms or convulsions
anti-helmintic: destructive to parasitic worms; called also anthelmintic and vermifugal
antitussive: controlling or preventing cough
antiviral: opposing the action of a virus
antiovulatory: inhibiting or preventing ovulation.
aperient: a very mild laxative
aperitive: stimulating the appetite for food
aphrodisiac: substance increasing capacity for sexual arousal
aquaretic: an agent that increases urine flow, without affecting electrolyte balance
asepsis: sterile, a condition free of germs, infection, and any form of life
astringent: an astringent substance is a chemical compound that tends to shrink or constrict body tissues (astringent
herbs include Lady’s Mantle, geranium, goldenrod, goldenseal, meadowsweet, nettle, rosemary, sage, and yarrow)
ayurvedic medicine: Literally meaning the “science of life.” A 5,000yearold system of medicine originating in India that combines natural therapies with a highly personalized, holistic approach to the treatment of disease.
balsamum: refers to a solution of resin and volatile oil usually produced by special cells in some plants.
binomial: The two part scientific Latin name used to identify plants. The first name is the genus and is a general name that may be shared by a number of related plants. The second is the species name, which refers to the name that is specific to that individual plant (i.e., Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustifolia).
- In commercial terms herb generally refers to plants used for culinary purposes. Additionally the terminology differentiates Temperate Zone plants from tropical and subtropical plants (i.e., spices).
- In horticultural terms herb refers to “herbaceous,” which describes the appearance of the plant (i.e., a nonwoody, vascular plant).
- In taxonomic terms herb generally refers to the above ground parts or the aerial parts (i.e., the flower, leaf, and stem).
In terms of herbal medicine herb refers to plants used in various forms or preparations, valued for their therapeutic benefits, and sold as dietary supplements in the U.S. marketplace.
bitter: stimulates appetite or digestive function
bulbus: refers to the bulb or an underground bud (specialized stem structure) of a plant, from which both a shoot and roots may extend.
calculus: an abnormal concretion, usually composed of mineral salts, occurring within the body, chiefly in hollow organs or their passages (also called a stone)
calmative: allaying irritability, excitement, or nervousness (see sedative)
cardiotonic: increases strength and tone (normal tension or response to stimuli) of the heart
carminative: causing the release of stomach or intestinal gas
catarrhal: pertaining to the inflammation of mucous membranes of the head and throat
cathartic: an active purgative, producing bowel movements
cephalic: pertaining to the head, or to the head end of the body.
cholagogue: an agent that increases flow of bile from gallbladder
cicatrizant: aiding formation of scar tissue and healing wounds
compress: used the same way as a poultice, but usually warm liquids are applied to the cloth instead of raw substances
counterirritant: agent producing an inflammatory response for affecting an adjacent area
cortex: refers to the bark of the plant. Bark can be collected from the root, stem, or branches.
crude drug: natural products, which are not pure compounds (i.e., plants or parts of plants, extracts, or exudes).
decoction: a tea made from boiling plant material, usually the bark, rhizomes, roots or other woody parts, in water. May be used therapeutically. Natural dyes are often made this way.
demulcent: soothing action on inflammation, especially of mucous membranes
note: an emollient is generally referred to use externally, used internally, an emollient is referred to as a demulcent.
Emollient/demulcent herbs include marshmallow root, comfrey root and leaf, and slippery elm bark
dermatitis: inflammation of the skin evidenced my itchiness, redness, and various lesions
diaphoretic: helps to promote perspiration by stimulating peripheral circulation (syn: sudorific)
digestive: supports digestion
diuretic: increases urine flow
drug: a pure substance or combination of pure substances (isolated from natural sources, semisythenthic, or purely chemical in origin) intended to mitigate, treat, cure or prevent a disease in humans (and other animals).
dysmenorrhea: painful menstruation
dyspepsia: imperfect or painful digestion
ecbolic: tends to increase contractions of uterus, facilitating childbirth
electuary: a mixture of powdered herbs and honey
emetic: produces vomiting
emmenagogue: agent that regulates and induces normal menstruation
emollient: softens and soothes irritated or inflamed skin, moisturizes and helps to replenish the skin’s natural oils
note: An emollient is generally referred to use externally, used internally, an emollient is referred to as a demulcent.
Emollient/demulcent herbs include marshmallow root, comfrey root and leaf, and slippery elm bark
errhine: bringing on sneezing, increasing flow of mucus in nasal passages
escharotic: caustic substance that destroys tissue and causes sloughing
essential oils: aromatic volatile oils extracted from the leaves, stems, flowers, and other parts of plants. Therapeutic use generally includes dilution of the highly concentrated oil.
estrogenic: causes the production of estrogen
euphoriant: produces a sense of bodily comfort; temporary effect and often addictive
expectorant: facilitates removal of secretions
febrifuge: an agent that reduces or relieves a fever
flatulence: excessive gas in the stomach or intestine
flos: refers to the flowers of plant usually consisting of a single flower or the entire inflorescences (i.e., head, umbel, panicle, spike, etc.).
folium: refers to the leaf of plant. Usually the middle leaves of plants are collected.
fructus: refers to the fruit (the ripened ovary of the flowerbearing seeds) or berry of the plant. In pharmacognosy, fructus is not always synonymous with the botanical definition.
galactagogue: an agent that promotes the flow of milk (syn: galactogenic)
hemagogue: an agent that promotes the flow of blood
hemostatic: controls the flow or stops the flow of blood
herb: the word herb (sometimes referred to as botanical) has several different meanings depending on the perspective:
herba: refers to the aerial parts or the aboveground parts of plants which may include the flower, leaf, and the stem of the plant, and occasionally fruits too
hepatic: having to do with the liver
hepatoprotective: the ability to prevent damage to the liver
herpetic: treating skin eruptions relating to the herpes virus
homeopathy: system of medicine founded in the late 18th century in which remedies consist of diluted substances from plants, minerals and animals. It is based on a theory that “like cures like.” Remedies specifically match different symptom pattern profiles of illness to stimulate the body’s natural healing process.
hypertensive: raises blood pressure
hypoglycemant: agent that lowers blood sugar
hypotensive: lowers blood pressure
indigenous or tribal medicine: healthcare system that tends to incorporate various methods of botanical and animal medicines as well as specific ceremonial rituals of the culture to cure disease. The medicinal knowledge is passed from generation to generation primarily through oral traditions. The system tends to be unique to each tribe.
indolent: not painful and slow to heal
infused oil: process of extraction in which the volatile oils of a plant substance are obtained by soaking the plant in a carrier oil for approximately two weeks and then straining the oil. The resulting oil is used therapeutically and may contain the plant’s aromatic characteristic.
infusion: a tea made by pouring water over plant material (usually dried flowers, fruit, leaves, and other parts, though fresh plant material may also be used), then allowed to steep. The water is usually boiling, but cold infusions are also an option. May be used therapeutically, as hot tea is an excellent way to administer herbs.
integumentary: the enveloping membrane of the body; includes, in addition to the epidermis and dermis, all the derivatives of the epidermis, for example, hairs, nails, sudoriferous and sebaceous glands, and mammary glands, as well as the subcutaneous tissue
lactifuge: reduces the flow of milk
laxative: substance that acts to loosen the bowels contents
lignum: refers to the wood or the secondary thickening of the stem. This may or may not contain the bark as well.
liniment: extract of a plant added to either alcohol or vinegar and applied topically to employ the therapeutic benefits.
masticatory: increases flow of saliva upon chewing
materia medica: 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. please refer to What is a Materia Medica?
metabolism: the processes (anabolism-building up and catabolism-tearing down) concerned with the distribution of the nutrients absorbed into the blood following digestition
- retrograde metabolism – part of the catabolic, or destructive, phase of metabolism, where large molecules are broken down into smaller molecules to make energy available to the body
mucilage: an aqueous solution of a gummy substance, used as a vehicle or soothing agent (adj mucilag’inous.) 
narcotic: induces drowsiness, sleep, or stupor and lessons pain
naturopathy: A holistic medical system that treats health conditions by utilizing what is believed to be the body’s innate ability to heal. Naturopathic physicians aid healing processes by incorporating a variety of natural methods based on the patient’s individual needs.
nervine: a nerve tonic
- nervine relaxant – helps to calm tension and irritability in the nervous system
- nervine stimulant – assists in stimulating the nervous system
neuralgia: severe sharp pain along the course of a nerve
oleum: refers to the fixed oil preparation pressed or squeezed from the plant material.
parturifacient:induces contractions of labor at childbirth
pectoral: pertaining to the chest
percolation: process to extract the soluble constituents of a plant with the assistance of gravity. The material is moistened and evenly packed into a tall, slightly conical vessel; the liquid (menstruum) is then poured onto the material and allowed to steep for a certain length of time. A small opening is then made in the bottom, which allows the extract to slowly flow out of the vessel. The remaining plant material (the marc) may be discarded. Many tinctures and liquid extracts are prepared this way.
pericarpium: refers to the peel or rind of fruit.
poultice: therapeutic topical application of a soft moist mass of plant material (such as bruised fresh herbs), usually wrapped in a fine woven cloth.
pyroleum: refers to the tar from dry distilled plant material.
pharmacognosy: The study of natural products (i.e., plant, animal, organism, or mineral in nature) used as drugs or for the preparation of drugs. Derived from the Greek pharmakon meaning drug and gnosis meaning knowledge.
phytochemicals: chemical compounds or chemical constituents formed in the plant’s normal metabolic processes. The chemicals are often referred to as “secondary metabolites” of which there are several classes including alkaloids, anthraquinones, coumarins, fats, flavonoids, glycosides, gums, iridoids, mucilages, phenols, phytoestrogens, tannins, terpenes, and terpenoids, to mention a few. Extracts contain many chemical constituents, while chemicals that have been isolated from the plant are considered pharmaceutical drugs (i.e., digoxin having been isolated from the foxglove or Digitalis lanata plant).
phytomedicinals: medicinal substances that originate from plants. This may include certain phytochemicals as well as whole plants or herbal preparations.
phytonutrients: same as phytochemical, any of various bioactive chemical compounds found in plants, as antioxidants, considered to be beneficial to human health.
phytoestrogens: type of phytochemical with some influence on the estrogenic activity or hormonal system in humans. This rather broad term does not mean that the plant mimics human estrogen, only acts to affect it in some way.
polyphenol: a structural class of mainly natural, but also synthetic or semisynthetic, organic chemicals characterized by the presence of large multiples of phenol structural units.
psychogenic: Greek, psyche + genein, to produce, originating within the mind as opposed to having a physical cause
purgative laxative, causes the evacuation of intestinal contents
radix: refers to the root of a plant, though radix is sometimes synonomous with rhizome
renal: pertaining to the kidney; called also nephric
resina: refers to the resin that is secreted by the plant or by distillation of the balsamum.
resorbent: aids reabsorption of blood from bruises
rheumatism: a general term for acute or chronic conditions characterized by inflammation of the muscles and joints (includes arthritis, gout, bursitis, myositis, and fibromyositis).
rubefacient: agent which reddens skin, dilates the vessels, and increases blood supply locally
rhizoma: refers to the rhizome or a creeping horizontal stem, generally bearing roots on its underside.
scrofula: formerly tuberculosis, the terms “scrofulous,” “strumous,” and “tuberculous” being nearly interchangeable in the past, before the real nature of the disease was understood. The particular characteristics associated with scrofula have varied at different periods, but essentially what was meant was tuberculosis of the bones and lymphatic glands, especially in children. It is in this sense that the word survives.
sedative: exerts a soothing, tranquilizing effect on the body
semen: refers to the seed of a plant, usually removed from the fruit, and may or may not contain the seed coat.
sialagogue: an agent that stimulates the flow of saliva.
soporific: inducing sleep
specific:&anbsp;herbs that gently move or “adjust” a process in the body, whether it be hormonal, nervous or in immune function–they are catalysts or assisting remedies. These generally work by stimulating a process – one of the best examples here is echinacea, which stimulates immune cell function and thus confers heightened resistance to pathogenic influences (infections). The specific remedies are generally used only as needed, usually for up to 2 or 3 weeks at most.
stimulant: temporarily increases body or organ function
stomachic: aids the stomach and digestion action
sudorific: acts to increase perspiration
syrup: pleasant way for children or adults to take herbal medicine. The herbs are mixed with a sweet base, creating a palatable edible medicine.
tannin: an astringent, bitter plant polyphenolic compound (also known as vegetable tannin, natural organic tannins or sometimes tannoid, i.e. a type of biomolecule, as opposed to modern synthetic tannin) group of phenol compounds found in plants, which create a group of chemicals called “Polyphenols”. These polyphenols are, for the most part, soluble in water. The astringency of tannin is what causes that dry and puckery feeling in the mouth after you bite into unripened fruit.
tannic acid: tannic acid is a specific type of tannin (plant polyphenol), the two terms are sometimes (incorrectly) used interchangeably. The long standing misuse of the terms, and its inclusion in scholarly articles has compounded the confusion. This is particularly widespread in relation to green tea and black tea, both of which contain tannin but not tannic acid.
thermal stability: referring on this site to an oil that does not oxidize readily when heated
tincture: extract of a plant made by soaking herbs in a dark place with a desired amount of either glycerine, alcohol, or vinegar for two to six weeks. The liquid is strained from the plant material and then may be used therapeutically.
tisane: an infusion of dried or fresh leaves or flowers
tonic: pertaining to, maintaining, increasing, or restoring the tone or health of the body or an organ
traditional chinese medicine: (TCM) A 3,000year old holistic system of medicine combining the use of medicinal herbs, acupuncture, food therapy, massage, and therapeutic exercise. Chinese physicians look for the underlying causes of imbalance in the “yin” and “yang” which lead to disharmony in the “qi” energy in the body. Traditional Chinese Medicine addresses how illness manifests itself in a patient and treats the patient, not the ailment or disease.
urtication sensation of having been stung by nettles.
vermifugal: destructive to parasitic worms; called also antihelmintic and anthelminticl
volatile oil: substance contained in a plant and containing the principles to which the odour and taste of the plant are due (essential oil); in contrast to a fatty oil, a volatile oil evaporates when exposed to the air and so is capable of distillation; it may also be obtained by expression or extraction
vulnerary: herb/herbs used to promote the healing of wounds
Plantain, calendula, comfrey, chickweed, lavender, marshmallow, St. John’s wort, tulsi, aloe, and yarrow are considered vulnerary
zoonotic: disease that can be transmitted from animals to people or, more specifically, a disease that normally exists in animals but that can infect humans
-  American Botanical Council
-  David Winston RH (AHG) //www.herbaltherapeutics.net/
-  botanical info on mucilage
- Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. 2003. Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc 17 Dec. 2016
- Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary. 2012. Farlex 17 Dec. 2016
- Dorland’s Medical Dictionary for Health Consumers. 2007. Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc 17 Dec. 2016
- Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing. 2012. Farlex 17 Dec. 2016
- Saunders Comprehensive Veterinary Dictionary, 3 ed.. 2007. Elsevier, Inc. 17 Dec. 2016