Overview of Botanical Medicine

Botanical medicine (herbal medicine) has been used for thousands of years. Today, 80 percent of the world's population uses plants to treat illness. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in April 2014, approximately 1 in every 5 people in the United States uses herbal supplements like ginseng, Echinacea, ginkgo biloba, and St. John's Wort.

Many conventional drugs used today were originally derived from medicinal plants. Plants are used medicinally because they do not have high toxicity, accumulate in the body, or cause habituation or withdrawal symptoms.

An herb is a plant that is used for medicinal purposes. Herbs are used to enhance immune function; improve digestion; normalize bodily functions; destroy bacteria, viruses, and fungi; soothe irritated tissues; calm nerves; and relax muscles. Even though scientific studies are validating the use of many herbs, herbal practitioners still prescribe herbs based on empirical evidence and tradition.

Herbs can be taken in many forms:

  • Herbal Tea
  • Compress (fomentation)
  • Poultice
  • Tincture
  • Syrup
  • Gargle
  • Douche
  • Bath
  • Salve
  • Suppositories

Herbal Tea

The leaves, flowers, or roots of an herb can be made into a tea. Flowers and leaves are infused; roots are decocted. An infusion is a liquid preparation made by steeping an herb in either hot (not boiling) or cold water. A decoction is a liquid preparation made by boiling an herb root. Infusions and decoctions are used immediately after preparation due to quick spoilage.

Preparation—Teas may be prepared using either fresh or dried herb. When using fresh herbs, they must first be crushed or ground. A cup of tea is normally prepared using 1 tablespoon dried herbs or 2 tablespoons fresh herbs to 8 ounces of water, preferably filtered or spring water. If more than 1 herb is used, combine all the herbs and use 1 tablespoon of the mixture to 8 ounces of water. The recommended dosage is often 1 cup taken 3 times a day. Teas are a safe way of obtaining the medicinal qualities of an herb and can often be taken long term.


A compress is the external application of herbs to treat wounds, infections, and muscular, joint, skin, or glandular conditions.

Preparation—Dip a clean cotton cloth into an herbal tea or tincture (or other medicinal preparation). Wring out excess fluid and place on body part being treated. Wrap in plastic and then a towel. Variations include placing a hot water bottle over the compress or alternating hot and cold compresses.


The poultice is the external application of herbs to treat wounds, infections, and muscular, joint, skin, or glandular conditions.

Preparation—Herbs for use in a poultice must first be macerated (crushed, ground) to release the chemical constituents. Powdered (ground) herbs are often mixed with water to form a paste for use in the poultice. Place the paste or crushed herbs between several sheets of cheesecloth and apply directly to the body part to be treated. Poultices should be wet and sticky but not wringing wet.


A tincture is a liquid extract of an herb. Tinctures are made by soaking an herb in menstruum (solvent) such as alcohol or glycerine. The menstruum extracts the chemical constituents of the plant. The herb material is removed from the menstruum, usually several weeks later, once the medicinal properties of the herb have been extracted into the alcohol. Tinctures are more potent than teas, so they provide more medicinal strength. Tinctures can be made of one herb or a combination of herbs. Tinctures are taken to normalize body functions, improve the immune system, and treat illnesses. Some uses are colds and flus, urinary tract and upper respiratory infections, irritated tissues, pain relief, gastrointestinal health, cardiovascular health, hormonal balance, and menstrual irregularities. Keep tinctures in tight, light-resistant glass containers and avoid exposure to direct sunlight or high heat.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 01 Jan 2001

Last Modified: 28 Sep 2015