1. Ben Tiller

    Ben Tiller Member

    Nov 29, 2010
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    Explanation of 'Herbalism'

    Discussion in 'Research' started by Ben Tiller, Nov 29, 2010.

    Hi, I'm starting to write a fantasy story, and it starts out with the main character finding plants in fields to pick for herbalism uses. The only problem is, I don't know much about how it's done.

    I have a little experience in WoW, the huge mmorpg game, if anyone's heard of it. I know this is stupid, but I was wondering if the herbalism profession in the game has any connection to the field of herbalism as practiced in the past (mainly from medieval times and traveling even further back into B.C.) and if it holds any grain of truth as to the reality of the practice.

    I googled herbalism and tried wikipedia but nothing useful. If someone with prior knowledge about this or if someone could do a little research for me I'd really appreciate it.

    This is what I need:

    -What is herbalism, and not according to modern uses and practices (should take place in the past, since my story includes swords and warriors and stuff)

    -The difference between herbs/plants if known and how herbalism ties into those two.

    -Some possible names for plants (I know some WoW ones, like stranglekelp, bruiseweed, not sure if that's relevant though). I need to know if the names have any significance as to the USAGE of the herb and what it does, or if it's just a whimsical name

    -How herbalism is done and the tools and equipments involved (From what I gather, it usually involves running around with a bag or something and ripping plants from their soil and putting them in the bags, but maybe it's more than that)

    -Or, if none of the above is possible, if someone could point me in a right direction where I could get some help.

    would appreciate it.
  2. HeinleinFan

    HeinleinFan Banned

    Jan 6, 2007
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    I take it "write what you know" isn't a favorite of yours, is it?

    Herbalism is quite different from the game as you've described. And I'm really not convinced you tried much on Google, as there are a ton of websites out there that describe how to preserve and administer herbal remedies. Five minutes doesn't count, kid.

    On the other hand, the fantasy genre often uses herbs as a way to get around technological limits on medicine. So this thread might prove useful to other people who want to get something of a handle on how herbalism is done.

    What is an herb?
    Broadly speaking, it's a low-growing plant that has useful parts. Trees aren't usually thought of as "herbs," although cinnamon and cloves and such come from trees. An "herbalist" may well use plant parts from grasses, leafy plants, bushes, trees, vines, bulbs and anything else that grows in the area.

    What is herbalism used for?
    In real life, herbs are used to treat illnesses and injuries, to provide color for dyed cloth, to spice food, to poison pests (or people), to discourage bugs from moving in, and to provide a sweet smell. Occasionally "herbs" like dandelions (which can be used to make dandelion tea) are eaten as part of a mixed salad.

    In "soda pop" fantasy, the focus is usually on herbs as a way to treat injuries and as a way to poison people. In "red wine" fantasy, herbalism is more often shown in its full range of capability. In the Dies the Fire series, for example, satchets of lavender flowers are used to scent rooms and pillows, sandalwood and jasmine are used in perfume / incense, jasmine and other herbs are used in tea, rose hips are used to stave off scurvy, willow bark extracts are used to make aspirin, indigo and saffron are used to make dye, and plants like dandelions are used in salads.

    WoW is not real life.
    Just sayin'. "Pulling plants up by the roots and stuffing them in bags" might work as an in-game shorthand, but it is so simplified as to be useless.

    Okay, okay. If it's not like WoW, what is herb collection like?
    The simplest methods would be for collecting parts of plants that just need to be washed, dried, or cooked. You can use a basket, for example, to collect rose hips or flowers, and with a stick or metal trowel you can dig up roots. Scissors or a knife are useful for collecting leaves, and string can also be useful for tying leaves and stems together in small bundles if you're collecting multiple kinds of herbs at once.

    Some plants would require gloves. Thorny plants like roses or brambles of any kind -- blackberry and raspberry bushes, for example, are a pain in the arse, and if you're thinking of collecting honey locust pods for animals to eat you'll want to mind the 3-cm-long spines that come off the young shoots. And poisonous plants are worth using gloves, if you must use them. One thing I'm thinking of is oleander, which is poisonous as hell; you might use the wood to make pungee sticks or other anti-personnel weapons, but you don't want to eat the leaves or the sap, and for God's sake don't burn it and breathe in the smoke!

    Leaves are often preserved by carefully washing and then drying them, removing them from the stem right after they've been washed, and spacing them in a dry flat place such as a flat cloth or clean tray (modern herbalists would use screens, but that may not be available to your characters). Or you can hang the herbs in bunches (without necessarily removing the leaves from the stems) in a place that's dust-free and dry.

    Roots can be sliced and dried, on trays or cloth as described above. Onions and garlic can be left to dry for a bit, then stored in bins or braided (which you might have seen in movies or at the store -- braids of ten or more garlic plants hanging in a dry place like an attic or pantry). And berries can often be dried, although that may be getting more into "plants for food" than you were intending.

    Opium poppies are a bit odd -- you nick the plant to make the sap flow out into a drop, and then you collect the dried droplets of sap. I'm not sure what the refining process is. Opium is the source for morphine, and depending on your herblore in-story, your healers, doctors, kings and warriors may value morphine for its ability to reduce pain, allowing surgeons to do their work in a less gratuitously painful manner.

    Do plant names have any special meaning?
    Depends on the plant. Soaproot is (gasp! shock!) a plant whose root can be used as soap; the leaves look a little like long corn leaves, but the edges are more wavy. Dogbane and henbane are both poisonous, which gives the word "bane" to their title. Wormwood was once used as a remedy for worms, parasittes that could get into the human or animal digestive tract, taking nutrients from the host and making the victim sick with their waste products. Feverfew can be used on insect bites and may be useful in reducing fever and headaches.

    Other times the name is whimsical -- dandelion, rosemary, lavender, lords and ladies, marigold, St. John's wort, cattail. And of course many plants that are useful were not named by English speakers; for example, cinchona bark is the source for quinine, a medicine used to treat malaria.

    Note that if a plant is later discovered to have a medicinal use, it may acquire a nickname. I could definitely see a world where "sollern" became "fever plant" if that was its use. (Sollern is made up, but similar things could happen with real plants; marigold could be called "pestbane" because it keeps pest bugs away from the garden.)

    How does herbalism tie into medicine?
    If you don't have much else, plants are great. Even if their only use is as a causer of the placebo effect, that might be better than nothing. And sometimes people who are seriously ill or hungry can benefit from vitamins in the plants, even if the plant doesn't do anything else. Rose hips, for example, are a good source of Vitamin C, and I've read that comfrey is a good source of Vitamin B-12.

    In the middle ages, misinformation was the rule when it came to medicine. Surgery was chancy, anesthesia was unknown, and the stuff a doctor did to cure you might actually make you worse, such as "bleeding" you by draining your blood. Allegedly this would help remove bad humours, but in reality it tended to kill weak patients and make middling patients worse.

    Germ theory transformed modern medicine, and depending on your in-story world, it's entirely possible that the healers / doctors / bonesaws / whatevet in your world have advanced to the point where they know about germs, they know not to bleed people, but they still don't have modern medicines so they're using herbs and other reasonably low-tech remedies instead.
    1 person likes this.
  3. SashaMerideth

    SashaMerideth Contributing Member

    Aug 26, 2010
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    My fantasy story has herbalists, but the background means the plants were genetically engineered and cultivated to give a desired effect. This information was not passed down but discovered later by the inhabitants, like a flower that has an analgesic nectar or a plant that grows on aluminum deposits, and has aluminum spines, used for hooks and traps. If you want fantasy based on real stuff, fudge the numbers, make the aspen bark tea a bit more potent than it really would be, or feverfew more effective. Look up folk remedies, and look hard.

    Soft fantasy is easy to write, just make up stuff and you can have a dime a dozen sub-par novella. Or you can write a hard fantasy, and maybe get a cult following. The latter is what I hope for.
  4. FrankABlissett

    FrankABlissett Active Member

    Nov 29, 2008
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    Sault, Michigan

    I wildcraft a portion of our food, and can give at least a little advice.

    Don't do much in the way of healing herbs as I don't get ill often, but do have a basic knowledge of that too.

    If you want to talk, drop me an private message, or even ask here if you want.

    If your library has access to a copy of "The Forager's Harvest", by Samuel Thayer, give it a read. He talks quite a lot about the mechanics of finding and harvesting edible plants.

  5. Melzaar the Almighty

    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

    Aug 28, 2010
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    Best thing to do is just to make up some herbs, really... In a fantasy world that's not based on Earth I always go by the rule that I'm merely translating, so for 90% of things we use and name in the real world they'd probably be called something else in the fantasy world. Once they have different names, you don't have to stick to the same properties either, but just do whatever you really need.

    I generally look at it from the point of view of how prevalent magic is in the world. World of Warcraft, for example, is a world absolutely saturated in magic. Most of the landscapes are affected by it, for good or bad, and if you look, the herbs reflect that - stranger herbs crop up in stranger places. It's easy to assume that the herbs have vastly magical properties, so that pounding two together and sticking them in a jar CAN make a potion of incredible properties. You can just make up whatever is useful to the plot at that point.

    If you take a world where there is very little magic - or it can only be drawn from books or some other source and the landscape is mostly unaffected by it - no elves came along and chatted to trees or whatever to bring the landscape into a magical life - you will want to keep making up herbs which just have chemical properties, so sticking with healing, pain relief, and accepted medicinal effects.

    It's always good to take in as much world view as you can about your fantasy land, because one detail can affect so many things.
  6. mammamaia

    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

    Nov 21, 2006
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    Coquille, Oregon
    it's the same now as it's always been... the knowledge of how to identify and use healing plants is handed down from generation to generation... there's nothing all that fancy or complicated about it...

    i can't believe you can't get the info you need with a few seconds of googling... i supect you didn't try very hard or very long...




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