Jan 292009

The Preamble

I consider myself a simpler at heart, meaning I prefer the use of one herb at a time, chosen specifically for the individual and issue at hand. I find this approach encourages intimacy between person and plant, and allows for a clearer dynamic between the two that helps me to better see what’s happening and what might be needed. Formulas, especially pre-made ones from set recipes tend to confuse my intuition and observations skills (never mind the fact that many commercially available formulas are just badly put together). Nonetheless, I do find formulas to be very practical at times, especially when based on a small number of herbs selected specially for that moment in time.

I’m not discounting the effectiveness of ancient Chinese formulas or traditional Native American blends or Ayurvedic powders, I’ve seen them work very well, especially when carefully chosen by an experienced herbalist. I just prefer simple medicines (you know, weeds) used in simple ways (like soup or tea), the same way I like my food. Similarly, I use a very limited number of different herbs in my practice. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a huge apothecary of botanicals from all over the world, but I really love the sustainability, intimacy and place-based wisdom that comes from working with my forty or so local plants. I generally feel the same way about people — I’d rather know a few people really well as individuals than be briefly acquainted with a group of people or an organization. Both kinds of relationships can be useful and productive, but I’ll choose intimacy any day.

I notice that some herbalists, usually beginners, tend to feel like they either have to belong to the simpler camp or the formulator’s camp, with nary a resting spot in between the two extremes. Personally, I try to adapt to the need at hand and thus use both ways as they suit the situation or person. Like I said, I tend towards the simpling but you won’t see me giving up my Rose/Basil/Lemon Thyme/Black Pepper tea any time soon or switching to eating exclusively mono-meals of lettuce or apples. On the other hand, sometimes I do want just the intense and primal delight of a handful of blueberries, a cup of vibrant Nettle tea or a bit of wonderfully aromatic Lavender elixir.  There’s this thing about balance, it doesn’t mean staying still, it means constantly adapting, moving and adjusting in order to keep upright (or upside down, depending). If we can embrace flexibility and evolving, this healing/learning process called life we’ll be infinitely more pleasant.

A Few Tips

  •  I only use herbs in formulas once I’ve gotten to know the herb very well as a simple. This usually means a minimum of a full year of working with the plant one on one before I begin to blend it. Otherwise, you’re dependent on what other people or books have told you about the herb and every time your formula “works” you have to guess who did what, which makes it more difficult to personalize the formula for an individual. If you know each and every herb as an entity unto itself, you’ll have much more confidence when formulating.
  • When I create formulas I tend to only use two to four herbs at time, although there’s always exceptions. I’ve come across very few situations where I’ve really needed to use multiple plants at one time. Acute or chronic or whatever, you can usually take care of it with one to three carefully chosen herbs.
  • It’s imperative that I know exactly why each herb is in a formula, and that each choice is vital to the overall effect. Just because I’m making a formula to primarily address kidney dysfunction does not mean that I throw every “kidney herb” in the books into the mix, just because the person I’m helping has been diagnosed with depression does not mean I need to use St. John’s Wort. I choose the herbs that most clearly and concisely address the issue and match the person, taking into consideration herbal energetics, individual constitution, my intuition and so on. This prevents me from falling into the trap of treating a disease or even an isolated organ system rather than the whole person.
  • I’ve come to realize that I strongly prefer some herbs by themselves and I never include them in formulas. This is mostly personal preference and intuition, but I’ve noticed that many herbalists feel this way about at least one or two plants in their materia medica. For instance, I never mix 
Bear’s Claw (Oplopanax horridum) with anything else. That’s not a rule, I’m not even recommending it, I’m just saying you should honor your intuition about these things unless you have reason to contradict it.
  • Most herb books are full of formulas/recipes (sometimes that’s all they are). Many are completely useless, some marginally helpful and a few are actually quite brilliant. But how will you know the difference? Do you just go on the fact that the lady on the back cover looks kind and experienced the way a healer should? Or by the general rumble of approval of the author you’ve heard among your herbally inclined peers? Or that your second cousin used it once for her niece and it seemed to work? Well, I personally don’t recommend you use a single recipe until you get to know the herbs in the recipe on their own. Once you’re on speaking terms with a few of the herbs, you might want to take some inspiration from an author or teacher you respect and start mixing things up. After you’ve been doing it for a while, you’ll have a much easier time spotting what might be useful and what’s rubbish. The real danger lies in becoming dependent on your favorites herbalist’s recipes and thus crippling your own intuition and skills.

Some Benefits of Simpling

  • Specifics – You know exactly who’s doing what, you don’t have to puzzle through fifteen herbs wondering which triggered heart palpitations in your kid or client.
  • Intimacy – You get that special one on one relationship that happens when you work with a single plant at a time. There’s no replacement for that particular intimacy of getting to know the taste, texture and overall feel of a particular ally.
  • Quality control – you don’t have wonder if the formula’s not working because the Skullcap was too old or the St John’s Wort came from a rainy year harvest or the Rose petals dried funny etc. There’s one plant, you can taste it, feel it and quickly get an idea if there’s something off and what that the issue might be.
  • Avoiding the Mud – Too many herbs combined can make for a kind of physical grey noise in the body, a muddy mess of effects and feelings that never manages to result in anything helpful. That’s mostly bad formulating, but it can easily be avoided by using one herb and letting it do it’s thing.
  • Discernment – The person choosing the herb is more likely to be particular and look for exactly the right medicine instead of choosing the first cool sounding bottle filled with trendy, well-advertised botanicals.

Some Benefits of Formulating

  • Subtlety – Herbs tend to naturally buffer each other’s rough edges which can be super helpful when using a plant with a very strong personality. Whereas a single herb can sometimes overwhelm a person, a good formula usually feels more subtle and smooth.
  • Synergism – formulas can result in amazingly complex (and utterly elegant) creations that effect in the body in a way that’s very difficult to get with only one plant. The whole being greater than the sum of the parts in this case.
  • Safety – My experience is that you’re less likely to get serious side effects from a formula than a single herb (see the bit about buffering above). That’s a very general statement but it ~tends~ to be true. I am specifically referencing conscientiously created formulas here; if some strange person were to throw every major herbal stimulant into a pill and hand it out like candy, it would be different (and then some company would market it to American housewives as the answer to all their problems).

A Formula for Formulating?

I’ve seen a lot of formulas for formulating and while some of them are useful enough, I don’t teach anything similar. To my way of thinking, to need to depend on a set way of combining the herbs is to not be paying enough attention. Even a beginner can figure out what herbs to put together if they just remain aware and open and use their common sense. And when in doubt, use a simple.

A Word of Caution

One of the formula rules I do abide by is honoring the way the constituents of some herbs can react in negative ways with others. For example, if you have an herb high in alkaloids, and an herb high in tannins, they’re going to bind to each other become an inert mess (Silk Tassel and Sumach are no go for that kidney formula). For a quick herb interaction reference, check out this nifty manual (appropriately called Bad Formula Combinations) on Michael Moore’s site.

  10 Responses to “Simples and Formulas”

  1. Wow, thank you, Kiva. Your words on this topic are (as I’ve come to expect!) clear, compassionate, sensible, and wise. I’ve been experimenting on myself with infusions lately. For awhile, I’d intuitively blend nettle, peppermint, a little lavender, and oatstraw (sometimes substituting sage for one of these ingredients). I’d choose those herbs because of my various feelings/ relationships with each plant, and what I wanted to experience for myself in the company of friends: earthy, get-yourself-muddy, don’t mess with me-hearty-aunt nettle, liven up the mind and senses peppermint, brush away the sadness lavender, mother-me oatstraw, and mysterious, inscrutible sage. Something like a conversation–very companionable throughout the day. But lately, I’ve been more eager (and brave enough) for those intimate heart-to-heart conversations. So far, I’ve been making straight nettle infusions mostly, and occasionally straight peppermint. What a difference, really. The blended infusions certainly were/are softened experiences–minglings that offer their own delight and nourishment. But, wow, just hanging out with the deep green of nettle I feel something powerful infusing me, offering a richness and depth and strength–and gutsiness–that was less obvious before (when in a group 🙂 ). These plants are amazing! I’m looking forward to really, really growing in relationship with my green allies.

  2. This is so helpful.

    I want to work with a simple for the year.

    what would be a good one to start with?

  3. I’m so glad people have found this helpful, and I appreciate the emails I’ve received about it as well!

    You’re right on Jane, and your observations are very well put indeed. Many people never take the time to notice the intensity of one on one interaction with their foods and teas (and sometimes each other) and it really can be quite an experience.

    Sloth, I think that largely depends on where you live and what’s available to you… Ideally, pick an herb that’s very nourishing and is also a food, so that you can work with it in as many different ways as possible. Nettles, oats, alfalfa, rose and elder are all lovely choices but if something else calls to you, go with it.

  4. Kiva Rose,
    I am enjoying your blog, I am a new comer to facebook and a long time kitchen witch. This last bit was full of helpful perspective about making formulas, very intuitive.
    blessing, Clare

  5. Hi Kiva

    You mentioned your lavender elixir, do you make it the same way as your elderberry? I wondered if it was a straight forward half honey and half brandy in half a jar full of dried lavender or if you added other things such as rosehips and orange peel? I ran a workshop on tinctures last Saturday and several people made a lavender tincture, commenting on how soothing the tincture they tasted had been. I’d have loved to have been able to give them some lavender elixir as well so wondered how it differed. They all drooled over the elderberry elixir and said they would be making their own next autumn! Thanks for all the fantastic ideas you share with us.

  6. Hi Sarah. Yes, I make very similarly…. it’s very nice since the aromatics in Lavender transfer to honey or glycerine so well. I make a calming elixir type thing too where I mix Lavender, Rose and Chamomile elixirs together… sometimes some added Milky Oats tincture is a nice touch. I have also made it with Rosehips and it was really lovely as well.

    You’ve probably noticed that Lavender tincture can be really strong, so depending on the batch of flowers I may have a higher proportion of honey than I normally do with the Elderberry elixir, but it’s mostly the same. Everyone I work with way prefers the Lavender elixir to plain Lavender tincture or Lavender glycerite.

    So glad you’ve been enjoying the Elderberry Elixir, it certainly goes over well with my clients and students…. anytime we can make medicine more food like and pleasant it’s more likely to be utilized and remembered which makes me very happy.

  7. Nice post. Interesting that Michael Moore has Cinnamon & Ephedra on the Bad Formula combo list. The first formula that you learn in TCM is Ma Huang Tang, a 4 herb formula with Ephedra, Cinnamon, Apricot Kernel, and Licorice. I wonder if that is right? I see he has Ma Huang in both the high in tannins and high in alkaloids categories.. don’t mix Ma Huang with Ma Huang ;).

  8. ooh, so very nice, that was…

    I (I really love formulas) always say never mix herbs together if you haven’t tasted them Things can look real nice together on paper or in mindspace, but juts have dreadfully clashing flavors. I call this the dark chocolate meets ketchup clause.

    (well, at least just now I did)

    Like in so many things, you go with a feeling and try not to get dogmatic. I think of it like music. No combination of instruments can surpass the beauty or one voice or instrument, nor can that one voice outshine the interplay of carefully woven melodies.

    Sometimes though, the moment calls more strongly for one than the other.

  9. I love this! You put so much into this and I like the confirmation of getting to now the herbs.

  10. Let me try again, I love this post. That you spent time breaking it down to core specifics that are the connection of working with herbs and getting to know them. Also that you mention the power we lose by depending on books all the time. It is a constant learning with books yes and also with the herbs.

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