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The Spirit of Simples, Part Two
The Spirit of Simples, Part Two

by Susun Weed

Simples are Complex

Using one herb at a time gives us unparalleled opportunities to observe and make use of the subtle differences that are at the heart of herbal medicine.

When we use simples we are more likely to notice the many variables that affect each herb: including where it grows, the years’ weather, how we harvest it, our preparation, and the dosage. The many variables within one plant ensure that our simple remedy nonetheless touches many aspects of a person and heals deeply.

One apprentice tinctured motherwort flowering tops weekly through its blooming period. She reported that the tinctures made from the younger flower stalks had a stronger effect on the uterus; while those made from the older flower stalks, when the plant was going to seed, had a stronger effect on the heart.

Among the many variables, I have especially noticed that the tinctures that I make with fresh plants are many times more effective than tinctures made from dried plants.

My elders tell me that preparations of common plants growing in uncommon places will be unique. And that remedies made from plants surrounded by guardians — like poison ivy/oak or brambles — will offer special energies for healing.

Many of us are aware of certain areas of land that nurture plants that are particularly vital medicines.

Simples Give Me Power


Using one herb at a time helps me feel more certain that my remedy has an active value, not just a placebo value.

Using one plant at a time, and local ones at that, reassures me that my herbal medicine cannot be legislated away.

Using one plant at a time allows me to build trust in my remedies.

Using one plant at a time is a subversive act, a reclaiming of simple health care.

I am able to create single-herb conferences due to so many of us using simples for decades. As "citizen scientists" (EagleSong's great term), we can accurately report on our simples and their effects.

Combinations erode my power, activate my "victim persona," and lead me to believe that herbal medicine is best left to the experts. Let's change that.

From Complex to Simple

Take the challenge! Use simples instead of complex formulae. Let's rework some herbal remedies and get a sense of how simple it can be.

The anti-cancer formula Essiac contains:

Arctium lappa (burdock)

Rheum palmatum (rhubarb)

Ulmus fulva (slippery elm)

Rumex acetosella (sheep sorrel)

Rhubarb root has no possible use against cancer; it is a purgative whose repeated use can "aggravate constipation."

Slippery elm bark also has no possible anti-cancer properties and has no doubt been added to counter some of the detrimental effects of the rhubarb.

Sheep sorrel juice is so caustic that it has been used to burn off skin cancers, but it would likely do more harm to the kidneys than to any cancer if ingested regularly.

Leaving us with a great anti-cancer simple: burdock root. One that I have found superbly effective in reversing dysplasias and precancerous conditions.

That was simple and fun. Now for a more complicated combination.

__  __  __  __  __  __  __  __  __  __  __  __  __  __  __  __  __  __  __  __  __  __  __  __  __  __  __ 

A John Lust formula for relief of coughs (from The Herb Book, 1974. Bantam)

It contains nine herbs, one of which is a plant no one knows about. This formula, as is frequently the case, contains an "exotic" herb which Mr. Lust does not include in the 500+ herbs in his book, nor does he give us a botanical name for the plant, leaving us literally unable to prepare his formula as presented.

The 8 known ones are:

Agropyron repens (witch grass)

Pimpinella anisum (aniseed)

Glycyrrhiza glabra (licorice)

Pulmonaria officinalis (lungwort)

Lobelia inflata (lobelia herb)  

Thymus species (thyme herb)

Chondrus crispus (irish moss)

Inula helenium (elecampane root)


Witch grass has little or no effect on coughs; it is an emollient diuretic whose dismissal from this group would leave no hole. Not needed.

Anise seeds are also not known to have an anti-pertussive effect. They do taste good, but we can do without them. Not needed.  

Licorice is a demulcent expectorant that can be most helpful for those with a dry cough; however, I do not use it for a variety of reasons, among them its exotic origins, its cloyingly sweet taste, and it's tendency to raise blood pressure. Not safe or local.

Lungwort is, as its name implies, a pectoral, but its effect is rather mild, and its place in the Boraginaceae family gives me pause. How much pyrrolizidine alkaloid might it contain? Also, unless you grow it, it's not easily available. Not needed.

Lobelia can bring more oxygen to the blood, but is certainly not an herb I would ever add to a cough mixture, so I will leave it out here. It is standard in many Heroic Tradition remedies to include lobelia. Not needed.

Thyme, and its more common anti-cough cousin garden sage, contains essential oils that could both quiet a cough and counter infection in the throat. A strong tea or a tincture of either could be our simple. Helpful and tasty.

Irish moss is, a specific to soothe coughs and a nutritive in addition, would also make an excellent simple.

But it is elecampane that I would choose as my simple. It is not only a specific to curb coughing, it counters infection well, and tonifies lung tissues. Several small doses of a tincture of elecampane root can quiet a cough in a few hours.

That was a bit more complicated, but we did it. Now it's your turn. Take apart any combination remedies you are currently using and look for the simple solution.

And a story about simpling. It was at a Green Nations Conference. I was on a panel to offer a woman advice. She was in a wheelchair and had lots of problems, major and minor. The other (male) herbalists, each in turn, began recommending herb after herb after herb. Combinations for each problem and more besides. When it was my turn, I said simply "Linden infusion is my only suggestion. Her problems arise from inflammation, counter the inflammation and her body will do the healing." Matthew Wood, a panelist, asked both of us to stay after the panel was over. He felt her pulses, then wrote LINDEN INFUSION on a piece of paper in her hand and felt her pulses again. "Yes." He declared. That will do it. Ah, simples. Smile.

Simples are fun. Give them a try.   

Green blessings. Susun

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