Herbal 101: Glossary of Common and Unusual Herbalism Terms and 50+ Great Ideas for Using Herbs

Herbal 101 Glossary and 50+ Ideas for Using Herbs (cordial, oxymel, tincture, elixir, balm, salve, butter, salt, fizz, and so many more)

I received my monthly Kings Road Apothecary subscription box the other day (unboxing and review to be posted soon). During the unboxing I realized that although I have a general knowledge of many basic and intermediate herbalism terms, I’d be hard pressed to know and explain the difference between a shrub, oxymel, and elixir or a salve, ointment, and cream.

I thought that it might be helpful to put together a glossary of terms that one might run into when exploring herbalism or when looking for creative ideas for things to do with herbs. Of course, once I started to delve in it seemed that there are endless things that one can make and do with herbs in the form of beverages, medicines, topical applications, household products, personal care products, and more.

I’ve put together a list of 50+ common and unusual herbalism terms and ideas for using herbs. I am sure that there are many that I’ve overlooked, so please comment and I will add them to the list. Because essential oils made from herbal plant material have their own long list of helpful applications, I have limited the list below to items that can be made exclusively with herbal plant material or with herbs and the addition of essential oils in some cases. I have excluded products that rely exclusively on essential oils for their herbal ingredients. I have tried to organize the list into a general progression from beverages, food, herbal medicine, personal care, and household, but since many herbal preparations can be used in multiple ways, the boundaries between groupings are a little fuzzy.

The first portion of the list is primarily focused on items that are used internally, and involve extraction of herbs into liquid (again, boundaries between lists and groups are fuzzy). Nevertheless, this seemed like a good place to clarify that most liquid herbal recipes are comprised of the menstruum (liquid used to extract the properties of the herb) and the marc (plant material being used). It is the process of this extraction and the type of menstruum and marc that can be varied, yielding a host of wonderful end products with many applications.

cordial-a cordial is a sweet beverage made from alcohol and sugar steeped with a choice of fruits, herbs, and sometimes nuts. Vodka, grain alcohol, brandy or other alcohols serve as the base to which the other ingredients are added and allowed to infuse for weeks to months. Once infused, the botanicals are strained out leaving the flavored sweetened cordial. Some recipes infuse the plant material in the alcohol before adding sugar whereas others steep all of the ingredients together.
oxymel-The core components of an oxymel include vinegar, honey, and herbs, although many incorporate fruit as well. The ingredients are mixed in the proper proportions (generally one part dried herb to three-four parts liquid) and then allowed to steep in a cool, dark location for a couple of weeks before straining. Oyxmels, especially fruity ones, may be added to water or sparkling water to make a refreshing beverage. They may also be used straight or mildly diluted in more medicinal applications.
shrub-also known as a sipping vinegar, or drinking vinegar, shrubs steep herbs in a mixture of vinegar and sugar or honey. They also incorporate fruits, with some sources reporting that the original purpose of shrubs was to preserve fruits. Like their close cousin the oxymel, shrubs are often added to water or sparkling water over ice and enjoyed as a cool drink.
switchel-a very specific type of shrub, a switchel traditionally blends ginger, vinegar, water, and a sweetener such as sugar, honey or molasses to create a cooling drink.
syrup-herbs and water are cooked together to produce a strong decoction (see decoction). Fruit or vegetables may be included as well to enhance flavor. This liquid is then combined with honey, sugar or other sweetener and cooked further to thicken into a sweet, concentrated syrup. Syrups can be taken medicinally by the spoonful or used in culinary applications depending on the herbs used (see soda).
soda-an herbal syrup combined with sparkling water.
tea-herbal plant material such as flowers, leaves, stems, or fruits usually steeped in boiling water for 5-15 minutes to extract some of the flavor and beneficial properties. Generally consumed as a beverage although herbal teas may also be added to baths for topical benefits.
infusion-a medicinal drink made by pouring boiling water over softer herb materials such as leaves, stems, fruits, or flowers and allowing them to steep, covered, for an extended period of time, often several hours or more. The extended infusion time allows for the extraction of more constituents from the herb. Infusions often use significantly larger quantities of herbs relative to water as compared to teas.
docoction-a medicinal drink made by simmering or gently boiling harder herb components such as barks, roots, seeds, or mushrooms in water for an extended period of time. Usually decoctions are allowed to simmer covered for 20-30 minutes, concentrating the liquid by half.
poultice-soft plant material mashed with water, oil, or in the case of a “spit poultice” simply chewed and spit out to produce a soft, wet mass of masticated herbs. A poultice is applied directly to the skin to help heal or draw out infection.
compress-liquid-soaked fabric that is applied to the skin,covered, and kept warm (via a water bottle, heating pad, etc) for a period of time to promote healing. Infusions, teas, pastes, or herbal oils can all be used for compresses.
elixir-traditionally an elixir is an infusion of herbal plant material such as roots, leaves, or flowers in a base of brandy and honey. Generally elixirs are used medicinally by drop doses.
bitters-the standard western diet is heavy in sweets but lacking in the bitter department. Herbal bitters involve creating a tincture of bitter herbs and other flavoring agents such as fruits and spices along with alcohol. In come cases sweeteners such as honey may be added as well as water to dilute the strength if desired. Bitters help to stimulate the digestive juices needed to effectively process heavy foods and thus may help with gas, bloating, and stomach upset associated with eating rich foods. Bitters have been reported to help regulate blood sugar and appetite. They are also sometimes included in cocktail recipes to add flavor and bitterness to the drink. Bitters are usually dosed by drops.
tincture-(see extract) an infusion of plant material into an alcohol base, such as grain alcohol, cane alcohol, or brandy. Proof of alcohol needed for best extraction of plant chemistry will vary based upon the type of plant and plant material being used (e.g. gums, barks, and resins often require a higher proof alcohol for complete extraction as opposed to flowers, stems, or leaves). Sometimes water may be added to adjust alcohol content. The general ratios used are one part fresh plant material to two parts alcohol, or one part dried plant material to five parts alcohol. Plant material is often infused for several weeks before being strained out, allowing the tincture to be used medicinally. Tinctures are often dosed by drops.
extract-(see tincture) The terms tincture and extract are often used interchangeably, referring to plant material being steeped in alcohol to extract plant chemistry and flavor. When used in culinary applications, the term extract seems to be favored (e.g. vanilla extract).
glycerite-also known as a glycerine extract. Generally an alcohol-free alternative to an herbal tincture or extract. Glycerine, a thick, sweet, clear, plant-based syrup is used along with water to extract the plant chemistry from the dried herbal plant material (or fresh herbs can be used with straight glycerine). Plant material is steeped for several weeks before straining. Take care to source a food grade glycerine for use in your glycerites. Low-alcohol glycerites are also available, blending herbal tinctures with glycerine. Glycerites are dosed by drops.
tonic-this term is rather confusing in my opinion because I think that the term tonic conjures up the image of some type of drink or liquid medicine. In reality, the term tonic actually refers to the type of herb being used in the application (such as in a tea, infusion, or decoction). Tonic herbs are those that are said to stimulate the system and increase strength and vitality in the individual. I thought this was an interesting read about tonic herbs.
herbal beer-in essence, a fermented herbal soda, often using store-bought or airborne yeast to introduce carbonation. Ginger beer and root beer are common examples.
herbal wine-creating an herbal infusion, which is then mixed with sugar and specialized wine yeast. The mixture is allowed to ferment for several months or more in a series of special containers to allow for the buildup of carbonation and for alcohol to develop. Dandelion wine is an example. Another alternative is to make an herbal infused wine using wine as the menstruum and steeping herbs along with other flavoring agents such as spices or citrus peels as desired for a period of weeks to extract flavor and plant chemistry.
herbal honey-an herbal honey is honey (preferably raw to maintain all of the enzymatic goodness) in which an herbal leaf, flower, or root has been steeped for several weeks to impart flavor and infuse the honey with the healing properties of the herb. This can be dosed on a spoon or used topically for medicinal purposes depending on the herb. Herbal honeys may also be used or for flavoring foods or as a condiment.
herbal vinegar-steeping herbal plant material such as root, leaves, or flowers into a vinegar base for several weeks to impart flavor, minerals, and beneficial properties. Any vinegar may be used such as white wine, apple cider, or Balsamic. Fruit may also be added to enhance flavor. Herbal vinegars can be used in salad dressings, oxymels, or other food applications.
herbal oil-created by steeping dried plant material into an oil or blend of carrier oils such as olive, grape seed, almond, apricot kernel, jojoba, etc. Can be done over several weeks in a sunny window; across several hours while being gently heated, or for several minutes in a high speed blender. The plant material is then strained out, leaving the verbally-infused oil for topical or culinary applications, depending upon the plants and oils used. Fresh (wilted) herbs may be used in culinary applications where the oil will be refrigerated, but should be avoided in other applications as their water content may encourage mold growth.
herbal salt-a blend of fresh herbs and salt, often processed together and allowed to dry for a couple hours before being stored for use. In culinary applications, sea salt or kosher salt may be used. For external use such as in baths or foot soaks, epsom salt may be the preferred choice. Herbal salts can also incorporate spices and citrus rinds to enhance flavor. Bath salts may use essential oils in addition to, or in place of fresh herbs.
herbal sugar-much like herbal salts, herbal sugars combine herbs with sugar to use for finishing food, enhancing recipes, or elevating drinks. Using a slightly different process which varies by recipe, herbal sugars essentially infuse the herb and its essence into sugar.
paste-for culinary uses soft herbs such as basil, parsley, tarragon, etc. are processed very finely with a drizzle of neutral oil to form a paste. This can then be used in marinades, rubs, as a condiment, etc. For medicinal uses, fresh or dried herbs are pounded or ground and mixed with honey, oil, water, egg white, etc. to form a paste consistency which is then applied to the body where needed.
pesto-an extension of a culinary herb paste, a pesto often includes the addition of nuts (traditionally pine nuts), garlic, and cheese (traditionally parmesan or Parmigiano-Reggiano).
jelly or jam-herbal plant material is infused into water and then cooked with sugar and pectin and boiled to the proper temperature to create a thick syrup. Fruit or fruit juices may be used as well to lend flavor. The syrup is bottled according to the recipe and allowed to cool and thicken. Herbal infusions cooked with or without strained fruit juices will produce a clear jelly. Herbal infusions cooked with whole fruit purees will produce jam.
compound butter-not to be confused with a body butter, in an herbal compound chopped herbs are mixed or whipped with softened butter (generally cow’s milk). Sweeteners such as honey or other flavoring agents such as vinegar or citrus zest may also be added to enhance the butter. Once the herbs are incorporated into the butter, the mixture is reshaped into a log and chilled to solidify. Compound butters are used in culinary applications.
lozenge-(see cough drop) generally one of two preparations that are used to reference cough drops or lozenges interchangeably. In the first preparation, a decoction is made of dried herbs and water. The decoction is then mixed with honey, and a soothing bulking agent such as slippery elm powder to create a soft dough. This dough is then rolled and cut into shape and allowed to dry before being stored for use. In the second preparation, you again start with an herbal decoction that you then cook slowly with a larger quantity of sugar or other sweetener until you reach the hard crack stage (best to do using a candy thermometer to avoid under or over cooking). The mixture is then poured into candy molds and cooled before being stored. Essentially, you are making make a medicinal herbal hard cancy.
cough drop-(see lozenge)

Transitioning toward items that are used more for topical applications, personal care, and home care (again with fuzzy boundaries between lists). The following distinctions may be helpful:

An oil is a liquid fat comprised of either a carrier oil infused with herbs or a carrier oil supplemented with essential oils. Carrier oils are generally neutrally-scented oils such as olive, avocado, grape seed, jojoba, apricot kernel, argan, nut oils, etc. Carrier oils may have their own therapeutic benefits but are not concentrated medicinal oils such as essential oils. Accordingly, carrier oils can be used directly on the skin, but essential oils must be diluted in a carrier oil before being applied to skin to avoid irritation.

A butter is a solid fat that will melt around body temperature but is solid at room temperature. Examples include cocoa butter, shea butter, or mango butter.

essential oil-essential oils are the volatile and aromatic oils and chemistry of the plant typically extracted through a steam distillation process. Essential oils have many topical uses when diluted with other oils, or can be inhaled via steam, mists, or diffusers. Internal use or consumption of essential oils should be done with extreme care and only under the guidance of an experienced herbalist.
hydrosol-sometimes also referred to as flower waters, hydrosols are an herbally-infused water. Hydrosols are produced when the steam used in distilling essential oil cools and returns to a liquid state. They contain the water-soluble chemistry of the plant material as well as very small amounts of the essential oils. Hydrosols may be used in place of water or other liquids in skincare applications or as a facial or room-scenting mist. If made from edible plants, hydrosols may also be used in culinary applications (e.g. rose water, orange flower water).
gel-a non-greasy extract of herbs in an gel-base, usually from aloe but may derive from other gel-rich plants such as prickly pear cactus. Can also use a decoction or tincture to which a gelling agent is added such as agar agar or gelatin. Used topically.
liniment-intended for topical use, generally to relieve muscle pain or strain. Liniments are the end product of steeping dried herbs into a solvent such as witch hazel or rubbing alcohol. Herbs are steeped in the alcohol for several weeks before straining. Vinegar may also be used in combination or in place of the alcohol.
lotion-similar to a cream, but thinner due to a higher percentage of water-based ingredients as opposed to oils or butters (approximately 70/30 or 80/20). Water-based ingredients can include teas, hydrosols, infusions, aloe gel, distilled water, etc. Lotions spread and absorb quickly and easily.
cream-semi-solid emulsion, generally with approximately 50% oil and 50% water-based ingredients, often with the addition of some hardening wax. Recipes may use herbal infused oils or essential oils blended with carrier oils such as grapes or jojoba. A variety of water-based ingredients may be used (see lotion). Often packaged in a tub or tube, creams spread easily, absorb quickly, and are water soluble. Creams are generally applied to the skin for therapeutic, moisturizing, or medicinal uses.
body butter-combination of carrier oil/herbal oil, and butters. Generally thicker than a lotion or a cream due to containing little or no water-based ingredients, they are often used for similar topical applications, especially for very dry skin.
ointment-(see unguent) thicker than a lotion or cream, ointments are generally 80% oil and 20% water-based ingredients. They are thicker to spread and take a while to absorb. *Note that some sources list ointments as being synonomous with salves, balms, and unguents and exclude water-based ingredients from their composition.
salve-(see balm) a thick blend of herbal infused oils (or essential oil and carrier oils), along with a hardening wax such as beeswax or candelilla wax (vegan). On occasion butters may be used in addition to, or in place of waxes. Salves are generally applied to the skin for therapeutic of medicinal uses.
balm-(see salve) thick blend of oils and wax. May contain butters as well, and on occasion butters may replace waxes in a recipe. The terms salve and balm seem to be used interchangeably without much distinction, although lip products are most often called balms rather than salves for whatever reason. Historically, balms appeared to have been associated with resinous plant materials.
unguent-(see ointment) a term used less frequently, but often interchangeably with ointment. The only distinction that I found was that an unguent may be more oily and less viscous as compared to an ointment.
lotion bar-a blend of herbal infused oil or essential oil and carrier oil along with butters and beeswax that is then melted, mixed, molded, and allowed to cool. The ratio of oil, butter, and beeswax is generally close to equal (1:1:1). The bar can then be warmed between the hands or on the skin to re-melt a bit of the bar to soothe or moisturize skin. Often used for massage or to moisturize hands or feet.
toner/aftershave-generally used to balance skin ph and to cool and refresh the skin. Toners and aftershaves are both a blend of herbally-infused water or hydrosols with an astringent such as alcohol, vinegar, or witch hazel at their base. Other ingredients such as aloe vera gel and glycerine may be added depending upon the recipe used.
scrub-usually a combination of essential oils or of dried plant material such as flowers or leaves along with carrier oil, and a granular substance such as salt, sugar, or ground nuts, beans, etc. Scrubs are used to exfoliate and moisturize the skin. Scrubs may be used for face or body depending in the intensity of the granular component.
bath fizz-an extension of a bath salt (see herbal salt), a bath fizz adds baking soda and citric acid to produce a fizzing bubbly action when added to your bath water.
bath bomb-basically a molded bath fizz. Oil, tea, water, or an infusion is carefully added in small amounts to the bath fizz base to allow for shaping as desired. Once shaped into molds, the mixture is allowed to dry fully so that it will hold its shape. It is then ready to be dropped into a bath a desired to produce a bubbly, soothing, aromatic bath.
bath melt-a bath melt enriches butters such as cocoa butter and shea butter with herbal oils, essential oils, and/or dried herbs. After heating the ingredients to liquify, the mixture is cooled in small molds. Bath melts are added to running bath water and allowed to melt, creating a moisturizing, aromatic bath.
body mist or spray-at its base, a body spray or mist combines a refreshing astringent such as witch hazel or vodka with distilled water or a hydrosol. Essential oils may be added to boost aroma, and glycerine or aloe vera gel may be added to soothe the skin and boost the mist’s aromatic staying power.

This last grouping is herbal items to enhance your surroundings:

room spray-similar to a body spray or mist, a room spray combines distilled water or a hydrosol with an astringent preservative such as vodka or witch hazel, often getting a boost from essential oils as well. Proportions vary greatly among recipes from 1:1 water to astringent ratio to straight hydrosol or water/essential combination.
incense-basically a mixture of dried herbs, woods, or resins, binding agents and combustible materials such as charcoal or makko that are burned to release an aromatic, cleansing smoke. Incense making is a bit complex to describe in brief, but this article seems like a good reference if you are interested in learning more.
smudging stick-select herbs are bundled, tied together, and dried. Once completely dried, the bundles can be burned and their smoke used for cleansing, purifying, and healing purposes. Traditional smudging herbs include white sage, cedar, and mugwort, but other herbs can be used as well. Be sure to research before burning an herb to determine if the smoke produced will be healthy for inhalation or use in enclosed spaces.

Whew! I hope that you found this glossary of herbal terms and list of ideas helpful and inspiring. With the growing season upon us, I know that I will be looking at the plants all around me in new ways. If you have terms that I missed that you think should be included in the list, please comment with them. Also, if you have favorite recipes to share in any of the above categories, I would love to hear them.

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