main page

How Herbs are Classified


We will be tasting each herb that we learn about in the Herbalist Courses I teach. Tasting the herbs is another way to get to know them and to remember them. You will find some that you just love & are attracted to & some that you hate the taste of, chances are you probably need both !

Most herbs are classified botanically according to plant genius and species.Such as Taraxacum officinale, which is Dandelion.The Genus is Taraxacum and the species is officinale. You write the Genus name with a capital letter and the species with a lower case letter, and these should be written in italics.

Herbs can also be classified by chemical activity or plant attributes. Herbs are frequently classified according to their medicinal or remedy properties. Medicinal herbs are indexed according to their applied benefits for specific treatments or conditions. Typically, the herbs plant parts are identified and discussed according to their medicinal value or benefits.

Although there is no formal herbal classification system apart from the botanical genius and specie, herbs generally fall into five major categories according to their activity :

1.      Aromatic Herbs
2.      Astringent Herbs
3.      Bitter Herbs
4.      Mucilagnious Herbs
5.      Nutritive Food Stuffs (Herb based).

This practical classification system simplifies how herbalists and natural health consumers understand and use herbs. These five categories rely on the senses of smell, taste, and touch which improves their practical identification and use.

Active Constituent: volatile oil
Method of Identification: crush the herb and smell carefully, (not always pleasant), hot or spicy "pungent" taste. Herbs such as peppermint, lavender, rosemary, garlic & ginger are aromatic. These are often for the digestion & to release gas.

Aromatic Herbs or herbs with a pleasant odor, gain their aromatic smell from volatile oils. The volatile oils create the odor that most herbs have. Most herbs possess a fragrant distinct taste and stimulate the mucus membranes in the gastro-intestinal track. Aromatic herbs are used extensively for therapeutic, food flavorings and perfumes. Aromatic herbs are generally divided into two based categories: stimulants and nervines


Active Constituent: tannins
Method of Identification: . astringent taste (often bitter as well). Differentiated from bitter herbs by their constipating effect upon ingestion.
Astringent Herbs are known as “tannins” that constricts, tightens or tones tissue and reduces fluid discharge. Astringent herbs impact the digestive, urinary, and circulatory systems, and can be considered toxic if taken in large amounts.
Astringent herb chemical activities include analgesic, antiseptic, antiabortive, astringent, emmenagogue, hemostatic, and styptic.
Astrinigent herbs are bayberry, comfrey, eyebright, golden seal, pau d’arco, peppermint, red raspberry, slippery elm, white oak, white willow, black walnut, crampbark, mullein, and pennyroyal.

Active Constituent: laxative & diuretic, alkaloids & saponins
Method of Identification: bitter taste, often havelaxative or diuretic effects when ingested.

Bitter herbs are hard for some people to get used to. Most people eat too many sweet foods, and hardly ever eat anything bitter. Bitter herbs help to stimulate your digestion, from your mouth (making enough saliva), to your stomach, and liver, and the bowels.
They are divided into four categories: laxative herbs, diuretic herbs, saponin-containing herbs, and aloaloid-containing herbs.

Active Constituent: polysaccharides
Method of Identification: , is slippery & goopey when mixed in water and often swells in water. Herbs such as comfrey root & slippery elm, flax and chia seeds. You can feel the water is slippery & thick when you make an infusion. More herbs containing mucilage are burdock, marshmallow, fenugreek, dulse, mullein. Irish moss & guar gum are often used to thicken vegan & raw foods, they are full of mucilage.

Mucilaginous herbs contain polysaccharides that give the class of herbs a slippery mild taste that is considered sweet in water. Mucilage is produced in all plants for storing water, hydrating and to act as a food reserve. Most mucilage herbs are not broken down by digestive system and give bulk to the stool. Mucilaginous herbs are commonly used as topic poultices or “knitting” agents.

Mucilaginous herbs have four major attributes. They:

1.      Increase bowel movement action or frequency.
2.      Absorb and eliminate toxins via the intestinal tract.
3.      Regulate and promote positive intestinal flora growth.
4.      Produce a demulcent and vulnerary action.



Active Constituent: varies protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals
Method of Identification: mild, food stuffs, can be eaten in large quantities

Nutritive herbs are herbs classified according to their nutritive value. They are not considered true foods, however they provide fiber, mucilage, and cause diuretic actions. There are an important source of protein, carbohydrates, fats, and vitamins and minerals necessary for proper nutrition.

Nutritive herbs are rosehips, acerola, apple, asparagus, banana, barley grass, bee pollen, bilberry, broccoli, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, grapefruit, hibiscus, lemon, oatstraw, onion, orange, papaya, pineapple, red clover, spirulina, stevia, and wheat germ.
Spirulina, bee pollen, barley grass are great to add to a shake for more nutrition.


Stimulant Herbs 

These herbs stimulats the body, they get energy & circulation moving to its parts and organs, including the respiratory, digestive, and circulatory systems.
Stimulant herb chemical activities or properties include analgesic, antipyretic, antiasthmatic, antibiotic, antiseptic, carminative, diaphoretic, expectorant, galactogogue, parasiticide, rubefacient, stimulant, and stomachic.
Stimulant herbs include fennel, garlic, ginger, peppermint, sage, thyme, catnip, feverfew, lemon grass, pennyroyal, and damiana. By adding cayenne to any herbal formula you get the herbs moving to the are of the body you are wanting to heal. By adding cayenne to a shake in the winter you are warming & stimulaing the body in general.

Nervine Herbs 

These herbs are soothing and calming herbs that improve healing to the central nervous, respiratory, digestive, and circulatory systems.
Nervine herbal chemical activities include: analgesic, antispasmodic, carminative, antipyretic, antiasthmatic, antibiotic, antiseptic, sedative, and stomachic.
Examples of Nervine herbs are chamomile, crampbark, dong quai, ginger, hops, lobelia, scullcap, valerian, catnip, and sarsaparilla.

Laxative Herbs

These herbs are divided into three categories:

  1. bulk laxative herbs - such as psyllium
  2. lubricant laxatives (such as mineral oil),
  3. stimulant laxatives (the antraquinone type).

Laxative herbs are commonly used for “purging” the digestive tract of toxins. Laxative herbs, associated with the Bitter Herb family, stimulate the lower intestinal tract stimulating bile movement without acting as irritants to the bowel, such as Barberry.

Cascara works by irritating the bowels & working the muscles so that the bowels will work properly again. Alfalfa tablets work by scraping the bowel of encrusted matter. Psyllium (when properly soaked before ingesting) works best as a bulk laxative only on a bowel that is already 'clean', in bowels that are blocked with encrusted matter bulk laxatives can compound the problem.

Diuretic Herbs 

These herbs the increase urination and help to eliminate an excess of fluids from the body. It is commonly believed that the “release” of fluids help cleanse the vascular system, kidneys, and liver.

Diuretic herbs are asparagus, blessed thistle, burdock, butcher’s broom, buchu, chaparral, chickweed, cornsilk, dandelion, grapevine, hawthorn, horsetail, juniper berries, milk thistle, nettle, parsley, peach bark, and uva ursi. Dandelion leaves work well as a diuretic and are full of potassium.

Saponin Herbs 

These are herbs that produce a frothing or foaming action when mixed with water. The term "saponin" is derived from the Latin word for soap. Saponins emulsify fat-soluble molecules in the digestive tract and increase the body’s ability to absorb other active compounds.

Saponins possess the ability to dissolve cell membranes of red blood cells disrupting their production. When taken orally they are generally considered harm less as they are absorbed in great quantities.

Saponin herbs are wild yam root, schizandra, black cohosh, blue cohosh, devil’s claw, licorice, alfalfa, yucca, ginseng, and gotu kola, chickweed.

Alkaloid herbs

These are herbs with any organic compound that contains nitrogen and has physiologic activity. Alkaloid herbs are difficult to classify as each group of alkaloids has very different physiological structures. Many high alkaloid herbs like alerian and capsicum are also found under other herbal classifications.

Alkaloid herb chemical activities include: emetic, astringent, expectorant, antiseptic, respiratory tonic, stimulant, and nervine.
Alkaloid herbs are ephedra, golden seal, lobelia, pau d’arco, valerian, and capsicum.

Active Ingredients in Herbs

Herbs are very much like foods (indeed in many cases they are indistinguishable from them). They have many constituents including vitamins and minerals and active ingredients that have a variety of medicinal benefits. These active components include: volatile oils, tannins, mucilage, alkaloids, bitters and flavonoids.


These vary from one plant to another in their components and actions however they all contain nitrogen.
They tend to have potent effects and in some cases they are toxic in large amounts. These are usually found in herbs that are restricted to qualified herbalists and doctors. They include morphine (from the opium poppy), nicotine (in tobacco), atropine (in deadly nightshade) theobromide (in coffee, black tea and cocoa).
Alkaloids can be found in small amounts in some medicinal herbs where they act as a catalyst to other healing agents without being involved themselves. The alkaloids in comfrey and coltsfoot are examples.


These are glycosides which are yellow. They were often used in the past to produce dyes.
They act to stimulate muscular contraction of the large intestine and so have a laxative effect. Herbs such as dock, senna, and aloe contain anthraquinones. If they are taken alone they can have a griping effect in the bowel. They are therefore taken with a calmative (flatulence treating) herbs such as ginger or fennel.
These herbs are best used for the short term treatment of constipation while the underlying causes are dealt with. Longer term use can reduce the tone of the bowel.


Many herbs contain bitter ingredients. These mainly affect the digestive tract, stimulating the secretion of digestive juices and enzymes in the stomach and the flow of bile from the liver.
They enhance appetite and improve digestion and absorption of nutrients from food. They are prescribed for people with poor appetite, a sluggish bowel, gall bladder and liver problems, gastritis, and to aid convalescence after the flu and other illnesses.
Bitter herbs can also have other beneficial effects. They can:

  1. act on the immune system,
  2. have antimicrobial and antineoplastic (anti-tumor) effects,
  3. have a relaxing effect on the nervous system or
  4. have an anti-inflammatory action.

The beneficial action of the bitters starts in the mouth - so for best effect they need to be tasted (despite our dislike of their effect on our tongues).


Flavonoids or glycosides are responsible for the yellow or orange colors in herbs, such as cowslip.
Many flavonoids have:

  1. a diuretic action,
  2. some such as licorice are antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory and
  3. others are antiseptic.

Bioflavonoids are a part of plants that contain vitamin C, such as citrus fruit, rosehip, black current and cherries. Bioflavonoids act with vitamin C to enhance its absorption and metabolism in the body.
Bioflavonoids have a strengthening and healing effect on blood vessels. They are used to treat conditions such as capillary fragility, tendency to bruising and nosebleeds and high blood pressure.


Mucilage is a sweet, gel like substance. It has the tendency to draw water to it - so that when water is added it swells to form a viscous fluid.
It is able to form a protective layer over mucous membranes and skin - thus effectively soothing irritation and relieving inflammation. Plants with high mucilage content include flax or psyllium seeds. These are used to draw water into the bowel and thereby bulk out the stool making an effective laxative.


Saponins are glycosides. They are found in many medicinal plants and like soap they lather when they are mixed with water. Soapwort has a high saponin content and can be used to make natural soap.
Saponins have a number of different effects on the body including:

  1. an expectorant effect (cowslip and mullein),
  2. diuretic effects (horsetail and asparagus),
  3. beneficial effects on the circulatory system, reducing the fragility of the blood vessel walls (horse chestnut).

The steroidal saponins have a similar structure and function to the human sex hormones produced by the ovaries, adrenal glands and in men the testes. They are used most widely in the treatment of women's problems. They are hormone regulating and as such are called 'adaptogens'. The best known of these is ginseng. Other adaptogens include:

  1. wild yam,
  2. licorice,
  3. partridge berry, and
  4. blue and black cohosh.



Tannin acts as an astringent. This action is a result of their ability to bind albumen (a protein found in the skin and mucous membranes) to form a protective layer that is resistant to disease.
Tannins also have healing actions, protecting from irritation while at the same time reducing inflammation. Plant which contain tannins include, witch hazel, oak bark and beth root.
These herbs are used for:

  1. cuts and wounds,
  2. hemorrhoids,
  3. varicose veins,
  4. catarrh,
  5. heavy periods and
  6. inflammatory conditions of the digestive tract.


Volatile oils

Volatile or essential oils are what give the aroma and flavour to herbs that we use in foods. These herbs include rosemary, marjoram, dill, basil, sage, thyme and mint.
Volatile or essential oils are made up of different chemical compounds. The oils:

  1. have antiseptic and anti-microbial action,
  2. enhance the body's ability to fight off a range of infections,
  3. have anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic effects (chamomile, yarrow),
  4. are expectorants (thyme, hyssop),
  5. are diuretic (chamomile, parsley)
  6. are tonics enhancing the appetite and the digestion and absorption of food ( rosemary, fennel, marjoram), and
  7. stimulate the heart and circulatory system (ginger, rosemary, thyme).

The essential oils can be taken into the body in a number of different ways. They can enter the blood stream via:

  1. food, drinks or in herbal medicine,
  2. being absorbed when placed directly under the tongue,
  3. through the pores of the skin when in massage oils or
  4. inhaled.

NOTE: Do not take internally any essential oils that have been prepared for external uses, such as aromatherapy or massage.

They are rapidly dispersed and during pregnancy and lactation they are passed to the baby through the placenta and breast milk.
When the oils are inhaled the nerve endings in the upper part of the nose carry messages to the brain and in particular the part of the brain related to our thoughts and emotions (the limbic system). When the oils enter our system through our skin as in a bath or massage, they stimulate the nerve endings in the skin which send messages to the underlying tissues (muscles, blood, lymphatic vessels and nerves). The messages are relayed to the pituitary gland (this gland regulates the body's hormones).


Hoffman, D. 2000, The New Holistic Herbal. Element Pub.
McGrath, W.R. 1991, Common Herbs for Common Illnesses. American Survival Guide.
McIntyre, A. 1995, The Complete Women's Herbal. Henry Holt Reference Books.


Any information presented here is for informational purposes only and not intended to take the place of diagnosis and treatment by a medical practitioner.

Copyright © 2002 Dragonfly Herbals