How to use plants
Plants are usually collected, then dried and stored for later use. Directions for how to do this are contained in the books listed in the resources section. It takes some prior thought about where to dry and store herbs, and this is part of the process of reintroducing plants into your life.
How plants are actually used depends on your need. Most medicine plants are prepared as a tea (either hot or cold infusion) or as a tincture for internal use. You can grind your own dry plants with the old mortar and pestle, just like the ancient ones. Then you can scoop the dry grindings into gel capsules, add solvents (usually alcohol) for tinctures, or immerse in water. Or sometimes you can just throw them into the soup or on top of the salad. It is exactly the same as those little jars of oregano, vanilla bean, and teas that you have in your ‘spice’ cabinet. We’ve just grown away from thinking about these heavily commercialized products as plants with medicinal properties.
You can use the tinctures or capsules you bought at your local health food store. This route insures that you will one day realize you have a whole shelf full of plant tinctures and gel caps, so just get used to the idea and plan to clear one out in advance.
Try to avoid the view of plants as ‘pills’ however, because plant medicine is usually more subtle and diffuse than over the counter pharmaceuticals. Think of using plant medicine as a way of staying healthy rather than dealing with health problems that require clinical help. Pharmaceuticals are usually rather focused and emphatic, and they can carry strong side effects. They are important in the healthcare arsenal for serious problems. Herbs on the other hand tend to strengthen healthy defenses and stimulate natural healing. They are much more suitable for sub-clinical health problems that may be making you uncomfortable but are not something you want to bother your health care professional with. Examples: scrapes, nosebleeds, sore throat, gas, cramps, foot fungus.
For external use, medicinal plants can be added to bathtubs for soaking, to isotonic water for eye washes, to salves (ointment), to poultices (soft mass), and made into powders. Some traditional healers used whole plants to insert in the nose (for instance) to stop bleeding, or to wrap a wound. Soaking can be in the form of a full tub, a sitz bath for private parts, a foot bath, or any number of other body soakings. Smudges and fragrant sweats are ways of using plant smoke both externally and in some cases internally (i.e. the lungs, sinuses, etc.) to help the body rebalance itself. Throw a little redwood or pine herb on the fire and see how good it makes you feel. This use of plant scent to stimulate good health is also behind the recent craze in scented candles and potpourris, as well as the time honored tradition of having fragrant flowers in and around your home.
The use of plants for grooming is specific to the need (shampoos, lotions, powders, etc.). So check first the grooming section, and then if you wish to explore making your own grooming products from nearby plants, consider taking a class or buying a book on the subject. In just a few hours you can learn to make flax seed face masks, oatmeal face scrubs, and a maple syrup hair conditioner. Yum!