Simple Spirit


A “simple” herb is one that is used only once. A “simpler” herbalist is one who uses herbs singly rather than in combinations.


The majority of herbalists I’ve encountered – whether from China or Japan, Eastern or Western Europe, Australia or North America – combine herbs. Simpler people, such as myself, do not. Why?

Because I believe that herbal medicine is a people’s medicine, I strive to simplify herbal medicine to the point where it can be administered using only one herb at a time. Because people are concerned about drug-herb interactions, I keep it simple: with simples, interactions are easy to observe and avoid. Due to the difficulty of empowerment in healthcare, I want to offer others simple, safe herbal remedies: and what could be simpler or safer than a simple?


When I first began using herbs, one of the things that perplexed me was the sheer number of options I had when it came to matching symptoms to the herbs that relieved them. Should I use garden sage, wild cherry bark, pine sap, mullein, or coltsfoot (to name a few of the numerous options) if someone had a cough? One solution to this conundrum was to employ them all. I created numerous cough syrups using every anti-cough herb I could collect. And they were all successful.

As my herbal knowledge grew more sophisticated, and especially after completing a course in homeopathy, I began to recognize that each herb possessed a distinct personality, a distinct mode of action. I realized that when the herbs were combined, I couldn’t discern their individual properties.

At first, it felt risky to use only one herb. Is wild cherry bark tincture sufficient to quell that child’s cough on its own? Yes! Is mullein infusion alone effective at reducing an individual’s asthmatic and allergic reactions? Yes! Would six weeks of soaking sage in honey help a sore throat? Yes! Each herb I experimented with as a simple remedy was successful. They all worked independently, not just in teams.

The more I used individual herbs, the more familiar I became with them. My remedies became simpler and more successful as I increased my use of simples. The more I used one herb at a time, the more I discovered about how it worked and how it did not work.


When we use a single herb at a time, we get to know it and develop an intimate relationship with it. Just as we develop intimacy with one another when we spend time alone, tête-à-tête, or simply together, we develop an intimacy with the herbs when we use them simply.

Intimacy with a herb or a person enables us to develop trust. How dependable is this herb’s effect? When and how? Where does it go wrong? Utilizing simples enables us to create a web of green allies in whom we place a high degree of trust. Simple things give us a sense of empowerment. They assist us in alleviating our fears in a simple and safe manner.


Utilizing a single herb at a time provides unmatched opportunities for observing and utilizing the subtle differences at the heart of herbal medicine. When we use simples, we are more likely to notice the numerous variables that affect each herb, such as the location of the plant, the year’s weather, the method of harvesting, the preparation, and the dosage. 1 The numerous variables contained within a single plant ensure that our simple remedy affects numerous facets of a person and heals deeply.

Throughout its blooming period, one apprentice tinctured motherwort flowering tops weekly. She reported that tinctures made from younger flower stalks had a greater effect on the uterus, whereas those made from older flower stalks, when the plant was about to seed, had a greater effect on the heart.


Utilizing a single herb at a time reassures me that my remedy has an active component, not just a placebo effect. Utilizing a single plant at a time, and a local one at that, reassures me that my herbal medicine cannot be regulated out of existence. By focusing on a single plant at a time, I am able to establish trust in my remedies. Utilizing a single plant at a time is a subversive act, a reclamation of straightforward healthcare.

Combinations erode my power, activate my “victim persona,” and convince me that herbal medicine should be left to the professionals.


Take the test! Utilize simple formulas rather than complex ones. Let’s rework some herbal remedies to demonstrate how straightforward it can be.

Essiac contains the herbs Arctium lappa (burdock), Rheum palmatum (rhubarb), Ulmus fulva (slippery elm), and Rumex acetosella (sheep sorrel). Rhubarb root has no known anticancer properties; it is a purgative that, when used frequently, can “aggravate constipation.” Slippery elm bark, on the other hand, has no known anti-cancer properties and was almost certainly added to offset some of the rhubarb’s negative effects. Sheep sorrel juice is so caustic that it has been used to burn away skin cancers, but if consumed regularly, it is likely to do more harm to the kidneys than to any cancer. Thus, we are left with a fantastic anti-cancer simple: burdock root. One that I have discovered to be extraordinarily effective at reversing dysplasias and precancerous conditions.

A John Lust cough formula2 contains Agropyron repens (witch grass), Pimpinella anisum (aniseed), Glycyrrhiza glabra (licorice), Inula helenium (elecampane root), Pulmonaria officinalis (lungwort), Thymus species (thyme herb), ( (lobelia herb). Witch grass has little or no effect on coughs; it is an emollient diuretic that would leave no void if it were excluded from this group. Additionally, anise seeds are not known to have an anti-pertussive effect; while they do have a pleasant flavor, we can do without them. Lobelia may increase blood oxygenation, but is not a herb I would ever include in a cough mixture, so I will leave it out here. Licorice is a demulcent expectorant that is particularly beneficial for those who suffer from a dry cough; however, I use it for a variety of reasons, including its exotic origins and cloyingly sweet taste. Lungwort is a pectoral, as the name implies, but its effect is quite mild, and its placement in the  Boraginaceae  family causes me to pause. How much pyrrolizidine alkaloid is likely to be present? Thyme, like its more common anti-cough cousin garden sage, contains essential oils that can help to calm a cough while also fighting infection in the throat. Our simple solution could be a strong tea or a tincture of either. Irish moss, which is both a specific cough remedy and a nutritive, would also make an excellent simple. However, I would crown elecampane. It is not only effective at reducing coughing; it also effectively combats infection and tones lung tissues. Several small doses of an elecampane root tincture should alleviate a cough within a few hours.

Simple things are enjoyable. Give them a chance.

 Footnotes :

1. Among the numerous variables, I’ve noticed that tinctures made with fresh plants are hundreds of times more effective than tinctures made with dried plants. My elders inform me that preparations of common plants growing in unusual locations will also be stronger. Many herbalists are aware of certain areas of their land that are particularly conducive to the growth of medicinal plants.
2. John Lust. The Herb Book . Bantam, 1974.
3. As is frequently the case, this formula contains a “exotic” herb that Mr. Lust does not include among the 500+ herbs in his book, nor does he provide us with a botanical name for the plant, leaving us literally unable to prepare the formula as presented.