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Materia Medica – What It Is and Why You Should Have One

If you’re just getting involved with herbalism, you may be wondering “What is a Materia Medica?”

Materia Medica – “…is a Latin term…for the body of collected knowledge about the therapeutic properties of any substance used for healing.” (Wikipedia).

In this post I will go over what exactly that means, why (and how!) you should start your own materica medica.

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If you are just starting your journey into herbalism, or have dabbled for awhile, you may be struggling with a way to gather all the information available out there, remembering what herb to use for what ailment, or understanding new ways to look at herbal medicine.

For example, perhaps you’ve been learning about European herbalism but are excited about incorporating ayruveda.

But where do you start?

And how can you connect the two?

what is a materia medica? sample of a materia medica from an ancient text

What is a Materia Medica?

That’s where your materia medica steps in.

It’s YOUR customized spell book.

Your recipe book for all things herbal medicine.

A materia medica is comprised of individual monographs.

A monograph is an in-depth study into one plant.

For example, my materia medica on lavender Medicinal Properties of Lavender.

Often materia medicas will have images of the plant, for easy identification.

Whether you take pictures of the plants, cut them out from a magazine, or draw them yourself, having a visual representation of the plant you’re studying will help you make connections.

I personally have pictures I’ve taken from the internet in my materia medica, but also draw them as well in my nature journal.

In your materia medica, you can make a note of the scientific name, the climate where it grows, any medicinal actions associated with it.

You can also record its use throughout history, how it’s used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Ayurveda, or by Native Americans. Is it hot or cold?

Moist or dry?

You can record its astrological sign, governing God/Goddess – really, anything that speaks to you and helps you to understand the plant.

Use this post as a guide for the top 18 herbal actions to get started.

Imagine the plant as someone you met at a coffee shop and instantly fell in love with – you want to know everything about them.

Follow your instincts here and ask questions.

watercolor painting of a flower for a materia medica

Why Create an Materia Medica?

There are several great reasons to create your own materia medica.

Firstly, it’s a great way to introduce yourself to and study one plant at a time.

By focusing on one plant at a time, we can craft a more intimate understanding of that plant, and start to see connections we may have otherwise missed.

It’s more than just a passive book, though.

Make a tea of the plant you’re studying and take notes of how it makes you feel.

Grow it yourself and note how well it grows, if the bees like it, what seems to stress it, and what it likes to grow near.

Make a tincture of it and study how to best use that tincture. How does your unique body react to it?

For how to make an Herbal Tincture, check out my post.

How Do I Create My Materia Medica?

I, personally, have my materia medica in OneNote on my computer.

Because it is a living document, I didn’t want to ever run out of paper, and I wouldn’t be able to move paragraphs around if I needed to.

The other benefits of having a digital materia medica is that it’s searchable.

If a friend comes to me asking for help supporting her thyroid, I can simply search “thyroid” in my materia medica and all of the plants that have referenced that will come up.

Super useful!

Don’t worry about the medium you record your materia medica on – just get started, and if you need to change it, you always can!

A fun exercise is to study one herb a month.

I’ve seen people map out their entire year, with a topical herb per month.

For example, a heart-related herb for Valentines month, clover for March for St. Patrick’s day, etc.

Some let the herbs choose them. I tend to study that which grabs my attention.

In March the dandelions come back to life around me, so I take that opportunity to harvest some, make a tea, make dandelion salves, etc.

Have fun with it!!

There’s no one right way to do it and you can never do it wrong!

I got started making my materia medica after taking this course from Herbal Academy.

If you’d like even more detailed instruction on how to get started, including a ton of printable guides, I highly recommend it.

Enroll now in the Materia Medica Course!

For great FREE resources to get you started, check out the pdfs below.

Each of these lists out different herbs, their names, histories and common actions.

While most of these books are older (over 100 years and now in the public domain) take their information with a grain of salt.

I enjoy this historical perspectives, and there is certainly a lot of credence to the ancestral knowledge of herbs, but I like to combine ancient medicine and modern studies.

Here’s my favorite list of historic herbal writings: