Whole Herbs v. Supplements

Herbal supplements, also called botanicals, are classed by the FDA as dietary supplements. They usually come in the form of pre-packaged capsules or tablets containing plants or parts of plants such as flowers, leaves, bark, fruit, seeds, stems and roots, either singly or in combinations. Popular herbal supplements include echinacea marketed to prevent colds, ginkgo marketed to improve memory and flaxseed marketed to lower cholesterol and so on.

Herbal supplements are often promoted as being ‘all natural’ and because they are sold as dietary supplements rather than drugs, they are not as strictly regulated as medications. Reputable manufacturers are expected to follow good practice to ensure that supplements are processed consistently to meet quality standards and are free from contaminants such as pesticides and lead. While herbal products in the United States, the UK and some European countries are highly regulated, toxic ingredients and prescription drugs have been found in supplements manufactured elsewhere, particularly China, India and Mexico. Emeritus Professor Duncan Burns, an analytical chemist from Queen’s University Belfast’s Institute for Global Food Security, said in a press release. “We have found that these supplements are often not what customers think they are — they are being deceived into thinking they are getting health benefits from a natural product when actually they are taking a hidden drug.” A 2013 study published in the journal BMC Medicine found that one-third of herbal supplements sampled contained no trace of the herb listed on the label. The study found products adulterated with filler including allergens such as soy, wheat and black walnut. One bottle labelled as St. John’s Wort was found to actually contain Alexandrian senna, a laxative. Researchers at the University of Adelaide found in 2014 that almost 20% of herbal remedies surveyed were not registered with the Therapeutic Goods Administration, despite this being a condition for their sale. They also found that nearly 60 % of products surveyed had ingredients that did not match what was on the label. Out of 121 products, only 15 had ingredients that matched their TGA listing and packaging. In 2015 the New York Attorney General issued cease and desist letters to four major U.S. retailers (GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart) who were accused of selling herbal supplements that were mislabelled and potentially dangerous. 24 products were tested by DNA barcoding as part of the investigation, all but five contained DNA that did not match the products’ labels. The investigation was prompted by the 2013 BMC study.

The chemical makeup of a herb can vary, depending on environmental factors, so most herbal supplements come as standardised extracts to overcome this, in which one or more components are present in a specific, guaranteed amount. This practice developed out of the drug model of conventional medicine in which scientists have attempted to identify the components of a plant which have pharmacological activity in the body. Consequently, standardisation may concentrate one constituent at the expense of other potentially important ones (most St. John’s wort tablets and tinctures are standardised for hypericin, for example, but the latest research shows that hyperforin is the real active ingredient), while changing the natural balance of the herb’s components. Standardisation is based on the idea that isolated compounds are responsible for the action of a herb, but there is evidence that this is may not be the case. An article several years ago in JAMA on use of ginkgo biloba to counter dementia explained that no active ingredient from among the several hundred constituents present had been determined and it was, in fact, likely that the effect resulted from a complex, synergistic interplay of the parts. In other words, the whole plant contains a range of chemicals which seem to work in concert. This makes it doubtful that this type of standardised herbal extract can exhibit the same full spectrum of use as the whole herb. There is a second form of standardisation, however, which uses key components only as markers of identity while trying to maintain the same full spectrum of components as the whole herb, assuring that no major component has been removed in the extraction process, and if supplements are used, these are thought preferable by herbalists of the synergistic school of thought.

© Anna Franklin


With the warmer weather, chickweed (Stellaria media) is starting to grow away in the garden. Its botanical name stellaria means ‘little stars, a description of its tiny white flowers.

It is a common weed, but a useful one. Not only do my chickens love it (it is not called ‘chick’ weed for nothing, it has many healing abilities. You can add the fresh leaves to salad, and it is highly nutritious, rich in calcium, magnesium, manganese, zinc, iron, phosphorus, potassium, A, B and C vitamins.

Chickweed is useful for cooling inflammations, whether these are internal or external.  Use a poultice of chickweed (mash up the fresh herb and apply to the skin under a clean cotton cloth) to sooth minor burns, skin irritations and rashes.  Every spring I make the chickweed salve (recipe below). Chickweed is used by herbalists for skin diseases for its anti-inflammatory and anti-viral activity. You can also apply this to treat rheumatic pains and ulcers. Make a tea with 2 tablespoons of fresh herb to half a pint of boiling water, steep for 10 minutes, strain and drink for colds and flu. Chickweed is a gentle laxative, so don’t over consume.

Chickweed Salve

Handful of chickweed (Stellaria media) aerial parts

Olive oil


Few drops calendula (Calendula officinalis) essential oil (optional)

Pack the plant material into a clear glass jar and top up with oil so that they are fully covered. Put a lid on the jar and put on a sunny windowsill for two weeks, shaking daily. Strain the oil into a double boiler and heat gently until warm – do not boil. Add some grated beeswax (the more you add, the harder the set) and when the wax has melted, pour into small jars, add a few drops of calendula oil, stir, put on the lids and label. This salve will keep indefinitely, and does not need to be refrigerated. As well as the benefits of chickweed, the added calendula oil in this recipe reduces inflammation, eliminates bacteria, and helps the skin heal.


This is the ancient wisdom of the grandmothers, the wise women, once passed down from mother to daughter and crone to apprentice, and then improved by a lifetime of study and the daily observation of the patterns of nature.

In bygone ages most of us lived much closer to nature than we do now. Once every woman had to be something of an herbalist and healer, responsible for her household’s health, since professional medical help was either unavailable or too expensive (and possibly dangerous to boot). Every home kept some drying herbs and flowers to make herbal infusions, powders, oils and poultices, brewed wine and ale, preserved fruit, made jams and jellies, pickles and chutneys, and many also made inks, dyes, soaps and household cleaners. A girl would be initiated into the secrets of these family formulas by her mother, along with her knowledge of folklore, stories, healing potions, minor surgery, gardening, brewing and wine making, spinning, weaving, dyeing, childcare, home management, animal husbandry, bee-keeping, fortune telling and cookery know-how.

And then there were those in the community who knew that little bit more, the village wise woman or cunning man. When joined my first coven Julia, our high priestess, told us stories of the herb wives of the past, who cared for the bodies and spirits of those around them, telling their fortunes, treating their bodily ailments with herbs, dowsing their lost property, and physicking their farm animals. She held them up to us as examples of powerful, magical women in an age when women otherwise had little influence. They were the midwives who brought new life into the world, she said, and who laid out the dead at the end of life. Though such stories have often been wildly romanticised, folklore records and accounts do show that virtually every village seems to have had a wise woman or a cunning man of some sort. These village shamans had different names in different places, including handywomen, blessers, witches, conjurors, herb wives, wild herb men, snake doctors, fairy doctors and currens. These practitioners didn’t use athames and magic swords but everyday objects – stones, keys, shears, sieves, pitchforks, brooms, divining rods, wax, bottles, paper and anything that came readily to hand from the kitchen or farm.

This is the ancient wisdom of the grandmothers, the wise women, once passed down from mother to daughter and crone to apprentice, and then improved by a lifetime of study and the daily observation of the patterns of nature. Such expertise formed the pattern of women’s lives for thousands of years and that women developed highly skilful methods in all these areas, even though no contemporary historian wrote about them or accorded women due status for their invaluable work. Women’s knowledge has been derided and ignored for most of our history, and this is just as true today in western culture, in which knowledge is ‘owned’ by experts (mainly men) and can only be passed on through state-approved academic institutions, and where those seeking to follow traditional or alternative paths – such as herbalism – are dismissed as uneducated, naïve or even dangerous.

But this is our knowledge, our heritage – as women and as witches, both male and female. Discovering it and practicing my Craft has been a marvellous adventure for me, and it never ceases to fill me with wonder and awe at the power of Mother Nature. It makes me aware of the magic that flows throughout the world in every uncurling oak leaf in spring, every blushing rose petal, every humming summer bee, every rutting stag, and every misty shore. This is the reward of the path of the hearth witch.