English Tonic Herbs

Here in Britain we have a reasonable amount of useful tonic herbs – and at the recent Springfield herb sanctuary festival I did a (rather hurried) talk on some of the tonics that we can grow and gather from the wild. I covered a fair number of herbs, shouting against the wind for quite a while as well as cracking some rather bad jokes about the sheer volume of noise I was trying to make myself heard against! Still, it went well, and as I did promise at the time to write a blog post about some of the tonics that can be used, as well as ways to include them within day to day life, here is the information at long last!

I suppose the first and most important thing that needs to be considered is exactly what on earth is a tonic? These days the name is applied to so many different herbs that it can be hard to see the wood for the trees due to the sheer variety of different plants that are technically classed as tonics. So what does the redoubtable wikipedia have to say about it? Apparently a tonic is‘used to help restore, tone and invigorate systems in the body, or to promote general health and well being.’ That seems like a pretty good definition to me! The only real problem with this is that by this definition, most of the herbs in the modern herbal pharmacopoeia can be considered to be a tonic! So how on earth do we go about figuring out what is actually a tonic and what is perhaps one step removed from being a tonic?

When using a tonic, I tend to think of herbs that can be safely used over a fairly long period of time to restore balance to a system that is not working at optimum levels. Start at the very beginning with this – and Hippoctrates said it rather well with his opinion that you should ‘let your food be your medicine, and your medicine, food’. If the system is out of balance, start with a good long look at the diet and general nutrition. Back this up with herbs that will improve the body’s ability to absorb and metabolise nutrients, and take a close look at the sleep patterns. Sleep is the body’s time to repair and restore itself, so if you are not getting enough decent night’s sleep then you are certainly going to head towards imbalance.

Hawthorn, ruled by Mars, a wonderful heart tonic.

Ok, so building on all of this, we have a substantial amount of different English tonics – the big problem is how on earth to figure out which tonics will suit particular individuals. My way of doing this is to use the Greek humoural method. The Greeks basically divided herbs and illnesses into four categories – hot, cold, dry and moist, which later got refined by the astrological method into phlegmatic, sanguine, melancholic or choleric temperaments. These are essentially cold and wet, hot and wet, cold and dry or hot and dry in temperature. Herbs often fit under these headings as well, which can sometimes give us a rough pointer about how to treat illness – for example, using a warm, moist herb to treat a cold, dry illness by rebalancing the humours. This method is most emphatically not infallible – I use it as a way of picking out possible herbs to treat a patient, out of often overwhelming herbal variety.

Calendula - ruled by the sun

My way of further dividing herbs down is to use active and passive as rough subheadings – this is the ‘Ali’ method. Passive tonics are basically edible plants – they double as foods and are generally safe to use over a long period of time. Active tonics are still classified as tonics, but are used over shorter periods of time to rebalance the body and correct imbalances that lead to illness.

Ground Ivy - ruled by Venus

Some herbs that, for me at least, classify as passive tonics are nettle, hawthorn, milk thistle and raspberry leaf. (Note that this is using the Ali method, so not everyone will agree with it. One of the great things about herbal medicine is that we can all do things differently and are therefore stronger as a profession.) Raspberry leaf only just fits in the passive tonic bracket – opinion over whether or not it is safe all the way through a pregnancy is somewhat divided, though I know a number of ladies who have used it right the way through a pregnancy and had no problems at all. Nettle, however, can be taken on a daily basis as a tea, and eaten as a vegetable, which can improve the immune system, bones, skin, teeth and hair, and provide plenty of trace minerals. Hawthorn berries are an excellent heart tonic, and are amphoteric, or balancing – if the heart is beating slower than normal, they speed it up, and if it is beating too fast then they slow it down. Again, opinion over hawthorn is divided, with some saying it is safe for everyone, others saying it should be avoided by those with low blood pressure. It is all down to personal opinion – do your homework and decide for yourself what you believe. Milk thistle is of course a well known herb for improving liver health and protecting liver cells.

Ribwort Plantain - ruled by Venus

Active tonics cover a much wider base – I’m just going to list some of them with a few rough notes about what they can be used for.

Elecampane (Inula helenium) – hot and dry, ruled by Mercury, used to treat chest infections.

Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) – cool and moist, ruled by Venus, used as a pectoral tonic to improve resistance to allergens.

Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea) – cool and dry, ruled by Venus, used to restore balance to overly moist lung and digestive systems.

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) – cool and slightly moist, ruled by Saturn. This is a pectoral tonic, particularly well suited to those prone to chest infections.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis) – gently warm and neutral, ruled by the Sun (surprise surprise), used to improve skin and liver health.

Burdock (Arctium lappa) – cool and moist, ruled by Venus, used to improve skin and lymph flow, tiny doses over a long period of time.

Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) – ruled by Jupiter, used to restore hormone balance and improve skin and lymph flow.

Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria) – warm and dry, ruled by Jupiter, used as a digestive, lung and kidney tonic.

These are just a few of the herbs classed as tonics in this country – there are many, many more of them! I’ve deliberately not discussed adaptogens in this blog because, while many of them are classed as tonics, they sometimes have side effects, such as Borage with its pyrollizidine alkaloid content.

Tonic herbs are basically the first recourse in restoring health before you go in with the heavy hitters – make allies out of them and they will serve you well!

Mama Urtica - Nettle, ruled by Mars


  1. Hey Ali, Thanks for the re-cap on your talk. I had forgotten about your definition of active and passive tonics, I like this as it’s very accessible. I have always thought of them as ‘nourishing’ or ‘medicinal’ but there’s really too much cross over with many herbs for that to be a very useful classification. A very interesting post.
    Hope all is well with you in Lincoln xx

  2. Thank you for posting about your talk at the Sanctuary:) Active and passive is a very user friendly way to approach the topic. I agree, that each herbalists unique view and manner of approaching and sharing about herbals, gives the whole community a broader, stronger foundation! Very interesting, and I especially love how you weaved the ruling planets into your descriptions:) thanks!

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