How to Make a Materia Medica

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Image credit: The Herbal Academy

A materia medica is a body of work used to study and record information about medicinal plants. Crafting your own materia medica is a fantastic way to thoroughly study one medicinal plant at a time while creating detailed, creative plant profiles. These useful reference tools include monographs for the plants of your choice, and each monograph includes an image of the plant along with its Latin and common name, botanical features, harvest information, medicinal use, parts used, recommended dosage, folklore, and any other information that you’d like to keep handy. For the plant’s image, you can tape dried plant material to the pages (read How to Make a Flower Press to learn more) or you could sketch or paint the plant you’re studying. If you don’t trust your artistic nature, then consider picking up an inexpensive copy of the Medicinal Plants Coloring Book; after coloring your selected plant you can cut and paste the image into your materia medica. (Confession, this is what I do!)

Image credit: Dover/Ilel Arbel

Homemade materia medicas can be structured in a three-ring binder so they lay flat, written in a composition notebook, or organized on a collection of note cards. They can even be typed on a computer or iPad so the files are easily searchable. Consider creating reusable, printable templates. And most importantly, have fun! A beautiful, well-made materia medica is a custom-to-you resource tool that you’ll find yourself reaching for time and time again.

Materia Medica History and Inspiration

As you start mentally designing your future materia medica – or making small adjustments to the one you already have – consider some of these classic materia medicas as inspiration.

Most of the following images are from various translations of De Materia Medica by Dioscorides. Dioscorides was a Greek physician and botanist in the Roman army, and he published the five-volume work between 50 and 70 AD. Volume one covers aromatics, volume two focuses on animals to herbs, volumes three and four focus on roots, seeds, and herbs, and volume 5 covers vines, wines, and minerals.

One of the longest lasting natural history books, De Materia Medica was widely read for more than 1,500 years before it was replaced with revised herbals during the Renaissance. Several illustrated manuscripts survive and one of the most famous is the Vienna Dioscurides manuscript that was used as a working hospital reference for more than a thousand years.

Credit: wikipedia public commons

This illustrated page (above) features blackberry vines and is from the famous Vienna Dioscurides – early 6th century.


Wikipedia public commons

This illustrated page features mandrake root and is from the Naples Dioscurides, 7th century. 


Wikipedia public commons

This illustrated page features a physician preparing an elixir and is from the Arabic Dioscorides, 1224 AD.


Wikipedia public commons

 This Byzantine materia medica is from the 15th century.


Wikipedia public commons/Wellcome Images

This anonymous materia medica is written in the ‘Trungpa’ (‘khrungs dpe) genre of Tibetan medical literature and deals with various plants, animals, and stones.

Wikipedia public commons/Wellcome Images

 This beautiful title page accompanies Caroli Linnaei’s Materia Medica, 1749 AD.


Wikipedia public commons/Biodiversity Heritage Library

This Chinese materia medica by Li Zhongli contains 12 volumes with 379 illustrations and was first published in 1612. The illustration is of the blackberry lily (Belamcanda chinensis).


Free Herbal Materia Medica Course

If you’re still not quite sure how to build your own materia medica – or if you’re overwhelmed by all the options – then check out the Herbal Academy’s online Herbal Materia Medica Course, which is FREE for the entire month of January (2017). By the end of the course, you should know how to study a plant thoroughly, how to find the best resources for your studies, and how to research a plant’s botanical characteristics, growing conditions, harvesting guidelines, active constitutions, safety, herb-drug interactions, and more. You’ll also receive advice from the Academy’s teachers about how to transform the herb from a name in a book to an integrated part of your everyday well being. This course is for beginning and advanced students alike and no prior knowledge about medicinal herb is required.

For those enrolled in the free course, The Herbal Academy provides free downloadable resource charts to help with botanical identification along with thoughtfully designed templates for students to print and fill out as they built their own materia medicas. There’s also an option to upgrade your enrollment with the purchase a beautifully bound Materia Medica Journal, which you can work through as the course progresses. You can share photos of your homemade materia medica on Instagram using the hashtag #myherbalstudies.  

Hannah was inspired to write this blog post during her time enrolled in The Herbal Academy’s online school where she worked her way through the Entrepreneur Herbalist Package. She is managing editor for Heirloom Gardener magazine and senior editor for Mother Earth News. Read all of Hannah’s posts here. 

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