Medicinal Herbs – Adaptogens and Tonics

This has been a great year for growing medicinal herbs here in North Dallas at the Bell Back 400 gardens.  As I continue to gather up and prepare to store what’s left in the garden, I want to focus this post on two types of herbs that I really like to grow:  adaptogens and tonics.  What medicinal plants fall into these classes?  And what benefits do they provide?

But first a little background.

For those of you new to this site, the Bell Back 400 – and that’s 400 feet, not acres – is our backyard edible garden where we grow seasonal vegetables and a range of herbs.  Check out the About Me page for how this whole project came together.

Dandelion Root Tincture

Liver & Kidney Tonic – Dandelion Root Tincture

Although we grow many culinary herbs in containers around the house, our dedicated plots are reserved for medicinal plants such as Dandelion, Holy Basil, Gotu Kola, Jiaogulan (an exotic Chinese variety thriving in Texas – who-da-thunk?), Marshmallow, Lemon Balm, Yarrow, and a few other healthy varieties.

We have had a bountiful harvest of all the listed varieties, and have used them as teas, infusions and salad fixings throughout the Spring and Summer.  As the Winter months approach, I am drying and tincturing the final harvest to stock for the cold months.

When I start planning for next Spring’s herb plantings, I will follow my annual routine of reviewing medicinal herb classifications and determining what I want to either grow again, or what new varieties I might want to try.  I usually end up with a ton of dried herbs and tinctures from the previous season, so I’m typically looking to try new herb specimens to expand my knowledge and our stocks of medicinal varieties.

There are multiple classifications for medicinal herbs.  They are usually grouped by medicinal benefits or effects.  Some of the common classifications are:

  • Carminative – herbs that normalize digestive systems
  • Expectorants – herbs that reduce mucus congestion in the chest and respiratory system
  • Hemostatic – herbs that help staunch bleeding
  • Nervines – herbs that calm and strengthen the nerves

And so on.  Pretty much any area of the body or internal system has a related classification designated to address the health and vitality of that system.

Gotu Kola Tincture

Adaptogenic Herb – Gotu Kola Tincture

As we, as a family, are not dealing with any specific chronic conditions, such as cancer, celiac disease, heart ailments, etc, I tend to lean to more generalized herbs that provide a range of benefits across the body.


Tonics are a class of medicinal herbs that are used to help restore, tone and invigorate systems in the body and to promote general health and well being.  Used regularly, they promote the general health of specific parts of your internal engine.  There are heart tonics, liver tonics, kidney tonics, etc.  They are herbs that specialize in strengthening certain systems of the body.

Examples of tonic herbs are:

  • Dandelion (leaves and roots)
  • All Ginsengs (leaves and roots)
  • Hawthorn (berries)
  • Garlic (roots)
  • Licorice Root (roots)

By providing nourishment to your tissues and blood, tonics help increase immunity, combat disease and energize the body.  One common way to define the effects of a tonic, is that it is an herb that, with extended use, is ‘building‘ your body in some way.  Whether it is cleansing the blood of toxins or flushing the liver, these are benefits that build and strengthen.


In the herbal community, there is alot of confusion between tonics and adaptogens.  Some think they are the same class of herbs, but that is not really the case.  Some tonic herbs can be classified as adaptogens, but not all.

The best description of an adaptogen I’ve come across is the following:

An adaptogen is a metabolic regulator which increases the ability of an organism to adapt to environmental factors, and to avoid damage from such factors. Environmental factors can be either physiological (external), such as injury or aging, or psychological (internal), such as anxiety.

Adaptoenic medicinal herbs provide benefits that are more general in nature than tonics.  Adaptogens can help lower (or raise, if necessary) blood pressure and cholesterol levels.  Build up your ability to physically and mentally handle stress.  And combat environmental factors that lead to premature aging and disease.

Examples of adaptogens include:

  • Gotu Kola (leaves}
  • Asian Ginseng (leaves and roots)
  • Jiaogulan (leaves and stems)
  • Astragalus (roots)

Personally I take tonics and adaptogenic herbs.  In addition to taking daily doses of Dandelion, Gotu Kola and Jiaogulan tincture drops, I also make frequent teas from my dried supplies.

During the growing season, I’ll put them in salads or even just pick leaves and munch on them while working in the garden.

Have you given any thought to adding adaptogens or tonics to your daily regimen?  The preventative effects are wonderful.


Update: 11/2014

If you liked this post, please check out our new edible gardening community:

Farming Suburbia

Whether you are growing tomatoes on your patio or have a backyard full of herbs and produce, you are Farming Suburbia.

FArming Suburbia


  • Rita

    Love your facebook page! I think I will sign up for the newsletter. I do have a question though. I am on 23 different medications and am wondering if herbs would interfere with them. I take meds for congestive heart failure, diabetes, high blood pressure, blood thinners for my heart, cholesterol meds and inhalers for asthma.

    • jdbell60

      Rita –

      Thank you for the feedback on our Facebook community page. It’s a great way to share information amongst our organic gardening enthusiasts.

      As to your question around herbal interactions, I will tell you that many prescription drugs are actually based on research that originated with the study of various plant effects. But I will also tell you that I am not a doctor and would not be able to offer advice in the area of herbal interactions with prescription meds.

      I would recommend talking with your doctor. Hopefully they will have an open mind towards natural supplementation and advise you accordingly.

      Good luck and please let us know what you find out.