You will notice near the bottom of my posts, where I feature a specific plant, the category Element. This refers to the 5 element system of space, air, fire, water, and earth. I consider Element to be the most important section in my personal Materia Medica. It is the lens through which I view and do everything. It is not some random note that I picked up from some book in my library.
When a human being develops in the womb the elements manifest one by one in a certain order to create our physical form. When a human dies the elements dissolve one by one in the reverse order marking the physical symptoms we see when caretaking the dying. The 5 elements demonstrate their presence in the external world as an empty sky, the wind, a campfire, the ocean and soil. The elements are present inside our bodies as specific organs, processes and health challenges. We can view them in the context of emotions, personality, and aesthetics. Many cultures use a five element system to structure their worldview. They often assign colors, directions, and seasons to a particular element. Some of the systems overlap and agree in some categories but also disagree in others. It is important to not overthink or get attached to what is “true” when this happens. Like so many things when it comes to traditional medicine, you just have to follow instinct as to what speaks as meaningful to you. The five elements can be a deep rabbit hole that never ends as a source of useful knowledge
I use the five elements via my Biodynamic calendar to decide when to plant seeds transplant herbs into my garden, weed, cut back or deadhead, harvest and process fresh or dried materials. I get very good germination rates and lush growth planting in this mindful way. During a client intake elements can be used to determine which systems are weak and need to be brought into balance. They can be used to choose the best herb for a client’s unique physical makeup. Some people do not respond to treatment or have a deep set, long term chronic illness the goes through cycles of excitement and regression. Approaching their healing process using the five elements may finally cause a noticeable and permanent shift in their well being. You can have more guidance when determining the best time to consume an herbal preparation or form to consume/use it in. The categories can be connected to other traditional diagnostic systems that involve taste, temperature, tissue state, karma, astrology and humors/constitution. They can be combined with non plant treatments related to exercise, meditation, body/energy work, and how someone creates their home, social or work environments.
I organize my pharmacy and herbal year (when I make salves etc.) based on the seasons and elements. An herbalist could also plan their studies or journeys with plant spirit medicine with a consideration of those too.
Here is a simple beginners chart.
Earth. Roots (storage).“Spleen”, stomach, bones, ligaments, tendons, skin, teeth, and hair. Mouth (taste and touch). Sweet. Warm. Damp. Late summer/early autumn. Jealousy and insecurity or ignorance and doubt. Weight gain, bloating. East. Dusk to midnight.
Water. Leaves (growth and transport). Kidney, bladder, blood, body fluids endocrine system and reproductive organs. Ears (hearing). Salty. Cold. Stagnant. Spring. Worry and insecurity or arrogance and judgement. Water retention and infertility. South. Noon to afternoon. Lunar. Blue bottles
Air. Flowers (blooming). Lungs, intestines, breath/wind. Nose (smell). Autumn. Bitter/astringent. Dry. Tight. Late Autumn. Respiratory issues, constipation, joint pain. Pride and arrogance or paranoia and suspicion, grief. North. Afternoon to dusk. Solar
Fire. Seeds and Fruits (ripening) Liver, gallbladder. Tongue (speech). Pungent/spicy. Hot. Oily. Inflamed. Summer. Anger and agitation or addiction and desire. Digestive and skin issues. West. Dawn to Noon.
Space. Life force energy(harvesting or planning) Space. Heart, brain, pleural spaces. Eyes (sight). Sour. Neutral. Sedated. Winter. Indifference and distraction or intolerance and rigidity. Mental health and heart issues. Midnight to dawn.
If you wanted to consider the energetics of various preparations think along the lines of
Salves and Oils-earth (external), fire (oily and warming)
Teas-water (leaves, menstruum), fire (heated)
Decoctions-water (menstrumm), fire (heated), earth (roots)
Compresses and Poultices-water, air (leaves), earth (roots), fire (heat), to cool skin issues
Vinegar or Oxymel- fire (acidic, fruit ,sometimes spicy)
Electuary- air (flowers), earth (roots), fire (seeds), sweet
Baths, sprays, washes and steams -water , fire, heating or cooling
Hydrosols – fire (heat), water (steam)
Flower Essences -fire (solar) and air (flowers)
Liniments- water (cooling)
Incense-fire (burned), air (smell, dried)
Spices-warm and move stagnant energy, sweet or pungent
Seasons can calm or aggravate conditions
If you would like to learn more about how to use the 5 elements in your practice or studies. I suggest research into Chinese, Tibetan, or Ayurvedic Medicine. The basic knowledge that influenced those worldview was developed in Persia and the Middle each centuries ago. It then spread along the silk road, influencing other views of healthcare and cosmology.