Welcome to Herbology 301

My name is Matthew Aspen, or Professor Aspen for short, and I am glad to give you all a very warm welcome to this course. My PAs and myself expect great things from you, so we are eager to see you all "grow" in the greenhouses. However, we would like you to read the following information about the course before enrolling in it:

1-Whenever you submit an assignment, it goes to our queue. We usually grade them quickly, but sometimes this is not possible due to many factors. That is why we would like you to be patient and rest assure that your assignments will be graded shortly.

2-The Herbology Team is more than happy to receive your questions about the course. Please do so in a formal and respectful manner, and your queries will be answered quickly.

3-Even though we are professionals and enjoy what we do, we are also prone to make mistakes. If you believe that an assignment has not been fairly graded, please send Professor Aspen or Michelle Spookiieej (Head Girl) an owl as soon as possible, outlining your reasons why you believe so, together with the ID number of your assignment. Remember that appeals are evaluated and they can have positive or negative replies, meaning that your grade might change for good or for bad. Bear this in mind when you contact me about such topic.

4-All assignments can be retaken if you get less than 70% in them.

5-All assignments for HERB301 now have a short sentence in colour to indicate if the assignment can be resubmitted or not.

Lesson 2) Dangerous Doses

Year Three, Lesson Two 
A Helping Herb

Today we’re back for another look at how plants and herbology can be used in healing. For the first part of the lesson, we will be clearing up any confusion you might have about the differences between an herbal remedy and what you study in potions. Then we will jump into different regulations and rules that keep you, and the rest of the world, safe as far as herbal remedies are concerned. Let’s begin!

Definition time! I know, it’s probably not your favorite, but it is important to every new topic we cover. Bear with me for just a moment! Herbal medicines, also called herbal remedies or preparations, are various products whose makeup consists solely of plants. This means that your average potion does not qualify as an herbal remedy, even if it is a potion meant to heal or cure an ailment and involves the use of plants in its preparation, as it typically also includes ingredients such as bat’s spleen, bicorn horn, or other ingredients derived from animals. 

We will go into more detail next week about the various different types or classes of herbal remedies, but for now, suffice it to say that there is more than one way to skin a Kneazle (not that I would ever do so). Occasionally, herbal remedies will only contain one plant by itself (whether consumed or applied externally). Other times, an herbal preparation will include multiple plants, combining their base healing properties -- sometimes along with the use of magic -- in order to multiply or complement the effects. Whatever the combination, though, herbal remedies are non-magical medicines (and therefore cannot include magical plants as an ingredient). They can still be incredibly effective, but not magically so.

Trials and Tests
Just like with man-made medicines (both magical and non-magical), herbal remedies can be tested clinically to prove their effectiveness -- you will have discussed the process for how this occurs during your Potions class last year, so I am sure I don’t need to go over the details here. However, numerous methodological and logistical problems exist in terms of testing herbal remedies. While the efficacy of many herbal medicines has been established, there still remains a large amount of herbal remedies that have not been tested to the standards of modern-day herbology or healing. This is largely due to two factors. Firstly, more often than not, these untested herbal remedies have ancient origins which have been passed down through generations. They might be different from country to country or family to family. While one family or nation might be open and willing to share their recipe or brewing instructions, another might hold it as a closely-guarded secret. Therefore, it becomes difficult to properly test the remedy or get a “big picture” idea of the efficacy of all related remedies. 

Secondly, there can exist a bit of a stigma against older forms of magic. Very few people want to risk testing a treatment for diabetes that is 2,000 years old. You’ll find that the vast majority of patients would much prefer to partake in clinical trials of newer, untested medicines, which may seem a bit backwards to some. Regardless, because of this hesitance to put trust in older, purportedly less advanced forms of healing, many remedies cannot be tested, as they must have willing participants (and those that actually have the illness that you intend to cure). To be fair, however, it is up to each individual, and in some cases, older remedies are not as effective as newer ones; our understanding of herbology has obviously not remained stagnant for thousands of years!

On the other side of the spectrum, there are some witches and wizards who do not feel the need for a clinical trial to prove the efficacy, or even the safety, of a treatment before taking it. There exist many circles in which herbal medicines are believed to be safer and gentler options to modern potions because they are made of more natural substances. However, this is a very dangerous simplification to make. Some herbal medicines can be toxic and others can interact poorly with potions, foods, synthetic drugs, or even other herbal remedies. 

Additionally, there is the often under-regulated quality of herbal medicines to consider. While there are regulations for business and shops certified by the Ministry of Magic, there are some small-time sellers of holistic and herbal preparations whose medicines contain more than they say on the vial, both in the United Kingdom and around the world. It may be a simple misunderstanding, such as adding mint to a valerian preparation, but even in innocent circumstances, not being aware of what you are putting in your body can put you at a much higher risk for health-based consequences. Worse, there are no guarantees that the medicine has been prepared in a clean environment and may have been subject to contamination from other plants, toxic substances, or even from diseases or germs. Moreover, not all sellers are as honorable as others, and what you think is powdered water hyacinth root could actually be powdered dandelion root. Which, while not poisonous, has no ability to stop hemorrhaging. Occasionally -- though this is predominantly confined to shadier back alleys and black markets -- what you believe to be medicine may be purposefully spiked with illness-causing agents and plants in order to keep you coming back for more. In short, take heed. Simply because the remedy is purported to be natural does not mean it is safe.

Now, with that warning out of the way, you may still think nothing of taking an herbal remedy from your own garden and prepared by your own hands, or perhaps those of a trusted friend. However, contamination is not the only concern. For example, the common herb garlic, also called Allium sativum, has the ability to lower cholesterol and prevent or treat colds, as well as some other infections. However, garlic also increases the risk of bleeding if a person is also consuming something which works as a blood thinner. Similarly, if a wizard hoping to reduce his fever consumes willow bark to control it, he could unknowingly be doing more damage to a stomach ulcer, or could be worsening his risk of kidney disease. Herbal preparations, even non-magical ones, should never be consumed without first checking with your healer, just like any other potion or medicine! I know some of the information you learn this year will be very exciting, but it is important that you confer with knowledgeable authorities before using these herbs for yourself or others. It is important to have a complete understanding of the herb and situation when using a plant for healing purposes, which the average witch or wizard does not possess.

Another reason it is important to have a consultation with a healer and/or herbologist before consuming herbal remedies has to do with the dosage. As we discussed last year, moonflower can be used to great effect as a sedative, and also happens to be non-habit forming. The issue lies in the fact that it has a toxicity of three according to the W.H.I.P.S. toxicity category. Taking too much, or taking the plant for too long a period of time, could fatally poison you! In less extreme examples, doses are important because taking too much or too little can cause complications. Everything is poisonous in the right (or wrong) dose, it just takes much, much more in most cases!

Just a Spoonful
Speaking of the right dose, in years past, I mentioned the W.H.I.P.S. Class C: Toxicity scale and since then have mentioned many plants that fall underneath its umbrella. I told you that they had a clear categorization from one to four, with four being the most poisonous. I have striven to provide W.H.I.P.S. notes about toxicity whenever possible, but even still, I imagine some of you feel there are holes in your knowledge. Now, I will attempt to fill in some of those holes and give you details about exactly what each number on the scale means. Because each person is different, as I mentioned, this scale is not arranged solely by the amount you would have to consume to receive a fatal dose, but on a number of factors that contribute to its danger such as how you absorb the toxicity, as well as how quickly it can take effect. Additionally, while in these descriptions, we are detailing the effects and timelines of poisonous plants that are typically ingested. The same general structure also applies to plants with toxins that are inhaled, injected, or otherwise accidentally taken in through the skin.

Receiving a W.H.I.P.S. toxicity score of one indicates that a plant would have to be consumed in illogical quantities in order to begin having potentially fatal effects. However, the effects could potentially stay in your system over a long period of time and build on the previous day’s, week’s, or month’s consumption, eventually becoming fatal. Additionally, even if not enough to be fatal, the plant could build up over time to cause other serious problems. Some examples of these plants are poinsettias and wisteria.

To achieve a W.H.I.P.S. toxicity score of two, a plant must be potentially lethal in moderate, reasonably easy-to-consume amounts. However, these amounts would usually not be consumed in a 24 hour period unless the consumer was purposefully poisoned by someone else. Additionally, the symptoms of this slow-onset poisoning show themselves in such a way that a person typically has enough time to seek medical help before fatal effects occur. Examples of two are the lily of the valley and pokeweed.

At this stage, the dose required to cause a possibly fatal poisoning within 24 hours is small enough that one or more potions with this ingredient taken on the same day might be enough to reach a lethal dose. However, the majority of people would seek medical treatment promptly enough to avoid death due to the ability to link the consumed substance with adverse effects. The Venomous Tentacula is a plant in this group.

Finally, we have plants that are a four on the W.H.I.P.S toxicity scale. These plants, again, only need a small amount to be fatal. Also, importantly, the effects of the poison make it even more likely to be fatal. It may have a very quick onset, incapacitating side-effects that might make it impossible to take an antidote in time, or it may even stealthily display no side effects to alert you to a problem until after you drop dead 24 hours later. As for a plant with a score this high, well, that takes us to the next part of our lesson.

Nasty Nerium
Before we go any further, I want to stress that the point of this lesson is not to minimize the danger of poisonous plants-- just the opposite. What I am instead advocating is that you become aware of how dangerous even “safe” plants can be. You should use caution even if a plant is not a well-known poison threat. Moreover, what is a safe dose for one person may be lethal for another. There are a multitude of factors at play in a human, centaur, House-Elf, or merperson’s body. No two beings, even of the same species, will react the same way due to differences in body composition, diet, environment, age, current potions taken, and countless other considerations. It is for this reason that healers must train so hard to attain their post and why I stress so highly that you consult one before you add any substance to your body. But enough of the doom and gloom, let’s take a look at this perky pink plant to help illuminate some of the points I’ve made in this lesson!

Nerium oleander, more often known as simply “oleander” looks deceptively cheery, but hides quite a poisonous kick. It is a four on the W.H.I.P.S. toxicity scale, and rightfully so. Every single part, from root to vivid green foliage to flower, is significantly poisonous. However, because of its bright, colorful flowers -- which can be white, pink, or red -- it is occasionally cultivated in gardens and parks, or picked as a wildflower. It grows to between six and twenty feet tall (two to six meters) depending on conditions. Speaking of conditions, oleander prefers full sun or partial sun, soil with a pH of 5.0 to 8.3 (though it definitely blooms best in more alkaline soils), and moist soil.

Looking at its uses, oleander has numerous benefits. With the right treatments (such as boiling) and other ingredients, it can be used in potions that treat cancer symptoms, skin diseases, and create immune boosting tonics (with the petals being especially beneficial for the latter). Some products from the infamous line of Skiving Snackboxes also sport small amounts of oleander in their makeup, but hopefully you won’t be consuming too much of those anyway! Of course, it is also used in many poisonous brews, particularly very quick-working ones. 

With that, we’ll draw a close to this lesson. Don’t worry, now that we have the safety lecture out of the way, we can get on with the rest of the topic starting next week. Still, the information covered in this lesson is truly critical! After all, to safely brew a potion, you must first learn that fire is hot, and to harvest Mandrake roots, you must first prepare yourself for their deadly scream. Ah, right. I did say I was done with doom and gloom, apologies! I look forward to seeing you next class, and should you have any questions about the homework assignments -- or anything else, for that matter -- my owl is always available.

Original lesson written by Professor Lily Tudor
Additional portions written by Professor Venita Wessex
Image credits here, here, here, here 

Additional photos on Facebook here


Have you ever thought about becoming a healer? In the Third Year of Herbology, you will learn about healing herbs, their properties, and how to plant and care for them. You will also learn about Herbology from a more historical perspective, touring around the world while we discover the most interesting plants. Join me in this marvellous trip!
Course Prerequisites:
  • HERB-201

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