Herb Safety: Natural Does Not Mean Safe

Have you ever heard someone say, “Oh, no it’s safe! It’s natural!” when talking about some new plant fad they are partaking in? Just because it is natural, does not mean it’s safe.

Natural doesn't mean safe! Learn how to safely use herbs.
Natural doesn’t mean safe! Learn how to safely use herbs.

When it comes to working with plants, whether it’s gardening or herbalism, it is important to understand that naturally occurring things are not always safe.

Poison ivy, arsenic, and formaldehyde all occur naturally but these are things that you do not want to consume or put on your body! So why do we have this idea that natural is always safe?

It’s because of chemophobia.

David Ropeik says that chemophobia “…is the excessive fear of ‘chemicals’, based on emotion more than information.” This started in the 1960’s with DDT and has spiraled from fear of chemicals that are known to be harmful to all chemicals. Miss information confirms suspicions of chemicals and people will avoid everything artificial and favor things that are considered natural. While favoring things that are natural is not necessarily a bad thing, the fear causes us to miss out on things that are beneficial to our health. You can read more about it here.

So what kind of precautions should you take when it comes to natural products?

1. Learn what kind of interactions can occur

First, learn how herbs could interact with any medications you take or any health conditions you might have. This is very important! Herbs can cause adverse effects and you could be allergic to some without knowing! Plants can also affect children differently than adults so age can make a difference in treatments.


  • Ginkgo cannot be taken with blood-thinning medications and can interact with medications broken down by the liver and more.
  • St. John’s Wort can cause serious side effects, interaction with many medications, and cannot be taken with antidepressants, birth control, and more.
  • Dandelion leaves and stems contain latex and can cause allergic reactions to those allergic to latex and ragweed.

2. Respect plants

One of the most important things to know is that plants have the ability to do some serious harm or even cause death. Beyond the possible adverse reactions that can occur from a plant and medication interaction, it’s also important to know that there are many poisonous plants out there.

  • There’s a plant called pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) that people confused for elderberry. The entirety of the pokeweed plant is poisonous and in high dosages, it can cause severe illness or death. Elderberry also has another look alike, red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa). It is recommended that it be avoided completely.
  • Poison ivy, when burned or consumed, can cause you to become very, very sick.
  • The sap from the tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) has been known, when being cut or burned down, to cause heart attacks and chest pains.

Sometimes, plants that are known to be poisonous are recommended for certain uses in herbal medicine. The berries from the American holly (Ilex opaca) are poisonous but have been used historically to induce vomiting. While there are some known applications of poisonous plants, it is recommended that they are avoided. Modern medicine has replaced the need to use poisonous plants, such as the use of birth control other than using specific plants to cause abortions or infertility.

Respect plants and the properties that they have. Not every plant is created equally and should not be treated as such. Know the kind of damage a plant can cause. Know that it may be natural, but can still cause you harm.

3. Study

Get to know your plants. Read as much as you can. Do your research before planting that exotic bush in your backyard or putting a new plant in or on your body. It is so important to know that just because it is natural doesn’t mean it is safe. Plants can sustain life, but plants can also harm it.

There are plenty of books, scholarly articles, and more where you can learn about the safety of plants. Always consult your doctor before making any health changes. If you aren’t sure about a plant, don’t use it!

If you plan on going out and wild harvesting plants, or even pulling weeds from your backyard, learn how to identify plants. A wrong identification can be harmful! There are great identification books out there for edible plants, mushrooms, invasives, and more.

4. Continue using plants

This article is not here to scare you away from using plants to better your health. There are so many plants out there that are safe to use but it’s so important to know that there are some that are not safe.

Continue trying new foods, grow new non-invasive plants in your garden, and try that new lotion. The more interest there is in a certain plant, the more research will be done on it. Don’t shy away from all plants because some might not be safe, but do your research, learn, and make an educated choice when it comes to your use of plants.

Disclaimer: All information on Not Your Typical Hippie is for educational purposes only. I am not a doctor, veterinarian, dietician, or health expert. If you wish to have advice on a medical problem, please consult a doctor. I cannot guarantee that any information provided will work for every person. Please consult a doctor before making any health changes. I am not liable for any choices you make based on the information provided on this website. (Learn more here)