This is a post for those of you who are wondering what herbalism is, exactly. When I first stumbled upon herbalism I had never heard of it and for a while I felt pretty confused about what it was all about. Over the years, I have come to see that it encompasses lots of things!
Some herbalists work with the plants themselves as farmers and gardeners, some create and sell herbal products while others provide herbal consultations and/or education and many of us do all of the above and more! For me, practicing and studying herbalism helps me to stay connected with and forever learning from nature. It keeps me humbled and evermore curious and in awe of the intelligence imbued in all living beings, in this way it has been true north on my spiritual path.
Lets dissect the word itself, herb-al-ism. Merriam-Webster defines each section of the word as follows:
-Herb: "a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savory, or aromatic qualities”
-al (suffix): "of, relating to, or characterized by"
-ism (suffix) : "act; practice; process"
In summary, herbalism can be defined as the practice relating to a plant used for its medicinal, savory or aromatic qualities. Oxford Languages defines it as "the study or practice of the medicinal and therapeutic use of plants, now especially as a form of alternative medicine.”
Ancient civilizations had extensive knowledge of the healing properties of plants. Traditions were passed down orally and eventually in writing. Traditional medicine systems such as Chinese Medicine (TCM), Ayurveda, Native American as well as other indigenous communities from all over the world have been incorporating herbal medicine into their healing practices for centuries. Herbalism was often practiced by "wise women", midwives, shamans and elders and plants were used to promote physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Folk herbalism, is a term that describes ancestral or passed down practices that are based on tradition, observation and experience. It existed long before science and modern medicine and it is still practiced in many cultures around the world today. I am sometimes haunted by the historical fact that not too long ago, relatively speaking, people were accused of heresy and witchcraft and burned at the stake if they were suspected to use plants for healing purposes. It saddens me to think of how much tradition and wisdom was lost to such ignorant, fear based and genocidal thinking.
This is a gross over simplification of the history of herbalism, I recommend Mathew Woods website and book, "The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants” or check out The Herbal Academy’s blog and online programs, which is where I was first introduced to and fascinated by the history of herbal medicine and how modern medicine has come to be, which is unsurprisingly entwined with systemic oppression. Sajah Popham teaches about Astro-herbalism and Herbal Alchemy in his online courses and book "Evolutionary Herbalism".
Like many herbalist's, I was drawn to herbalism after having eye opening and disillusioning experiences with Doctors and our modern medical system. There were times when I felt dismissed, condescended, intimidated, hopeless and without the help I was looking for. I found it interesting that year after year for as long as I could remember I always left my primary care Dr. feeling good and with a clean bill of health, but I was a child then, as healthy as I’ll ever be, of course I had a clean bill of health. As soon as I came in with a real health issue though, it felt like answers were hard to come by, there were only a processes of elimination combined with pharmaceuticals which sometimes seemed to make the problem worse or created another problem entirely. Maybe this points to a lack of education about the limits of medicine and unrealistic expectations, regardless, these experiences peaked my interest in preventative health care and alternative healing modalities. In this way, herbalism is about empowerment, knowing our bodies and having tools to keep ourselves and our families healthy.
Allow me to introduce you to some of my friends and fellow community members who are all herbalists, you will see that these folks have a great variety of backgrounds, interests and specialties! My friend and former co-worker Jo-anna has an herbal business called Botanic PVD, she makes local and plant based skin care products. My good friend Tammy incorporates herbalism into her astrological readings in her business Body, Plant, Sky.
My friend Aliya likes to “fuck around with plants”, she runs a bar and uses plant extracts in her cocktails. She also has a business called La Boheme Noir Co where she uses aromatherapy in her healing services which include reiki, breath work and meditation. Mary Blue, my friend, former landlord and boss has an apothecary called Farmacy Herbs as well as an herb farm where she grows many of the herbs that she sells in the apothecary. She also offers classes, workshops, internships and more!
Carissa, a fellow herbalist and friend has a business with her husband called Town Farm Tonics. They produce and sell herbal products and are known for their Elderberry Syrup, Fire Cider and herbal teas. They sell products at farmers markets and stores all over the northeast! These are just a few examples of the ways my friends are working with herbs, how might you want to work with them?
There is a huge variety of herbal schools and teachers to study with. If you are interested in studying, I recommend starting with these questions:
Do you want to learn online or in person?
Do you want a career in herbalism or are you just interested in learning for fun?
Do you want to specialize in or focus on anything specific?
Are you more spiritual or scientific minded? Or both?
Once you have considered these questions, you will be in a good place to start doing your research and narrowing down schools. Check out this article from The American Herbalists Guild (AHG) website for more insight on how to choose an herbal school. If you’re curious about herbalism and don’t know where to begin, start with spending time in nature, seek out local or online workshops and check out some herbal literature. Rosemary Gladtsar has great introductory online courses and books to choose from. There are also tons of influencers on instagram who you can follow, like Mary Blue or me!
Don’t hesitate to comment below or reach out if you have any questions about herbalism!