I have been doing an ongoing series of posts about herbalism: herbalism as a druidic practice, my path into herbalism, and medicine making during sacred times of the year. Given the fact that its early spring, and the herbs are starting to emerge back into the world, I wanted to follow-up with another post about how one can go about learning to be an herbalist and some of the resources to get you started.
There are a lot of ways to become an herbalist, but I would start by saying that the study of herbs is no quick thing. Like anything worth doing, it requires dedication and practice. Traditional western herbalism contains an immense body of knowledge that requires not only good memory and study skills, but also intuition, observation, and reasoning. You will be challenged, fully, by studying the herbs, their medicine, and their work upon the body. It will take years to develop enough knowledge to be a deeply effective herbalist, but you will also learn things even on your first day of studying herbs that you can apply to better your health and address various ailments.
Taking a Local, Sustainable Approach. I want to start by emphasizing that traditional western herbalists, myself included, try as much as possible to take a local approach to plants. This means getting to know local plants that grow or that can be cultivated, gathering them or growing them yourself, and using them rather than those that perhaps are more widely commercially available, but are not locally grown. Many of the really popular plants that are commercially available, like Goldenseal, Osha, or Black Cohosh also suffer from serious overharvesting and and are threatened–this is not sustainable. There are ways of getting these plants sustainably, specifically, from small herb farms that cultivate them and harvest without disrupting wild populations. But those farms’ products are likely not found in your typical heath food store and have to be sought out.
As a locally-based herbalist, using the local plants will allow you to monitor the health of the species and grow some yourself. Even if you have no land, a trip into the nearest farmer’s field, your family’s front yard, or a nearby forest can greet you with a wealth of herbs (in fact, the first herbs that are easy to learn like dandelion, plantain, violet, strawberry and ground ivy can all be typically found in most lawns). But also, being able to grow and gather your own plants puts you in a relationship with that plant that you would not otherwise have. There’s a huge energetic difference between harvesting stinging nettles fresh vs. opening up a plastic bag that you’ve purchased–a difference from a sustainable perspective, but also a difference from an energetic perspective. Using plants that are more abundant, too (read= invasive) can also help control their populations. For example, purple loosestrife, much-maligned throughout Michigan, makes one of the best remedies for conjunctivitis.
Taking a local approach to plants is especially important to note because so much of our culture (and our own behavior patterns) is designed to fuel consumptive behavior. If we really want to break free of consumptive cycles, it means doing a lot more things ourselves, and gathering and growing our own herbs is one of them. I know there are a lot of well-meaning herb companies, but they still ship their herbs using fossil fuels, they still bottle or bag up herbs in plastic…all of this can be avoided (or mostly avoided) by taking a local approach.
In-Person Herbal Intensives. One of the best ways for finding information on locally available medicinal plants is by learning it in person from someone who practices herbalism locally or regionally, which brings me to in-person herbal courses. I strongly suggest that if you are serious about learning herbs, try to find an in-person herbal intensive. Better yet, if you can take classes from a few different herb teachers, do so. I had read herbals before taking my year-long herbal intensive class, but learning herb through plant walks, lectures, and discussions fit my mode of learning much better, and allowed me to ask questions and also learn from other students. Plus, my herb teacher is one of my favorite human beings–many herbalists are cool, quirky, weird people who are fun to learn from and get to know. Mountain Rose herbs maintains a list of herbal schools here. Some herbal schools are in-person only (like my class from Jim McDonald); others offer distance courses, such as Rosemary Gladstar’s Science and Art of Herbalism class.
Wilcrafting Plants: Plant Identification. If you want to be a locally-based herbalist and use plants in your area, you want to learn not only about the herbs yourself, but how to grow and/or wildcraft those plants. Wildcrafting medicines and growing one’s own is actually, in my opinion, not only encouraged by necessary for good herbal practice. We have this tendency in our culture to just be willing to purchase everything–and certainly, plenty of herbal supplements, tinctures, or dried plants are ready to be purchased (and for some without access to plants or with limited mobility, this may be the only option). But if you have the means, invest the time in learning the plants and how to use them. If this is your goal, you will want to get out there and start finding things! I want to refer you to my two-part series on wildcrafting as a good start (these articles include information that is applicable for wildcrafting herbs for healing/medicine). I’ve mentioned a few books really good for plant identification before–one of my favorites is Oslund and Oslund’s What’s Doin’ the Bloomin? You can also get many different kinds of apps and other resources–these are plentiful and a library has much to offer! Look also, for older plant taxonomies and guides–there are some lovely books easy to find and usually quite cheap that can teach you about tree identification, flowers, etc. The Audobon Society puts out a series of compact field guides will full color photos. You can also get apps, like the free Leaf Snap, that can be super helpful if you are into the smartphone thing (I’m not, lol).
Learning about the Body: Energetics and Actions. Picking up an herbal and saying “oh, such and such plant is good for X” is a good way to get yourself in a lot of trouble–and while this method may work for simple ailments (like a burn, which is always in a hot state) its not good herbal practice. Why? Because traditional western herbalism doesn’t work like alleopathic (mainstream) medicine. Traditional western herbalism recognizes that each person’s “energetic” state in their body is different and how illness manifests in the body likewise, may be different. This means, in order to treat something, you need to know enough about energetics (called “tissue states“; the link gives Matthew Wood’s take on it) to give the right herb that will compliment and address the person’s energetic state manifesting in response to a condition.
Here’s what I mean–if you have a cold, your cold might be manifesting as cold (meaning you have the chills) and stagnant (meaning nothing is moving, the snot is stuck in your head) or you might have a cold that is hot (you are running a fever) and damp (you have a damp, wheezy cough, your snot runs profusely, and so on). These all very different states that the body is in–and require different herbs. I’d use warming and stimulating herbs to treat the first condition while I’d use cooling and drying herbs to treat the second; for both I’d use immune system aids to aid the body along. If I gave the hot/damp person hot herbs, that may aggravate the condition even if the herb also had some sort of immune system boost.
So, the solution to this is before you dive into the herbs themselves, you should learn about how energetics work. For this, the best book I have found is Matthew Wood’s The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism: Basic Doctrine, Energetics, and Classification. If you want to get started, my herb teacher, Jim, has a guide posted here. The second thing these books and resources will teach you is about herbal actions, or what effect the herb actually has on the body (e.g. plantain coat and soothe the mucus membranes with its mucilaginous quality).
Once you understand basic energetics, you can move on to using and understanding materia medicas (that is, herbal books)….
Learning about herbs: Materia Medicas. Over the years, many different guides to specific herbs–Materia Medicas–have been written by skilled herbalists. There are several for free online, like Grieve’s Modern Herbal and Culpeppers Herbal. These are great resources and places to get started! My personal favorite herbals are Matthew Wood’s two Earthwise Herbals (Vol 1 and Vol 2). You will need to purchase both to have a full range of herbs. I also really like Adele Dawson’s Herbs: Partners in Life which as gifted to me about a year ago by two dear friends. Dawson doesn’t just talk about remedies, she also gives recipes and her innate knowledge of herbs. I think each herbalist will have his or her own favorite books–but the ones I’ve just listed are some good ones to consider.
Making Plant Medicine. One of the areas I enjoy the most with herbalism is making various plant medicines. I’ve had a few posts over the years that detail some of my recipes, like Jewelweed Salve, Dandelion Bitters, Sore Muscle Rub, or Steam inhalations. The two books that are my go-to guides for these are complementary and both excellent purchases: Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine and James Green’s The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook. These two present you with all of the principles you need to make awesome goodies. If you want specific recipes and suggestions, you can pick up one of many Rosemary Gladstar’s books.
Plants as Teachers and Allies. A critical part of learning how to be an herbalist is working with the plants themselves as teachers, allies, and guides. While different herbalists have various views on the inner worlds of plants and their teachings, one of my favorite teachers in this regard is Stephen Harrod Buhner. His Secret Teachings of Plants, Sacred Plant Medicine, and The Lost Language of Plants are great places to start. Many of my writings on druid tree workings and other spiritual practices can also aid you in reaching the plant realm. There is so much more to say on this topic, but I think my earlier druid tree working posts covers a good deal of the basics :).
Learning about the Body: Anatomy and Physiology. But wait, isn’t this about plants? When I dove into herbalism a two years ago, I was surprised at just how much I had to learn about the body and its functions…and wished I had taken an anatomy and physiology class while still in college! Herbalism was just as much about plants as it is about their interaction with the body. The book I’ve used for this is Pip Waller’s Holistic Anatomy: An Integrative Guide to the Human Body. There are really good Youtube videos on the subject as well.
Learning about food and nutrition. Good eating is the cornerstone to good health. Working to heal your body and keep it in prime health means that you not only need to understand about plants as medicine, but realize that everything that you eat also has the power to heal (or to harm). This was made very abundantly clear to me when I worked with a nutritionist and herbalist to heal my asthma. In the case of my asthma, which was brought on by a gluten sensitivity, herbs would only take it so far (and would be treating the symptom). By changing my diet and adding herbs, I was able to address the root cause instead. This is all to say that its important to learn about nutrition and healing foods as much as it is to learn about healing plants. Jim Mcdonald has some good links on herbs and nutrition in his master index here (which is great to check out for many more reasons!)
Getting the right tools and equipment. Starting out in herbalism doesn’t have to cost you much, if anything–the plants are freely available on the landscape. However, as you go on, you might find some tools and equipment helpful. Much of this you can repurpose or build yourself.
- Dehydrator and/or drying rack – to dry herbs for later use, including teas. Teas are best made with dry, not fresh, herbs because the drying process breaks down cell walls.
- Jars (I use mason jars, reusable and infinitely useful) – for storage of dried herbs, tinctures, infused oils, and more.
- A double-boiler for making infused oils and salves (I found mine for $20 at a garage sale).
- Tincture press. These are super expensive online, but I made my own for super cheap (instructions are here).
- A few of the tools for harvesting and foraging: bags, basket, a pair of scissors, gloves (for nettles and prickly things), and a hori-hori knife (these and more listed in this blog post).
Herbalism Conferences are wonderful ways to learn from various teachers, attend plant walks, learn about energetics, and more. If you have the time and funds, an herbalism conference is well worth attending! Some conferences include the Herbfolk Gathering, the Midwest Women’s Herbal Conference, and the Great Lakes Herb Faire.
Growing Herbs. You can also learn a lot about herbalism just from simply growing a few herbs in your garden. For a full introduction to this, you can see Cech’s The Medicinal Herb Grower.
On the process of learning. I think I mentioned on this blog before that part of my research as a university professor is on how people learn. Since undertaking any new learning has its own set of challenges, I’ll conclude with some brief advice from the science of learning that can help you more successfully take your first steps into traditional western herbalism.
- On setting yourself up for success. Recognize how you learn best, and make your learning conducive to that approach. Perhaps you are a visual learner: seeing the plants, looking at pictures, engaging in observation and study: these will help you learn best. Perhaps you need to learn the big picture first–learning about the big picture of energetics will help you before delving into the herbals. Perhaps you need to learn by doing: find some youtube videos and follow along yourself. The key is to figure out how you learn best and use that strategy to maximize your success.
- Learning from someone else. Even if you aren’t able to take a class (or even if you are) you’d be surprised who has a bit of herbal knowledge around you. Ask around for people who make teas, use salves, and so on. Its really wonderful to find someone to learn from, even if its just a friend teaching you a few things.
- Pair up and learn together. Its also wonderful to take a class with a friend or family member or to self-design a curriculum you can use to learn about herbs together. This will lead to rich conversations and keeping each other moving forward.
- On challenges. If we continue to do the same thing over and over again, we don’t grow in the same way that if we are to challenge ourselves frequently to use–and learn new–knowledge. If you want to be a good herbalist, you have to find ways of challenging yourself to grow your herbal knowledge. Maybe tackle a big herbal project, like making a small family herbal medicine cabinet. Whatever it takes to have you grow each time you try something new.
- On the nature of expertise. Any serious profession or subject requires considerable effort and practice to move from being a novice to to being an expert. Being an expert herbalist may not be your goal, of course. But for many subjects, research has suggested somewhere between 5000-10,000 hours are necessary to have real “expertise.” Even if being an expert, practicing herbalist, isn’t your goal, realize that learning anything as complex as herbalism does require hours and hours of investment. So be patient and give yourself the space and time to learn.
I hope this post has illustrated some ways to learn about herbs and that you find it useful! I would love to hear your ideas and experiences with herbs, dear readers!