Holistic Herbalism and Pennsylvania School of Herbalism Announcement

Herbalism is the oldest healing modality on the planet.” – Rosemary Gladstar

One of the challenges with the modern paradigm is reductionism–breaking things down into small parts and not paying attention the whole: especially the whole person, the whole plant, the whole ecosystem.  One example of a great case of this is in the modern medical system. Due to an ongoing illness in my family, I’ve recently been exposed more than normal to the modern medical system. This includes visits with many specialists, and spending days upon days in sterile waiting rooms awaiting tests, procedures, and operations. And we’ve been interacting with a wide range of medical professionals and trying to find paths forward. In all these experiences, the two things that sit most poorly with me are the profound lack of care and compassion present in the modern medical system, and its inability to explore holistic perspectives or viewpoints. While some individual practitioners are great, in all cases you can see how the wheels of the modern medical system really grind against any compassionate approaches, making the whole experience feel more like yet another extractive system rather than a system that promotes healing. But what other options does one have?  In at least some cases–one can turn to nature herself and medicinal plants, trees, and mushrooms. These ponderings and recent experiences lead me to today’s post–another post in my Herbalism series. In today’s post, we will examine some of the fundamental differences between herbalism and allopathic medicine by exploring holistic approaches to working with plant medicine.  This is a post about philosophy and orientation: I’ll share how holistic herbalism is fundamentally a different orientation and worldview when compared to modern (allopathic) medicine as it is practiced here in the United States. I’ll also share five principles of holistic herbalism that help one take on a holistic worldview as it comes to plant medicine. At the end of the post, I also share an exciting announcement with all of you: the opening of the Pennsylvania School of Herbalism and the invitation to join us for the 2nd year of the Hawthorn Botanical Gathering in Central Pennsylvania in June 2024!

Holistic Herbalism Definitions

Harvesting stinging nettle for adrenal support and healing
Harvesting stinging nettle for adrenal support and healing

Let me start with a basic definition of herbalism so that we are all on the same page. Herbalism is the study and practice of the medicinal and regenerative uses of plants for caring for both people and pets. Herbalists use plants: roots, stems, wood, rhizomes, seeds, berries, fruits, nuts, and flowers prepared in various ways to holistically heal wounds, manage conditions, regenerate from long-term illness, address stress, keep us healthy, and contribute to longer well-functioning. Herbalism is as old as humanity—for millennia, humans have worked with plants for healing. But this relationship isn’t one-sided—many plants evolved alongside humanity and depended upon us for propagation and care (see Tending the Wild by M. Kat Anderson for more on this relationship in the Americas).  I practice Traditional Western Herbalism (TWH), which is a holistic healing practice rooted in Europe and the Americas that emphasizes plants that grow in temperate regions of Europe and North America and uses a four-element energetic and temperament system. TWH is rooted in Western ways of knowing (as opposed to Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine rooted in other systems) and traditionally passed down through written and oral tradition. TWH asks us to individualize our healing using pattern recognition through the use of imagination, intuition, and intellect to holistically support the human body’s own healing processes.  Part of being an herbalist is being a committed collaborator with plants, nature, and the ecosystem–especially if one practices locally based herbalism.

The next definition to consider is: what is “wholeness” and “holistic”? Other words that would describe these terms include all-inclusive, healing, global, complete, or being sound. Opposites to these terms might be fractured, having a schism, unsound, or piecemeal–examining only a small portion of a larger whole. Being whole is a challenge in today’s society for so many reasons, but it is something we all strive for.  We can also apply things like systems thinking here (which we study in permaculture) – the idea that we examine a whole system and all the different moving parts, and not just one part.

When we apply the idea of holistic to herbalism, we get an emphasis on both the human being themselves: mind, body, heart, and spirit; but also the human being situated in a specific context and environment, having particular identities and needs, and a specific constitution/temperament.  By temperament and constitution, I refer to the general constitution of the person or of the condition (in TWH this is the four humans, in Ayurveda, this would be the doshas, etc). Holistic herbalism doesn’t only examine people this way but also considers plants in the same way–plants too, live in specific ecosystems, have specific needs for growth, have specific connections between their physical and metaphysical bodies, and also have their own temperaments.  You can probably already see how the practice of holistic herbalism is a bit complex–examining a wide range of considerations both for a person in need of healing as well as the kinds of healing we might include. This means that someone who wants to practice herbalism holistically has to learn a number of different systems and apply them to working with healing plants.  But in learning things holistically and thinking holistically, we can understand ourselves and the world around us so much better.

Thus, holistic herbalism is a philosophy and a practice that focuses on understanding people (humans, animals) as complex beings rooted in a complex environment.  Thus, we examine many aspects to understand this person and their needs: how it feels to be in their body, what their body is telling them, their diet, exercise, and other life patterns, their stress, their relationships, and their mind-body-spirit connections.  Thus, holistic herbalism is a system not only of healing but a broader philosophy to explore how the world works–as a connected, alive, and complex place, where we can learn patterns and systems to help us heal individuals.

Comparing Holistic Herbalism to Modern Allopathic Medicine

A common mistake that people new to herbalism make is asking the question: I have condition X, what plant would I use for that?  While you can take that approach, that approach assumes a more allopathic orientation to herbalism.  I couldn’t answer that question as an herbalist until I understood so much more: how your body operates, how the condition manifests, the temperament of your body, the energetics of the condition (e.g. is it manifesting damp, dry, tense, lax, hot, cold), your general life pattern and history, etc.  So for holistic herbalism, the simple question of “what herb do I take for that” can take a bit of time to answer.  But by taking that time, we are able to have a much deeper sense of ourselves and as much as possible get at the root causes of imbalances and illness.

To illustrate these concepts further, the following list is from one of the handouts I offer when I teach introductory herbalism that describes the differences between the mindsets and approaches of holistic herbalism vs. allopathic medicine.

Allopathic Medicine (modern medicine) Holistic Herbal Medicine
Sees body as separate, treatable parts Sees body as a whole system
Each person is the same and receives the same treatment/drug Each person is unique and has a unique constitution, and may need different treatment
Food can be seen as a problem but is often not discussed as a healing agent Food is medicine, is central to our well-being; some plants are “tonic” foods that can aid in long-term healing (stinging nettle, burdock, berries, etc)
Treatment and power lie in the hands of doctors Treatment and power lie in the hands of individuals
Treats symptoms, suppresses symptoms, emphasis on symptoms and disease Treats underlying causes, addresses causes; helps make larger lifestyle shifts with herbal to alleviate symptoms
Works against natural body processes (like fever); suppresses natural responses Supports the body’s processes
No energetic component to healing; people are seen as a physical body Energetic component to healing; people are made of mind-body-spirit-heart
Roots all knowledge in the scientific method (which can be bought and sold; does not take mind-spirit-energy into account) Roots knowledge in a variety of practices, including personal experience, science, community wisdom, direct observation
Approaches are based in larger systems of inequity; medical approaches are costly, expensive, and often inaccessible or financially ruinous Approaches are based in nature’s systems of healing, plants grow everywhere and are free to harvest and easy to prepare
Exclusive knowledge Traditional knowledge is passed on through generations and is accessible to all
Industrial approaches focused on seeing patients with speed and efficiency Approaches that focus on an individual and caring for that individual; these approaches take time
Very strong medicine with strong side effects Milder medicine, few to no side effects
Assessment of people with complex and expensive technologies and through mechanistic means Assessment of people through our senses, hearing their story, and holistic evaluation
Fast medicine, fast results with potent pharmaceuticals Slow medicine, slow results that last

The above list is pretty thorough in providing the two ends of the spectrum from industrialized allopathic medicine to holistic medicine.  I think there are also a lot of herbalism practices that may draw from both approaches or find a balance somewhere in the middle. To be clear, while I share this list and practice holistic medicine, I am not opposed to the use of allopathic medicine or approaches. There is no doubt that the allopathic medical community excels at triage situations and at diagnosis. If I have appendicitis or break my arm, I will be glad for my local ER and the speedy solutions that they provide. I am thankful for the allopathic medicine that is treating my family member and keeping him alive.  But where allopathic medicine really seems to fail is in treating people as whole people (considering all angles) and in dealing with long-term chronic conditions that may be best addressed with herbs, diet, and lifestyle changes. And, best yet, holistic herbalism thrives in offering a wide range of very unique plant and mushroom medicines that offer healing not only to the body but to the mind, spirit, and heart.

New England Aster
New England Aster

In fact, I became an herbalist after plants freed me from the shackles of daily pharmaceuticals and offered me a more rich and healthy life. I was told by doctors that I had to medicate chronic asthma to stay alive. From an early age till the age of 30, I was on a ton of asthma medications–usually multiple forms of inhalers, steroids, a nebulizer, and other things. Even with all the medications, I had chronic asthma attacks that routinely landed me in the ER or hospital. As time went on, my doctors added more and more medications to the point where my quality of life was severely degraded and I was taking 6 daily medications (which also had a substantial cost).  After taking the medications in the mornings, my hands would shake, my body would tremble, my heart would race, and still, I would be plagued by asthma attacks so severe they would sometimes require hospitalization.

A recommendation from a dear friend had me meeting with who would later be my primary herbal teacher, Michigan Traditional Western Folk herbalist Jim McDonald. Rather than inviting me to a sterile office, Jim suggested for our consultation that we might go hunt for mushrooms in a local park and talk about my asthma. While we didn’t find any Hen of the Woods, we ended up sitting and talking in a stone circle deep in the woods that he thought would make me, a druid, most comfortable. We talked about everything from my chronic asthma to stress to my bowel movements for a good long hour. Jim recommended two simple changes: do an elimination diet to ascertain if asthma was part of an inflammatory response and start taking one plant, New England Aster. I eliminated gluten from my diet and immediately felt better (I later discovered it wasn’t a gluten intolerance, it was conventional round-up/Glyphosate intolerance). Six months later, I was off all of the medications and feeling amazing.  When I returned for my regular checkup, my doctor screamed at me, told me I would die, and dropped me as a patient for refusing to continue medications I no longer needed. Then, I shrugged, took the deepest breath I had in years, and enrolled in Jim’s herb school. The rest, as they say, is history.  The thing that blows my mind as I’m telling this story now is that I have not had a single hospitalization, ER visit, or ambulance ride for asthma since I began taking plant medicine and changed my diet to address asthma.  I still sometimes have asthma attacks or problems, but the herbs have strengthened my lungs and I have learned how to read my own body much better.

Principles of Holistic Herbalism

From my story and the list above, we can see how holistic herbalism offers a new paradigm and mindset for approaching the world around us and working with our own bodies and sacred plants and mushrooms for healing. Here are some core principles of holistic herbalism that are useful to consider:

1. Recognizing the roots of our own health and wellness.

The first part of holistic herbalism is that we are interested in getting to the root causes and problems. A major aspect of working holistically is recognizing that health issues often stem from long-term patterns of behavior. By understanding and intervening in those patterns, we can use herbs along with diet, exercise, meditation, movement, and other changes to help bring people into a state of excellent health. These roots of health include diet, exercise, how much sleep we get, how much water (and what quality) we drink, how much stress we have, our emotions, our community/social support, and even the air we breathe.

2. Working with the whole person and understanding a person’s temperament.

Healers from nature - this is Monarda.
Healers from nature – this is Monarda.

The foundation of holistic approaches is recognizing that a person is a whole being: they are made up of a mind, body, spirit, and heart. They are a mix of their nature and their nurture. They have a general temperament (e.g. the person who is always hot and flushed) and any conditions they have may also exhibit a temperament (e.g. a damp, wet condition). Understanding people and their temperaments can help us select herbs unique to them and their needs. The goal of herbal medicine is to holistically evaluate and assess a person’s body, mind, spirit, and heart to provide a pathway to healing–and to consider that all of these are equally important and may be contributing to conditions manifesting in the body, mind, heart, or spirit.

3. Working with the whole plant and understanding the plant’s temperament and energetics.

Just as people and conditions have temperaments, so do plants.  We can work with the nature of those plants to help decide approaches for healing.  This ties to what you can directly experience when you taste the plant, and the ways that plant or mushrooms works upon the body.  These temperaments are also based on where they grow, and how they react.  For example, cinnamon is a demulcent and warming plant–she grows in a warm place, has a firey and warming energy, and brings in spice.  Compare this to the cooling demulcent nature of marshmallow root–both are demulcents, meaning they coat and soothe, but both coat and soothe in radically different ways.

4. Connecting to nature and honoring the healing medicines of nature.

There are as many different kinds of herbalists as there are people, but one thing that most can agree on is that nature plays a critical role in healing.  Holistic herbalism, at least the kind I practice, recognizes that nature knowledge, nature connection, and nature reciprocation are at the foundation of healing medicines.  If I lovingly grow and harvest herbs for healing medicine, those herbs are going to heal through–in part–the energy of that love and connection. Thus, part of being a good herbalist is building a relationship with nature around you–and working to cultivate those relationships for those you might be working with. Being a good herbalist means being in reciprocal connection with the earth, and giving back as much as you take.

5.  Connecting people more fully to their own body, mind, heart, and spirit.

Just as an herbalist works to create connections between people and nature, holistic herbalism also focuses on helping people reconnect with themselves and read their bodies, minds, and spirits.  Thus, we become students of nature and students of our own nature.  Right now, we have cultures that are so wrapped up in screens that we live in these really disembodied ways–and holistic herbalism is one approach to helping us return to our bodies, be with our bodies, and enjoy being in them.

These five foundations allow us to have a system of understanding herbalism and the body in a broad way, creating foundations for mind-body-spirit-heart healing and health–both of people and of the earth around us.

Introducing the PA Herb School and Hawthorn Botanical Gathering!

To conclude this post, I’m very happy to announce that as of the Spring Equinox, my sister Briel Beaty and I have launched the Pennsylvania School of Herbalism. We’ve been dreaming about doing such a thing for a long time, and 2024 is the year we have decided to make it happen! Briel and I both have been teaching herbalism classes and leading plant walks here in Western and Central PA for many years. We’ve both trained with multiple schools in Traditional Western Herbalism (our primary teachers being Jim McDonald and 7Song) and in a range of other people and earth-based healing modalities. Our school will begin with in-person classes in Western and Central Pennsylvania (Indiana and Centre Counties, primarily and around the region), expanding from our plant walks and day-long herbal intensives that we’ve been offering for years.  Additionally, we are offering an in-person Holistic Herbalism Certificate program. In future years, we will be developing a range of online herbalism courses as well (happy to hear your suggestions on the kinds of plant and herbalism education you might be interested in!)

The other thing that Briel started in conjunction with the herbal school last year is the Hawthorn Herbalism Gathering--a chance for people to meet in early June to share herbal knowledge, learn, and grow together. This year, I’m happy to be serving as the Friday night workshop leader, offering a 2-hour hands on workshop focusing on practicing reciprocal herbalism through creating refugia gardens and making herbal seed balls.  I’ll also be a plant walk on Saturday at the gathering.

What we’ve discovered is that there is a tremendous need and interest in herbalism in our regional community and yet almost no in-person opportunities to learn. Both of us had to leave Pennsylvania to get our herbal education and when we wanted to continue advanced herbal studies, we either had to go to other states or go online. Each year, I offer 4-6 free plant walks for my community through two community park organizations.  My walks typically have 40-75 people in attendance and people are constantly asking for deeper in-person instruction. Thus, we’ve decided to open up the doors of our school this year to support our regional community.

One of the reasons we believe that the time is right for an herb school is that it is obvious that the allopathic medical system is no longer accessible for common people and–like other industrialized systems of the modern age–it is breaking down and becoming functional for many.  Where I live in a rural community, you now have a 6-month – 1 year wait for a specialist, many doctors are leaving or are not taking patients, and of course, even for people with previously “good” insurance, the healthcare system is growing unaffordable. I’ve gone through four gynecologists in 6 years–some have either quit or stopped practicing while still others have moved away. It is impossible to get reasonable healthcare in rural communities–so most of us who have the means drive to our nearest big city (Pittsburgh) for almost everything.

And then there is the issue of affordability: nearly everyone in the US has a story or two about how you were sitting at 3 am deciding if you needed to go to the ER or if you could wait it out.  Even with insurance, an ER visit could set you back financially for a decade or more–and you may not even get a diagnosis that can help you. Almost nobody in the US can afford modern medical care, with astronomical bills and simple tests that now cost tens of thousands of dollars.  I have so many stories of friends and family who don’t seek medical care because they can’t afford it and who end up with life-threatening conditions or worse.  People in other countries can’t even believe the situation here in the US, but this is the lived experience of anyone who is not part of the 5% wealthy.

Our approach to the Pennsylvania School of Herbalism is going to work to address these needs by teaching people how to care for themselves and their families and communities with plant medicine.  By putting one’s health and wellness in one’s own hands and by empowering people, we create less strain on an already straining medical system.  With many free classes, work-trade opportunities, and sliding-scale options, our courses will be very accessible to those in our community.  And, we allow people to reconnect with the healing plants in our incredible, beautiful ecosystem, building approaches of reciprocation, respect, and reverence for nature.

I’ll conclude by saying that I feel like I’m just full of good announcements these days on the Druid’s Garden!  It does feel like many years of work are coming to fruition But also, I also feel the pressure to act and to bring things I’ve been thinking about for a long time into the world. As I’ve been sharing on the blog, I do feel like it is an all-hands-on-deck situation to try to bring about a new paradigm and a brighter future.  If we act now, we can ensure a healthy, livable world for all life and bring forth positive change.  And that change starts by building care-based relationships to the land, to each other, and to the plant healers in whatever ways we can.

Dana O'Driscoll

Dana O’Driscoll has been an animist druid for almost 20 years, and currently serves as Grand Archdruid in the Ancient Order of Druids in America. She is a druid-grade member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids and is the OBOD’s 2018 Mount Haemus Scholar. She is the author of Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Spiritual Practice (REDFeather, 2021), the Sacred Actions Journal (REDFeather, 2022), and Land Healing: Physical, Metaphysical, and Ritual Approaches for Healing the Earth (REDFeather, 2024). She is also the author/illustrator of the Tarot of Trees, Plant Spirit Oracle, and Treelore Oracle. Dana is an herbalist, certified permaculture designer, and permaculture teacher who teaches about reconnection, regeneration, and land healing through herbalism, wild food foraging, and sustainable living. Dana lives at a 5-acre homestead in rural western Pennsylvania with her partner and a host of feathered and furred friends. She writes at the Druids Garden blog and is on Instagram as @druidsgardenart. She also regularly writes for Plant Healer Quarterly and Spirituality and Health magazine.

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  1. I am excited you are starting a school of herbalism and look forward to your online offerings. (I am too far away to take advantage of your in-person training.)

    As you develop your online offerings, my selfish request is that you don’t rely totally on videos. I much prefer to learn by reading. (And if you have a post somewhere of good herbalist books to have in a personal library, I would be very interested, so I can start acquiring them.)

    Also, regarding your glyphosate intolerance, could you someday do a post of how you eliminated it from your diet? (I am learning how to bake bread, but how can I tell if the flour I am purchasing is glyphosate-free, etc.?)

    Thanks so much and congratulations!

    1. Hi Randomactsofkarma,
      Thank you! Honestly, I’m not much of a video person myself (dyslexic brain = unhappy with so much stimulation). The way I did my Sacred Journaling course was to do the whole thing written out, then use videos to supplement the course. I’m not sure how we’ll do the online offerings yet, but I will keep the idea of multiple modalities in mind :).

      Did you see my Druid’s Garden Guide to Herbalism? https://thedruidsgarden.com/article-guides/herbalism-and-magical-herbalism/
      I have some of my favorite books on the bottom. I have a lot more, so I clearly need to write more on that topic in the future!

      And YES! The Glyphosate intolerance was figured out in two steps. First, I did an elimination diet and figured out that wheat products weren’t good. You can learn about an elimination diet online or work with a nutritionist/dietician and they can walk you through it. It was very illuminating, but does take a bit of time. I eliminated wheat entirely for about 3 years, assuming I had a gluten intolerance. Then I traveled overseas where they do not have GMO wheat or chemical sprays–and quickly discovered I could eat anything wheat-based I wanted without suffering. When I figured that out, I worked in organic, GMO free wheat products back into my life in small amounts (not every day) and that seems to work for me. The problem in the USA is that we have so much cross contamination that it can be difficult. In the US, I like the King Arthur organic line of flours–they seem to give me less trouble than most. I hope that’s helpful.

      1. Oooo, nope, I missed your guide to herbalism. I shall have fun exploring the resources there. And I have a store nearby that carries King Arthur flours. Thank you so much!!!

  2. Hello Dana — with your clearly broader, more understanding overview of healing, is it still unreasonable to consider what went wrong with humanity in the first place, and why dis-ease is now a global pandemic, always at least a step ahead of any and all approaches to successfully be healthy, permanently illness-free, and alive?

    After all, we’re not conceived with illness, nor are we born knowledge-deficient as academia assumes. So why, may I ask, does anyone need to adopt a belief-system, true-or-false, which obviously misleads the human-mind from understanding who we are, where we come from now, and why; our ordained birthright and life-purpose?

    With love, Peter

    1. Hi Peter! Thanks for your comment :). I think what went wrong with humanity was a disconnection from nature and narcissim. Tyson Yunkaporta makes some very compelling arguments in “Sand Talk” in both of these directions. Thank you and blessings, Dana

  3. Many thank for that. I am a retired medico from the postwar years of the 20th. century, critical now as the changes in medicine have developed to the point of being a world dictator on health.
    I admire your work on herbalism, which was the centre for doctors in years gone by in the UK. I Graduated MB.Chb. in Leeds 1949, emigrated 1962 now living in Australia
    I practised Acupuncture 8 years and became proficient in the more western style of Dr Felix Mann in London.
    Best wishes for you School, I hope many will benefit from not relying on so many drugs.

    1. Hi Peter! Thank you so much for the comments and support! 🙂

  4. I’m so excited for you Dana! What a great idea! If I lived closer, I’d join you. I’ll wait for the online classes. I do feel and see a new paradigm for our future together on earth. 🌎 Thank you for leading us and bringing us all back in sync living closer to Mother Earth!

    1. Hi Rhonda, thank you! And yes, I’m so excited to see more and more people taking up the new paradigm and pushing for a better future. It is exciting!

  5. What a wonderful explanation and exploration of herbalism. Thank you for sharing your story, and huge congratulations on launching your school! I had a great time at the Hawthorn Gathering last year, and I’m already registered for this year!

    1. HI Eryn, awesome! I can’t wait to see you at the Hawthorn Botanical Gathering! I supported the event last year (did the logo, etc.) but I had booked at week at John C. Campbell about a year before, so I wasn’t able to make it. But I’m super excited to attend this year!

      1. Awesome!! I can’t wait to meet you in person, finally!!

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