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Herbalism For Beginners

In this article: All natural medicinal practices dating back thousands of years.

The call to study plant medicine finds you at a time when you are ready and open to such an invitation from the plants themselves. Herbalism’s basic practices and beliefs are grounded in the idea that every plant holds a specific essence to it, a spirit of sorts.

When you work with a particular plant or herb, you work with that energy and allow the spirit to guide you in how you go about using the medicine from the plant. Sometimes, this guidance even extends so far as to guide you on how you go about sharing the medicine. 

If you are reading these words, you’ve likely felt a call of some sort. This calling to work with plant medicine and study the ways of herbalism comes in varying forms and degrees, so there’s no need to go about comparing your call to another. You will know your call when it arrives along your path. 

The next question you might be heading towards, where can you go with this calling?

Herbalism’s Many Paths

That’s entirely up to you, and the plants. Your herbalism path will begin to bloom and unfold as it is ready. Working with plants is a science, even though it seems a lot more exciting and fun than your average biology class. 

To safely work with and harness the benefits of herbal medicine, you will need proper guidance. What exactly is ‘proper guidance?’ Most often, such guidance can be drawn up from reliable texts recommended by a certified herbalist or an elder teacher with years of practice secured under their belt. 

Your best bet? A solid mix of the two, plus an abundance of time out in the field, in your kitchen or wherever you process your herbs, and the first-hand experience brought about by such. Herbalism is a careful science, really, and might a blend of many methods and styles for you to find your path at first.

Under the broader term of herbalism, a few practices stand out for their differing methods and traditions. Here are a couple more specific traditions:

Traditional Chinese Medicine

  • Ancient medicine system of China
  • The second-largest medical system in the world (following Western Medicine)
  • Requires extensive training

Traditional Western Herbalism

  • Draws from Europe and the Americas traditions
  • Emphasizes the study of Indigenous methods
  • Often weaves folk medicine into practices

Ayurveda

  • A sister science to yoga
  • Originated in ancient India
  • Studies extend beyond herbal remedies

Naturopathy

  • Combines natural therapies with modern science and Western standards
  • Most licensed naturopaths have also received complete medical training from an accredited university in the West

Origins of Herbalism

Herbs are about as ancient as any existing ‘thing.’ Dial back the clock 60,000 years, and what information do modern humans have on such a time? Well, we know Paleolithic humans were hunters and gatherers, but farming and modern agriculture were far and away from their minds. Ancient humans ate wild animals, insects, greens, grasses, nuts, and fruits. 

There are conflicting opinions on whether or not Paleolithic humans ate more veggies than meat. The region where one lived certainly would play into this. 

While nothing is for sure, there is some evidence supporting the idea that humans were using herbs as medicine during these ancient days. 

Such an occurrence way back then is not much of a surprise, given that ancient humans had a curiosity that drove us to where we are today, and they depended on their environment far more than modern-day humans.

The Ebers Papyrus

Written around 1500 BCE, the Ebers Papyrus listed over 850 herbal medicines. Presented on a clay tablet found in Ancient Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq, it seems as if the Ancient Egyptians created the first solid record of herbalism. 

You might wonder, are any of the herbs written down still used today? Indeed, they are! Aloe vera, basil, belladonna, cardamom, dill, turmeric, and poppy were all featured on the clay for their healing benefits. 

Chinese Herbal Traditions

Around the same time, if not earlier, as the publication (of sorts) of the Ebers Papyrus, herbal remedies found their way to consistent use in China. Ch’ien Nung, a Chinese emperor, wrote Pen Tsao, which compiled around 365 remedies.

Thank you, Hippocrates

Back in the day, a lot of ‘doctors’ attributed illness and disease to god and superstition. Hippocrates, a Greek physician, thought otherwise and eventually spent two decades in prison due to his disbelief of the practices.

He famously wrote, “Let your foods be your medicines, and your medicines your food.” He was far ahead of his time, and those who still scoff at herbalism might benefit from reading some of his still relevant thoughts and teachings. From what can be found, Hippocrates seemed to have used numerous herbal remedies in his practices.

Hippocrates used willow bark as a means of lessening fevers and pains. Cut to the 19th century, and scientists used willow to make the now widely used aspirin. 

Peak Herbalism Years

The 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries saw the flourishing of herbalism around the globe. Up until this book, herbal writings were primarily in Latin or Greek but were becoming increasingly available as English texts.

Herbalism was never truly an ‘elitist’ or ‘rare’ practice and has remained available to all throughout its years of being. In the 1600s, Nicholas Culpeper, an herbalist, botanist, physician, and astrologer, shared herbal medicine with the poor in an attempt to spread medical information to all communities. His peers scoffed at his work, but he continued despite their judgment.

The Eclectics

The 19th century brought about a fair amount of shifts for herbalism. Not only was aspirin born of willow bark, but the Eclectics, a group of physicians, melded herbal remedies with other substances and treatments to adequately treat patients. They moved beyond the bloodletting and mercury treatments of popular medicine at the time to create something more holistic (and likely less painful and harmful).

Organizations Begin to Form

Modern medicine became more organized with the creation of the Council on Medical Education and the American Medical Association regulating practices more rigidly in the late 19th and early 20th century. 

Earthly inspired medicine, including homeopathy, naturopathy, and chiropractic medicine, was cast aside and no longer recognized as ‘valid.’ With schools offering training in such methods now shut down, herbalism and holistic healing found its progress brought to a halt, at least in the public realm.

Contemporary Practices

While the importance of regulation is essential and worthy of respect (without it, bloodletting might still be considered a great form of treatment), herbalism was hurting from its dismissal. In recent decades, though, herbalism found its way back into the forefront of modern medicine. 

Schools and doctors are becoming more and more available to patients seeking the ancient roots and wisdom offered by Earth’s various plants. 

New books line our shelves and herbalists fill our social media feeds with free information on how to begin working with herbs. If you are walking around your local grocery store, you might have noticed an increase in demand for herbal offerings. 

The boom of essential oils in modern media and sales says it all. Mainstream society seems to have welcomed the use of herbs as a means of treatment. Thanks to this shift, the schools and ancient traditions are finding their footing once again.

Learning From Respected Elders

The Elders of the herbalism community have earned their place. It is worth noting, though, that some have ‘fallen from grace’ in more recent years. Due to these events, it’s essential to take the time to research the teachers in your region. 

Here are a few boxes that a teacher should check:

  • Qualified under some unifying body
    • Trust your best judgment. You can also contact the American Herbalists Guild, a non-profit, for reliable references or ask a local herbal store/apothecary you trust.
  • Inclusive language
  • The teacher has consistently updated their education & credentials with modern practices
  • Respect for the teacher-student relationship
  • Reasonable & fair tuition or work exchange
  • Teachings include discussions and discourse on
    • Colonization
    • Ethical practices
    • Sustainable practices
    • Safety in sharing herbal medicine
    • Honoring the land
    • Emphasis on respect of all students & community

Due to the teachers above who recently found their unethical and unjust methods exposed to the public, present-day teacher-student relationships are held to a higher standard. If you end up seeking a teacher beyond that of an author of a book, ensure that you are treated properly. 

Your teacher should hold themselves accountable for respectably teaching you herbalism. If any red flags pop up along the road of your relationship, use your voice and express your concerns. After all, your wellbeing should be prioritized, not cast aside for the sake of learning or making an income.

Herbalism 101

Answering the bare minimum questions because, why not? Who knows what you know, and even if you have a fair amount of herbal knowledge amassed, it is always a good idea to circle back and check the facts. 

Even decades into your work and studies, take the time to check in on the updated studies and science behind herbalism as it’s growing more vast and dependable every year.

What Is An Herb

Yes, this is really being answered right now. An herb is considered, medicinally, to be any plant or part of a plant that can be used for therapeutic value. As in, the plant works to help someone more tangibly, like healing a cold sore, for instance.

What Is Herbal Medicine

AKA phytotherapy, herbal medicine melds the knowledge of traditional plant medicine with present-day medical studies. This way, herbs can more readily be brought into modern treatment and healing with the backing of reliable and valid scientific research and studies.

What Is Herbalism

Herbalism falls under the practice herbalists partake in, one where they are licensed practitioners and have received proper training in the realm of herbal medicine. The goal of most herbalists is similar to that of medical doctors – they aim to use their form of medicine to aid in the healing and sustainable health and longevity of a patient.

Herbs Defined & Outlined

The use of herbs and their medicine varies greatly, depending upon the teacher, herbalist, individual needs, and regional availability. Some herbs are more potent than others, and some individuals should avoid using specific herbs entirely due to pre-existing conditions or sensitivities. Outlined below are some more broadly available herbs, a few herbal options prime for home-growth, and a sprinkle of herbs used often in cooking and kitchen work.

Widely Accessible Herbs And Their Health Benefits

With the many climates and regions of our Earth, a wild abundance of herbs can be found throughout every valley, mountainside, jungle, and seaside scape. Below, some of the more commonly found and better-known herbs are detailed with their benefits and some guidelines shared. 

St. John’s Wort

  • Balances neurotransmitters
  • Boosts mood

Ginseng

  • Aids in relaxation
  • Boosts energy
  • Do not consume if pregnant or on blood thinners

Oatstraw

  • Consume as a tea or herbal infusion
  • Lessens symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • Soothes symptoms of arthritis
  • Boosts sexual functioning

Red Raspberry Leaf

  • Rich in Vitamin B & C, potassium, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, and iron
  • Antioxidant-rich
  • Boosts immune system
  • Incudes labor during pregnancy
  • Relieves cramps

Lemon Balm

  • In the mint family
  • Used to aid in digestive problems
  • Lessens bloating
  • Soothes menstrual cramps
  • Calms toothaches

Chamomile

  • Aids in deep sleep
  • Lessens anxiety

Reishi

  • Mushroom-derived
  • Aids in deep sleep
  • Boosts the immune system
  • Lowers blood pressure

Chaga

  • Mushroom-derived
  • Boosts energy
  • Slows the aging process
  • Lowers cholesterol
  • Supports healing of the skin after sun exposure
  • Fights inflammation

Guarana

  • Caffeinated more than coffee
  • Suppresses appetite

Herbs To Grow At Home And Their Health Benefits

The herbs detailed below can all be grown rather abundantly, for the most part, in any given home. In this case, no need to trek out into the field to gather your herbs and begin to cultivate your relationship, knowledge, and understanding of their varied uses. 

With your herbs growing in your space, you can simplify your practice a bit, making this a stellar way to go about beginning your herbalism path.

Dandelion

  • Rich in folate, magnesium, fiber, calcium, iron, Vitamins A, C, and E
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Soothes acne
  • Aids weight loss
  • Reduces the risk of urinary tract infections

Mallows

  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Soothes sore throat
  • Aid cell renewal
  • Heals minor bites, scratches, wounds, and burns

Sage

  • Consuming internally aids digestion
  • Boosts mood
  • Soothes bites
  • Soothes skin infections
  • Please gather Sage consciously as it is considered endangered in some regions due to over gathering

Echinacea

  • Member of the daisy family
  • Treats cold symptoms
  • Treats flu symptoms
  • Relieves acid indigestion
  • Lessens ADHD symptoms
  • Relieves chronic fatigue syndrome

Milk Thistle

  • Aids liver function
  • Manages blood sugar
  • Manages cholesterol levels

Peppermint

  • Blend of watermint and spearmint
  • Treats IBS
  • Lessens gas, bloating, pain, and diarrhea

Lemon Balm

  • Rub on the skin for natural mosquito repellant
  • Heals bites
  • Combats cold symptoms
  • Soothes upset stomachs

Chickweed

  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Reduces minor aches, pains
  • Lessens menstrual cramps

Herbs To Grow In Your Kitchen And Their Health Benefits

When preparing food for others, take the time to check in on their preferences and current states, as some herbs might not aid them in healing despite your intention. Serve food and herbal medicine with grace, never forcing folks to partake in the practice themselves unless they are adequately aware of the benefits and potential effects.

Turmeric

  • Strengthens the endothelium (tissue, a single layer of cells lining some organs in the body)
  • Reduces blood clots
  • Reduces inflammation

Cayenne

  • Increases blood flow

Rosemary

  • Increases circulation
  • Eases joint pain (when applied topically)

Ginger

  • Thins blood
  • Increases circulation
  • Aids digestion

Gingko Biloba

  • Dilates blood vessels

Parsley

  • Increases potassium absorption in the kidneys
  • Reduces bloating/constricting of blood vessels

Common Language & Practices

Elixirs, tinctures, & tonics, oh my! What exactly are these bottled up potions on the shelves of your local apothecary? How did they end up as potent and full of purpose? Well, thanks to the careful notation of both ancient and contemporary herbalists, breaking the details down for you is relatively simple. 

Next time you are out shopping for a new herbal remedy or are unsure what to do with the recent clover you gathered sustainably from your local fields, keep these definitions in mind. When manufacturing any of the following, ensure that you are abiding by protocol and have a teacher or guide helping you along the way. Consume & utilize your herbal remedies safely.

What Is A tincture

A concentrated liquid extract created from an herbal blend or single herbal strain. Typically, a tincture comes from herbs soaked with other plant or Earth-born essences in alcohol. The mixture is left to sit for a few weeks for it to activate potently.

What Is A Salve

Herbal-infused oils mixed with a wax. Most of the time, beeswax ends up in salves. To lengthen shelf-life, Vitamin E oil might an addition to a blend. Salves are applied topically.

What Is A Syrup

Herbal-infused, concentrated blend using honey or sugar. Consume syrups internally.

What Is A Flower Essence

Flower-infused spring water. Typically, flower essences are preserved with alcohol, though less alcohol is used than in a tincture. Dr. Bach developed flower essences in the early 20th century. Consume essences topically or internally.

Valid Textual Resources

Some herbal textbooks are more popular than others, some differ on opinion, and others need a good bit of updating. Specific texts are region-specific and might detail plants in The Rocky Mountains, and if you live in Northern California, that is really of no help to you. 

While it’s essential to have a wide range of knowledge, consider beginning your studies within the realm of the plants and herbs abundantly available near where you live at present. That way, you can cultivate field experience and interact with the herbs more consistently, rather than merely getting to know them through the pages of a textbook.

No matter where you live and which lands you choose to explore, the below texts are some of the best options on the shelves, as listed by the American College of Healthcare Sciences & from personal practice:

  • General Herbalism
    • The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual – James & Ajana Green
    • The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism: Basic Doctrine, Energetics, and Classification – Matthew Wood
    • The Woman’s Handbook of Healing Herbs: A Guide to Natural Remedies – Deb Soule
    • A Kid’s Herb Book – Lesley Tierra
    • Body into Balance: An Herbal Guide to Holistic Self-Care – Maria Noel Groves
  • Animal Care
    • Dr. Kidd’s Herbal Dog/Cat Care – Randy Kidd, D.V.M
  • Foraging & Field Guides
    • Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West – Michael Moore
    • Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate – John Kallas
  • Biographies
    • The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest – Jack Nesbit
    • Sastun: One Woman’s Apprenticeship with a May Healer and Their Efforts to Save the Vani – Rosita Arvigo
  • Latin Learning
    • Latin for Gardeners: Over 3,000 Plant Names Explained and Explored -Lorraine Harrison

Sustainable and Ethical Responsibilities

With our Earth craving some TLC and asking all humans to treat her lands and beings with greater kindness, the respect and ethics of herbalism have never rung so true. Herbalists are caretakers for the Earth, as they are using the plants and land for their benefits.

In the same way as to how a mechanic respects and comes to understand every aspect and piece of a car, herbalists must come to know and deeply respect their work – the land. 

Outlined below are the three main precepts of herbalism, though there are many more that you will come to know from working hand to Earth with your herbs.

The Three Precepts of Herbalism

  1. You can never be too confident – What plant are you dealing with here? Are you 100% positive about the difference between a poison or stinging variation and a tame strain? Check once, twice, and a final time for luck. And, mainly, to be sure you aren’t going to harm yourself or another by touching or consuming this plant. If you have a sliver of doubt in mind, find a trusted teacher or resource to verify.
  2. You can never be too careful – Is this herb going to make you feel better? Has this herb caused adverse reactions in the past? Take the consumption and sharing of herbs very seriously, especially when you’re just beginning to consume and share herbal wisdom. Did you remember the right weight, dose, smell, time, and what not in the preparation and bottling of the herbal remedy? Again, check and double-check yourself and your work. Be careful of the areas where you are preparing your herbs – are the countertops, tools, and your hands clean? Are all containers sterilized properly?
  3. You can never be too respectful – As mentioned beforehand, were your gathering and harvesting methods respectful to our Earth? Did you take just what you needed? Did you mind the surrounding areas? Did you take your time in gathering? Slow down as you process and work with your herbs. Allow them to guide you. Invite a conscious ritual into your process.

Sharing Herbalism With Grace

Some earlier moments touched briefly on how to go about sharing herbalism, but an entire section dedicated to such information and thought is necessary. In the world of gathering and sharing herbs, the emphasis of respect, sustainability, and ethics all-around has grown to be as pronounced as it is for a good reason. Herbalism stands as an ancient practice, despite only recently receiving recognition for its scientifically backed benefits. 

When dealing and connecting with ancient medicine, honoring the cultures, ancestors, and paths which led to present-day knowledge and materials is a must. Furthermore, the maintenance of such honor, respect, and wisdom falls into the hands of contemporary herbalists. 

If herbalism has called to you, as a personal use path or a full-fledged career-building scenario, these ancient ways and Earthly medicines are asking you to hold space for them throughout the modern discourse. Not only that, but within the present context of climate change, modern herbalists and Earth allies must take their work up a notch – becoming voices for these plants and their goodness literally. 

When unsustainable or unethical work occurs towards or in the region of ancient plants (so, basically everywhere), see what you can do to be a vocal ally. Share the magic word, through your inner circles, within your community, or on social media, so that more folks might come to understand the sacred nature of herbs and how the preservation of Earth is vital for ancient herbal practices to continue to share their healing with humans.

Paving Your Path

Where you wander from here is, again, entirely up to you. Which plants you choose to connect with and tend to in your garden are all your creation. You might pave a path with an emphasis on personal usage, without ever sharing your knowledge with others. 

On the other hand, perhaps healing the wider population is entirely why you are browsing through herbal texts in the first place, and you see yourself at a certified school down the road. 

No matter where you see yourself going, know that the ancient wisdom and spirit of plants are there to guide you, as silly as that might sound upon first reading. Show up for yourself in a way that leads to continuing studies and never ending curiosity for the gifts of herbalism.

Allow yourself to become and remain a perpetual student of this ancient vein of wisdom. Invest in your practice with a careful eye, pave your path with respect and slow the cultivation of personal methods, while allowing the steps ahead to come about as they are ready. 

As you begin to wander this path, weave herbalism into your daily routine in some form or another. Rise with your plants, talk to your plants (no, you are not crazy), and grant yourself space to truly find proper time for your studies of the many herbs Earth offers you.