Updated: Jun 19, 2020
Someone once asked me, “How do I know if I’m ready to call myself an herbalist?”
“If you practice using herbs, of course you’re an herbalist!” was my immediate response.
Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that question. What does it really mean to call yourself an herbalist? As a clinical herbalist and educator, I encounter the spectrum of herbalists from the very beginner to top level herbalists that I myself aspire to. And as one in an area where herbalists are few and far between and the craft is not well understood, I also encounter a lot of people who don’t necessarily realize that herbalism is something that some actually do as a livelihood. For the average person, the herbalist is either an illusive fairytale character or that annoying MLM rep on their facebook page. In the United States, herbalism is not a licensed profession, and there is often confusion about what exactly it is that we do, and even more confusion about how we do it. Its funny how a practice that was once so ingrained in daily life has become so obscured. But today I aim not to define the herbalist, but rather talk about how we use our craft and why it matters.
Humankind has been centralized around ethnobotanical practices since the dawn of our existence. It is only now, in our modern era of individuation and commoditization that working with plants suddenly needs to be defined as a vocation rather than a lifeway.
So what is the modern day definition of Herbalism? Herbalism is about the relationships between a person and a plant, a people and the landscape. An herbalist is an individual who devotes their time and attention to developing and strengthening relationships with plants so that they can ally with them to help themselves and others. We are constantly striving for deeper understanding of ourselves, the plants, and the interconnectedness of our worlds.
Do you have to be a professional practitioner to call yourself an herbalist? Not necessarily. So does working with herbs in any commodified sense make you an herbalist? Absolutely not. There are many individuals in the herbal industry who are not herbalists.
As herbalists, it is our responsibility to heal not only through the application of a remedy, but through our day-in-day-out life. The habits we form and the way we practice our craft have the ability to make changes on a larger scale than just us or our students or our clients. Whether you use herbs only for yourself, or you work in the herbal industry, you have the power to use herbalism as a tool to either heal systemic issues or to perpetuate them. Like the plants with which we work, we do not exist in isolation, and the impact we have on our communities should always be at the forefront of our minds.
We must not fool ourselves into believing that we are immune to the same afflictions that affect other communities or industries. The herbal industry is chock full of misinformation, privilege, profit-over-people, unhealthy competition, poor quality products, dishonesty, and exploitation. Most of this stems from the commodification of plants and the false perception that plants are a replacement for pharmaceuticals. These issues are not new; through history there have been elitist groups who have attempted to control the practice of herbalism, hoard information, and eradicate folk medicine. What has been retained we owe to herbalists like Nicholas Culpeper, who championed the poor and empowered the layperson, and boldly challenged elitist agendas, and to those unnamed members of community who have bequeathed their knowledge to successive generations (potentially your very own grandmother).
"It groweth more plentifully in Kent than any other country of this land, as namely, in many places on this side of Dartford, along to Southfield, Chatham, and Rochester, and upon Chatham down, hard by the Beacon, and half a mile from Rochester, in a field near a house Selsys." - from Culpeper's The English Physitian, where he discussed not only the virtues, preparations, and administrations of materia medica, but also the precise locations where they could be found growing. Here was discussing Yellow Bugle (Ajuga chamaepitys).
In our society where success of business ventures is measured by stock market success rather than ethical responsibility, we have been conditioned to think that the best entrepreneurial foundation is one that is profit-driven. This is not merely a bad idea; for an herbalist, it is entirely incompatible. Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that herbalists should not strive to be able to support themselves financially with their trade. What I am suggesting, however, is that when we make decisions on the basis of what will make our business financially successful rather than from the place of “how can I serve my community?” we undermine the essential framework of our place as healers and conveyors of plant medicine. While I will readily be the first to suggest that I believe that a good clinical herbalist is worth far more than they charge, I can also attest to the fact that working from a place of fear of being taken advantage of financially distracts us from our work. And we will never be truly successful—successful beyond economic measure—if we are operating from a place of fear.
The global herbal medicine market is projected to reach over $120 billion by 2024, and $400 billion by 2026. That is enormous growth. Mind boggling growth. We as herbalists must work to boost education and understanding of herbal practice and holistic wellness if we have any hope of making the herbal market sustainable and preventing a resource crash. We also need to move past our comfort zone and into territories of resource-based economy and mutual aid; lifeway systems over economic systems. The only sustainable system is a regenerative one, and regenerative systems are based on the premise that if the whole is not well, the individual cannot be well. They are ecology based systems, and they are not just pleasant idealities—they are necessary.
Any holistic healer will acknowledge that good health requires support in a variety of aspects that directly affect our health; nutrition, stress management, sleep, movement. Some will discuss the importance of spiritual hygiene or connection to nature, and some may even discuss life purpose. But how often do we acknowledge the societal impacts on health? Healthy community is one of the most often overlooked aspects of wellness, and that is the reason why communities that disproportionately suffer from pollution, prejudice, lack of resources, lower socioeconomic status, etc. are also the most at risk for physical health issues. The holistic mindset must encompass societal issues. We must strive to practice our craft in symbiotic relation with other people and with our natural environment, as opposed to complacently operating in a system that benefits us at the expense of others.
So if you’re asking yourself, “Should I call myself an herbalist?” ask this instead: “What do I embody in my work with plants? What kind of future am I creating through that work?”
There are so many ways to be an herbalist. What matters is our willingness to learn and how we prioritize our work. We are all at different points in our journey with plants. With humility and open hearts, we can all learn from each other. With respect for our herbalist elders and predecessors, we can maintain and continue handing down the traditions and knowledge that make herbalism coherent. One of the beautiful things about herbalism is that while it takes a lifetime to master, every small part that you learn can be shared in a way that helps your community. That is the “practicing” part in the term “practicing herbalist.” If we acknowledge that even if we are not yet masters of the craft, we have both the ability and responsibility to contribute, then the pressure of needing to have all the answers is lifted. In this way we can cultivate a network of practitioners who work together, as opposed to compete with one another, to move toward a common goal. This type of camaraderie will help elevate the level of awareness within the natural health industry at large and guard against the misinformation and laziness that so often overshadows the work we do and dissuades people from seeking traditional care. The folk healing skills that were once commonplace among families, communities, and tribes have largely been lost. Many of us compensate by seeking conventional medical care, but not all of us have access to or can afford medical care. Marginalized groups, particularly people of color, experience health disparities every day. Even small acts, utilizing whatever knowledge or resources you have, can make a difference to those communities. Maybe that looks like running a free clinic, or maybe that is as simple as reaching out to whoever you buy herbs from and finding out if they were ethically sourced. Maybe it looks like making tea or broth for your neighbor. Maybe that means pushing for a better sick policy at work or turning your lawn into a garden. There are so many ways, big and small, that we can make steps in the right direction. Perhaps more than any other profession, the herbalist can promote healthcare as a fundamental right for all. Our tools are obtainable directly from the earth and knowledge is something that can be passed on without let or hindrance. As a community at large we can both protect the sacredness of our craft and make it accessible to anyone who needs it.
Herbalism is about service to others and communal inclusivity of all the living aspects of the landscape. It is about authentic community. Herbalism is the people’s medicine. It is a lifeway and it is time we reclaim it as such.