If you’re wondering how to become an herbalist, it’s important to know which types of herbalism you want to focus on
I have been teaching herbalism for over twenty years, and have been studying or practicing it for nearly double that time.
I have watched herbalism rise from obscurity through its early renaissance in the late 1970s-early 1980s to what appears to be a new and unprecedented popularity, at least where I live in western Massachusetts.
Doing something for a long time in the same place has its benefits, and so my reputation as a clinical and community herbalist and as an educator is solid. Plus, I have been teaching a survey course at UMass called Topics in Herbalism for over fifteen years. I am saying all this not so much to toot my horn, but more to explain why I receive so many inquiries from people asking me the same question: “How do I become an herbalist?”
Before one can become an herbalist, this question must be asked: What is an Herbalist?
When people ask me how to become an herbalist, I turn the table and ask them what it is it they think herbalism is and what part of it interests them. The field of herbalism is vast and multifaceted. And it is still in its formative years as a field of practice and business, so there is plenty of room for creativity.
If I had to break it down into major fields, however, this is how I see it:
How to become an herbalist: Herbalists as Health-care practitioners
These are the people keenly interested in people’s health and helping with counsel.
Under this umbrella, there is also a lot of diversity. And furthermore, there are plenty of people who have another health-care practitioner credential — acupuncturists, body workers, counselors/therapists, chiropractors, naturopathists, energy and shamanic healers — and include herbalism as a component of their practice. Of the people who call themselves herbalists, such as myself, I know of (and hear people described) as clinical herbalists, community herbalists, folk herbalists, indigenous-trained herbalists, wise-woman herbalists, energetic herbalists, phytotherapists, and more
There are also people who work with plant medicines in other ways, but who would not necessarily call themselves herbalists per se, but rather aromatherapists, homeopaths, or flower essence practitioners. I could write a blog (or a series) on each one of these distinctions. What they all have in common is that they are first and foremost health-care practitioners — directly, actively and ongoingly involved with people who need help. As a last note, you don’t have to limit yourself to one category.
Personally, I try to peg myself as minimally as possible with titles and monikers. But I am a community herbalist, because the people in my small town know they can count on me as a community service. And I am a clinical herbalist, in that I have had a lot of intensive education and training, and I see people in a more formal setting outside of my local community. Some people and peers have called me an energetic herbalist as well.
How to become an herbalist: Herbalists as growers
Many people find that they are more interested in the plant side of becoming an herbalist, and so they devote much more of their time and energy to the growing of medicinal plants. These are the farmers and gardeners.
There are several longstanding and highly reputable herbal farms — Healing Spirits Farm in south-central New York immediately comes to mind. This is a promising new field, and new savvy herb farms are beginning to crop up all over. Three in my immediate area are Sawmill-Herb Farm, Foxtrot Farm and Full Kettle Farm.
I would not consider myself a grower, although I do grow a lot of my own medicines. Clearpath Medicine Gardens are beautiful and of respectable size, but they serve more as teaching gardens and sanctuary for plants and pollinators as well as the students and volunteers who tend them. Being in and tending an herb garden is medicine all by itself. Clearpath Medicine Gardens also do provide me with a lot of the medicines in my apothecary.
Growers also provide a valuable environmental service when they cultivate plant medicines that are more often wildcrafted, but which have become over-harvested, threatened or endangered. It also reduces negative impact on sensitive environments. Conscientious herbalists will usually choose to purchase organically-cultivated plant medicines that are threatened in the wild — such as goldenseal and American ginseng — even though the wildcrafted price is often cheaper, and even though many herbalists consider plants that grow wild and on their own to be medicinally more potent. It doesn’t matter. First and foremost is the health and welfare of the species and their ecosystems. Buying organically-cultivated, sensitive herbs from sustainable growers is the right thing to do.
Herbalists as wildcrafters:
Conscientious wildcrafting is an art and a commitment. In a sense, we become caretakers and managers of forest and field. Being adept at sustainable gathering methods, understanding sensitive ecologies, having an awareness of a plant’s status (invasive, introduced, native, abundant, uncommon, endangered, rare), are all part of the trade of wildcrafting. Wildcrafting is part of my trade as well, mostly because I need to sustain an extensive apothecary, and I always prefer to have direct contact with the plants whenever possible. It is also part of the curriculum of Clearpath School of Herbal Medicine (Wildcrafting Immersion).
Herbalists as product makers:
This field is vast, growing fast, and very diverse and creative. The success of high-quality, small-batch, artisan-made products – such as microbrew beers and restaurants that use locally-sourced ingredients — has spilled over into the herbal product world. Here the biggest challenge is coming to terms with the demands of the FDA and all the health and bureaucratic regulations. But it doesn’t seem to be stopping people, and I am glad for it.
There are so many more products out there now, and I am a big supporter of small-batch, artisan-made products. I like to know the person who makes products I use: tea blends, tinctures, salves, oils, lotions, powders, elixirs, hydrosols, syrups, beverages, and so on. This side of herbalism also requires being comfortable and savvy in the wholesale-retail world. Clearpath Herbals products are mostly available for health clients and the local community, but they are not the only or even the biggest part of my herbal enterprise.
Herbalist as teachers:
This is not usually an initial reason why people become interested in herbalism, but it becomes a natural extension for many herbalists, myself included. I have a Masters in Science Education and taught in public secondary schools for twelve years, so it was very easy and natural for me to add this to my repertoire as an herbalist. I consider myself equally a health-care practitioner and an educator. It is vitally important to me that we have as many well-educated and trained herbalists as possible for this and future generations, and as widely spread and easily accessible as possible, for all populations.
Herbalist as researchers and writers:
Like teachers, I don’t think this is an initial reason why people become herbalists, but I am ever so grateful that many become ardent researchers and writers, helping to keep this crucially important part of herbalism alive. It would be a grave disservice if we did not keep growing and learning and asking questions and discovering new things and sharing it all with others. I have been too busy to dip into this world, but things may be changing here as well. Stay tuned.