Discover how to learn about medicinal herbs by considering an array of resources and lenses into human health
If you’re interested in herbalism, realize that herbalism is a vast field, where people and plants meet in regard to human health on an array of levels: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and behavioral. People use herbs for acute and chronic reasons, constitutional reasons and more. We might reach for help from medicines and nutrition to help us in our lives, not only for survival and biological function, but also for well-being in the body, mind and spirit.
This is what herbalism is, and today I am providing some ways on how to learn about medicinal herbs and study herbalism.
How to learn about medicinal herbs: There is the plant side and the human side
So again, there’s the plant side and there’s the human side. When you’re applying yourself to it, ask yourself what it is that you’re interested in. If you are more interested in the plant side, then of course, stay interested in that direction and start learning on your own while you’re also seeking help from others. Learning on your own would be getting to know the plants in your own backyard, and by that I mean your local geographical region. It could be the Northeast or it could mean your corner of the state or county that you live in.
How to learn about medicinal herbs: Being with the plants and using books
Collect field books, including plant ID books. Learn the plants that like to be near people, like urban plants, vacant-lot plants, plants growing in the cracks of sidewalks. Know your trees, your shrubs, your vines, your perennials, your biennials and annuals. Learn the plants that frequent gardens, grow in the paths between the gardens, on the periphery of human activity. Learn the plants that frequent fields, meadows, forests, or whatever ecosystem you have nearby, and don’t forget the transition zones where different ecosystems overlap.
Get to know these plants. Get to know them for the sentient, conscious beings that they are. Get to know them, not in pill form, not in tincture or oil form, but as plants. Plants that you sit with, that you admire for their existential is-ness, for their beauty and their aroma. If you know they’re not poisonous, then get to know them for their taste. Learn how they are in and of themselves. Learn about plants that way directly, and then get more specialized books for your particular area. By “specialized” I mean books that focus on medicinal plants, or edible plants, or plants of a particular ecosystem. This is all something you can do on your own. Also, don’t just rely on the internet. Get real books that you can browse through to engage your curious mind, and that you can carry in your daypack on your hikes.
Acquire books of that nature and that’s going to segue into Materia Medica books, or books that offer detailed medicinal information on many plants in an organized, well-formatted manner. There are some old classics that you should know. It is important to not disregard the old classics which provide valuable wisdom on the plant medicine side and on the human health side.
Get Nicholas Culpeper’s The Complete Herbal. which was published in 1653, and more recently, the double-volume set by Maud Grieve entitled A Modern Herbal, originally published in 1931. These are great, easily accessible resources for herbs used in Europe and the Western hemisphere. There are also extensive Materia Medica books for Chinese and Indian herbs, as well as for many indigenous traditions. You can also reach for volumes published by more contemporary writers. There is an explosion of information happening right now, and even more so in the world of mushrooms.
If you’re of a particular ethnic or persuasion, learn about herbs from your culture and its history, whether it’s European or American (North, Central, South), Asian or African.
I always favor the herbs that are growing in my backyard. But if there’s a special herb that I know would be ideal for somebody, and it grows on another side of the world and I can get it, then I will, if I know it is from a good source, just like I purchase olive oil, ginger, and other foods and spices from other parts of the world.
There is a vast amount that you can learn from books that focus on human health — all kinds, old and new. Pick your lens: Western traditional, Western modern allopathic, First Nations people, other indigenous peoples, Chinese, Tibetan, Ayurveda, and the list goes on. You can start to learn these on your own.
How to learn about medicinal herbs and human health: Consider yourself as you learn
This is very important, whether you’re learning from a teacher, a school, a new lens, or a new tradition, it is a really fine dance, a happy zone that you’re striving for. On the one hand, put aside (as best you can) your filters, biases and interpretation devices when learning something new from another tradition, and refrain (as best you can) from trying to translate it into something you are already familiar with. It’s important to learn things new and fresh for what they are. On the other hand, don’t disregard yourself and your own life and experience in the process. You’re unique, an ongoing unfolding of experiences, concepts and beliefs that has led you down this path to where and who you are now. Make what you learn your own, bring it in, learn it for what it is, and also let it percolate deep down until it gets into your marrow. Allow what you learn to mix with you so it comes back as wisdom, and not merely knowledge.