Where to begin? Search the Internet and find a ton of sites, products, schools, definitions, books, dried leaf and flower images, and even a World of Warcraft game. With rising interest in alternative and natural approaches to life what was once considered hippy-ish now captures the attention of those interested in holistic ways of health. Curiosity demands information giving way to abundant blogs, books, videos, and social media on herbalism, many authored by the most respected names in botanical medicine. Far from placing myself in that category, I have passionately studied the science and art of herbalism searching for a way to mix it with my nutritionist background. I invite you to delve into all the amazing resources for more information if you so wish.
It seems inconceivable and a bit pompous to write about a rich and vast subject such as herbalism in a defining way. From the dawn of time, there was herbalism. Before pills and capsules or any form of pharmaceutical, there were plants. The world’s number of medicinal plants is estimated in the tens of thousands. The majority of people in the world today, in developing countries or those that use traditional forms of medicines, continue to rely on plant medicines versus manufactured pharmaceuticals. And more than half of manufactured pharmaceuticals are actually ingredients derived from plant materials and packaged in a synthetic form. Verging on modern loss, herbalism now rapidly gains resurgence and recognition, positioning to take its place in the mainstream.
Here in the United States, herb use gets linked to traditional medicinal practices such as Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Native American cultures, but this was not always the case. In early American history during the 1800’s, medical practice was divided into two camps, the allopathic physicians who utilized heroic measures such as bloodletting and intestinal purging and a group of Eclectic physicians, who based their remedies on botanicals. As the realization that heroic measures weakened people so drastically that they rarely returned to health, the Eclectic system gained popularity. This crashed to a halt by the early 1900’s with the publication of the Flexner Report, written at the request of the American Medical Association to elevate and standardize medical education in the US. The report evaluated medical schools calling for practice to be based on scientific and evidence based research. The Eclectic physicians refused to comply as they based their philosophy on remedies that they observed to work, whether proven or not. Eclectic medical schools were forced to close and the practice dissolved. So too, did conventional use of botanicals for concurrently, antibiotics came into being and tradition-based plant remedies did not have the endorsement of research proof.
Today, the practice of herbalism merges the wisdom of tradition with the discoveries of modern science for a system that uses botanical remedies spanning the physical, emotional, and spiritual. As nature is all around us, so too is herbal medicine offering empowerment and independence in our quest for well-being.
Herbalism kindles value and respect for the gifts of nature, the Earth’s donation to wellness. Herbalism allows us to grow or reestablish our connection to energies that plants contribute to life. Herbalism involves use of plants for health and healing. Herbalism is the study of how plants act as medicines.
Plants are everywhere; we love them and take them for granted at the same time. As grains, vegetables and fruits plants are our sustenance; prepared as teas, tinctures and salves our medicines. It is said that plants are the original herbal teachers, mixed with traditions to become mediums of remedy. Research now beginning to validate their use answers questions as to why, but the evidence is in the long success of the plants themselves. Botanical practice today demands science and research, chemical processes of standard extractions, bottled, packaged and tested products. Alternatively, botanical practice is a garden filled with wild weeds and flowers some that come back every year, some in need of replanting, medicines prepared imprecisely with simple methods infused with human energies, lovingly prepared with a purpose in mind. Either way or somewhere in between, if plant remedies did not work herbalism might be extinguished. The wisdom of tradition has kept it alive.
By taking plants into our bodies they become one with us, support, nourish, comfort and restore us. Botanical therapy is smelling a flower, eating a green leafy vegetable, grinding a root for spice, savoring a berry or making a syrup, drinking a tea, or drops of liquid extraction tinctures. Herbalism is a way to amass the science, history, and energy of plants as part of health.
The many guises of the herbalist include practitioner, educator, botanist, grower and wild-crafter, researcher, medicine-maker, community activist and above all lover of the plants. The wise and vibrant faces of herbalists are filled with wisdom and grace. Although an unlicensed profession, underestimate them not. Gentle yet strong, perhaps not credentialed but competent all the same. The early herbalists were wise ones who somehow knew: native women, eastern monks, scholars, alchemists, and healers following traditions from TCM, Ayurveda, Unani Tibb, Greek, Native South or North American cultures. They represent a world of ways to practice herbalism; traditions used for centuries and methods that have healed.
Today herbalism is considered “alternative” although many integrative physicians practicing from a functional approach are discussing a change in the medical paradigm with natural herbal remedies a viable part. Many medical practitioners still consider it surrounded by shamans and witchcraft. The fact that sometimes it is exactly that does not make herbalism unreliable. Central and South American traditional healers still apply herbal medicine in a different way than would be accepted by mainstream medicine. Spiritual customs including ceremony, ritual, words or song are an integral part. Our quest for explanation has sparked study and research of these practices as well.
The work of the herbalist extends to respect and conservation of plants in all the vast landscape varieties, the dessert, the prairie, the rain forest and tropics, the mountains, the meadows, the swamp, on and on, all the places plants grow. The modern herbalist mixes science, earth and return to nature always keeping environmental protection at the core, a place we all can participate.
In fact herbalism, also known as the people’s medicine, names each of us an herbalist. We are herbalists as we add spices to cooking or drink tea. Although botanicals are now processed in sophisticated ways, plants packaged in capsules or tinctures, the herb was originally a kitchen item. Early women, responsible for food preparation were also keepers and knowers of the remedies. Plants women found in the wild foraging for food or grew in their gardens also became their medicines. It can still be used this way today, and by adding seasoning to recipes or eating vegetables and fruits, you are already practicing the people’s medicine.
My teacher, David Winston, a brilliant lifelong herbalist, divides the practice of herbalism into three categories. At the career end of the spectrum, there is the clinical herbalist who works with individuals or other health professionals to provide suggestions on specialized herbal formulas as part of a healthcare regimen. A step down from that is the community herbalist who with wisdom and experience with plants offers the people around him or her a resource for which to turn for remedies that may not require formal medical attention. Perhaps the most beautiful segment is in the home where mothers, fathers, grandparents, friends are using herbs in daily living to support health, prevention of illness and treat minor ailments like colds, bruises, and aches or pains.
Home herbalism is why I began baking with herbs. I was searching for a way of mingling my three passions, herbalism, nutrition and cooking at the same time finding a way for my family to buy in. Full disclosure: my three children do not; my mom does, though. Thank you, Mum.
You may not consider making dinner herbal medicine. It is though. And so is baking. Culinary herbs are the tiniest stars in the vast night sky and as you view them in comparison to big constellations like standardized extracts taken as a pill, the closer you look at them, the brighter they appear. They are the safest and most pleasing way of herbalism.
Enticed by numerous benefits and huge number of herbs, it is easy to become enamored. However, natural does not equate to safe and more is not always better. But the incidence of adverse events from herbs pales in comparison to the amount documented from pharmaceuticals. The difference between using plants as food and stronger remedies is in the formulation, the amount taken and the length of time used. Eating a cupcake infused with chamomile, while it may taste lovely, will likely not offer the medicinal calming effect associated with this herb. Drinking a cup of chamomile tea is soothing and relaxing, this is closer to herbal medicine, drink it every day or take it as a tincture as part of a daily formula and the medicine gets stronger and stronger.
Using herbs in the kitchen is a way to gently translate theory into tangible nourishment and not just with those herbs commonly known. Culinary uses exist for herbs such as calendula, dandelion root, hawthorn, angelica, lemon balm, longan fruit, roses, and so many more. Home herbalism is one of the tributaries on the river of empowerment in caring for yourself and those that you love. Getting to know the plants and their benefits is a means back to reviving herbalism. Plant them in gardens or pots, harvest them and prepare them for use, incorporate them into daily living, cook with them, drink teas, find interest in learning more, and in times of need consult with an herbalist.
There is something about baking that sustains the spirit. Maybe it is the ability to create. Maybe it is the pleasure of the finished product. Maybe it is just the fun of it. Possibly it is the delicious result emerging through the energy of our own hands. In the kitchen a bit ceremony with nature as the honored guest can happen. The beauty of a flower, the freshness of a leaf, the strength of a root, the sweetness of a berry, the toughness of a bark, any of these can be celebrated. This is the magic of herbalism in our kitchen.
Perhaps you have traditions involving herbs either as food or medicine or remember your mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, aunts or uncles using herbs. Please share. I so much want to know. It is my deepest wish for you to practice herbalism with me planting herbs firmly into our health.