Louise Harmon January, 2014
Growing in the Green Craft
Lately I have been feeling the restless need to formally expand my herbal knowledge. After much consideration, I applied to an advanced herbal study program beginning early next year. Along with my acceptance into this program came the realization that I would not be able to competently juggle working a full-time job, keeping up with my herbal course work and contributing to Pagan Pages, so I have decided to take a hiatus from The Mugwort Chronicles for 2014. I thought what better topic for this last column than a discussion about available educational resources for the aspiring herbalist.
Today the abundance of books, websites, blogs, on-line and community-based classes available to herbalists is overwhelming, but not all those resources are equally helpful. So, how do you choose which ones are credible that will add to your knowledge?
There are many different traditions when it comes to herbal medicine. Some incorporate the botanical practices from other cultures, such as the Ayurveda from India and Traditional Chinese Medicine, also known as TCM. There exists within the United States a multitude of practices including Folk, Native American and Traditional Western herbalism, to name a few. For the individual just starting to learn more about botanical medicine, my advice is to read some of the really good basic books to help you determine which tradition appeals to you. Here are a few of the books I found really helpful in getting started.
I think the herbalist’s Way by Nancy & Michael Phillips should be the first book all aspiring herbalists read. The authors have done a great job of giving an overarching view of many aspects of herbalism and discuss not only which herbs to use and their preparation, but also advice on growing herbs and interviews with many of our leading herbalists from a variety of different traditions.
The second book I would recommend is Practical herbs by Henriette Kress. Henriette’s book is simple in its approach, but contains a wealth of information. Its uncomplicated format makes it a great book for novice as well as more experienced herbalists not wanting to thumb through a wordy book looking for information. Henriette also has a wonderful website filled with a ton of information, as well as some classic older books which she has made available on-line: http://www.henriettesherbal.com/
Rosemary Gladstar is one of our treasured pioneering American herbalists whose career has spanned decades. I have the original version of her book, The Family herbalist, which has been reprinted as Rosemary Gladstar’s herbal for Vibrant Health. I like Rosemary’s approach to working with herbs which closely aligns with my own philosophy of practice. Her book contains practical, easy to understand information in a very readable format.
Healing Wise by Susun Weed is a great introduction to the Wise Woman Tradition of healing, using plants to help nourish and tonify the body. It’s a great book for new herbalists as the plants discussed are generally quite safe.
herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth by Sharol Tilgner, ND is a bit more of an adventurous read for beginners, but I like how Sharol’s formulations are listed by systems and how well she describes plant properties. She also has an on-line Materia Medica that is a great resource: http://www.herbaltransitions.com/MateriaMedica.html
The herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook by James Green gives lots of good information on processing plants for medicinal use.
There are many, many more wonderful books available, far too many to name. Some words of caution, though as older herbals (1900’s-1970’s vintage) may contain information that today we know to be harmful. One vintage book I read recommended storing dried roots in a glass jar with…moth balls to help preserve them! For those new to herbalism, please do not try this. Also, not all herbal books are equal in the credibility of the material presented. In other words, until you gain some solid knowledge, it is wise to stick with well recognized authors. In addition to those listed above, other authors to look for are David Winston, Michael and Leslie Tierra, Aviva Romm, Michael Moore, David Hoffman and Paul Bergner.
Besides conventional book stores and the public library, herbal books can be found listed on eBay, Amazon, and at yard sales and thrift stores. I recently purchased an updated mint copy of Michael Tierra’s book, The Way of herbs, for less than $4 at a local thrift store.
Many herbalists have blogs which contain wonderful information. Some of my favorites are:
-Aviva Romm: http://avivaromm.com/
-Kiva Rose: http://bearmedicineherbals.com/about
-Rosalee de la Foret: http://www.methowvalleyherbs.com/
herbalist 7 Song regularly posts really great information on his Facebook page. Find him under
His website is: http://7song.com/
YouTube has some very good tutorials, but please be careful when searching for herbal videos. Stick to ones by well known, reputable herbalists (refer to the authors listed above) until you have some solid knowledge to help you discern what is safe, sound, reliable information. YouTube videos by Susun Weed, Rosemary Gladstar and John Gallagher of Learning Herbs are very informative and easy to follow along.
So, you have read a bunch of books but still feel like you are in the dark about herbal medicine? Consider taking an on-line or correspondence course. There are quite a few offered, many from notable herbalists, covering a wide price range. If you go to Mountain Rose herbs’ website and click on the Learn about herbal Education tab on the left, you will find listings for on-line and correspondence courses as well as actual schools throughout the United States:
When I was looking for a more formal approach to studying herbal medicine, I found Heart of herbs Master herbalist Education Program thru Mountain Rose Herbs’ website. The course provided me with a solid basic education to build on. I have also taken some great on-line courses from Learning herbs: http://www.learningherbs.com/
Look into what is available in your local and surrounding communities as far as workshops, gatherings, field trips and hands-on herbal schools of study. Sometimes it is difficult to ‘get connected’ to local herbal happenings, but once you start finding local resources, you will continue to find many more. Ask at herb shops, health food stores, food co-ops. Look in those small, local newspapers which advertise community events. Ask friends and coworkers-you will be surprised what you may find. One of my coworkers handed me a flyer advertising a Portland-based herb school-one I never heard of. She found it at her local food co-op and the school advertised, ctos School of herbal and Botanical Studies, turned out to have one of the best programs of study I ever took. Due to the high cost of advertising, some really wonderful programs and events are promoted solely by word of mouth or a flyer posted in a shop.
Although book-learning is important, getting out and ‘meeting’ the plants face-to-face is more important. Seeing how and where plants grow, especially how they change throughout the seasons is an invaluable part of your education as an herbalist. Look for local “plant walks” in your area. If you are having difficulty finding a group to go with, start by walking in your own neighborhood and learning to identify the weeds you walk past each day. You probably never realized the abundance of healing plants all around you, many of which, sadly, are considered pests and are sprayed with herbicides. Some easier plants to identify, depending on your geographical location, include Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), Plantain (Plantago spp), Chickweed (Stellaria media), St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), Mullein (Verbascum thapsus), wild Rose (Rosa spp). Invest in a really good field guide. I like Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar & Mackinnon. Michael Moore wrote several field guides covering different parts of the US which are considered to be excellent resources.
Always make certain of the identify of any plant you harvest. Many beginners mistake Cat’s Ear (Hypochaeris radicata) for Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)-a mistake that won’t kill you. However, mistaking Hemlock (Conium maculatum) for Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) will. Obtain a sketchbook and draw the plants you come across, noting their leaves, flowers, seeds and roots. You do not have to be a great artist to do this. Your sketchbook will help you remember important details about plants you find. Be sure to include the location of where you found them so you can find them again. Learn to use both common name and the plant’s botanical Latin name to avoid confusion. Since there are very few Latin scholars running around these days, you are unlikely to run into someone who will correct your pronunciation.
Be ethical in your wildcrafting, should you decide to gather wild growing plants. herbalist Howie Brounstein has an excellent article and checklist about wildcrafting practices on his website: http://botanicalstudies.net/wildcrafting/wildcrafting_beginners.php
If you are having difficulty meeting like-minded ‘green folks’, consider starting an herbal study group. You do not need to be an expert to do this. Pick one herb, have everyone research it independently, and when you meet again, share what everyone has learned. You do not have to host this in your home. Our local coffee shop is a mecca for study group meetings, so be creative. If you have a local herb shop in your community, approach them about meeting in their space, reminding them that it will possibly introduce their shop to new clientele.
Consider starting your own herb garden. You do not need a huge amount of room and many herbs can be grown in pots, if you are careful to provide for their specific needs. I have some of my more delicate herbs in pots, such as Bay Laurel, Rosemary, and the Sages, so that they can be moved to a protected area when the weather begins to get cold. A warning here: herb gardens do have a way of taking over. Mine started out quite small and has tripled in size.
You will never learn everything there is to know about plant medicine. The more you learn, the more aware you will become of what you do not know. Do not be intimidated…just jump in: pick up a book, go on a plant walk, create a study group, or attend a workshop. You probably know more today about plant medicine than you did yesterday and will likely know more tomorrow than you do today. Remember to generously share your knowledge with others as others have shared with you. Plant medicine is our collective birthright, our global heritage for which we are the keepers for future generations. Help keep the circle of plant healing knowledge strong and unbroken.
This information is offered for educational purposes and is not intended to take the place of personalized medical care from a trained healthcare professional. The reader assumes all risk when utilizing the above information.
Copyright© 2013 Louise Harmon
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