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Brief History of Herbalism

According to herbalism is “the study or practice of the medicinal and therapeutic use of plants, now especially as a form of alternative medicine.”

I love the broad but quite accurate definition from ‘The Herbal Handbook’ “...herbalism is the study and practice of the interaction between plants and humanity.”

A very direct definition but herbalism is so much more. Herbalism is about using plant material such as leaves, flowers, fruit, seed, stems, roots and other plant parts to support the the body in healing or in staying healthy. Notice I say “support.” Our body’s are amazing things that can heal and cure themselves when given the care and support they need. Herbalism is an important part in this process.

Herbalism is the oldest known form of medicine and can be found in earliest recorded history. Herbalism is the foundation of all medicinal or healing practices we use today. Whether you are a doctor, pharmacist, naturopath or massage therapist you owe your profession to herbalism.

In North America it is considered a form of alternative medicine but the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 80% of the world’s population use medicinal herbs as their primary health care.


Herbalism and Science…

There are many scientific studies out there that confirm the effectiveness of herbal remedies that were used long before scientific study was a thing. There are many trials in progress hoping to prove even more effective uses. And then there are the trials that neither confirm nor deny...hehe... the use of certain remedies. Sometimes the studies pull the plants apart and only study the constituents not the plant as a whole (as it is used in most herbal medicine.) I personally love it when science confirms what herbalism has known for centuries but I also understand that science, as amazing as it is, is not always as accurate and undeniably true as we would like to think. There are simply too many variables in most scientific studies to prove them more than a theory.

What is an Herbalist?

Herbalists come in many forms. Educators, wild crafters, medicine makers, practitioners, growers and more. (Herbalists are not homeopaths, osteopaths, naturopaths.) All herbalists have a love for plants and a belief in the power of plants.

Herbalists understand that plants have power but they cannot stand alone. Lifestyle changes, sunshine, movement, a deeper look at the emotional status and more are required for true maintenance and healing.

Types of herbal study

All around the world, since the beginning of time people have looked to plants for healing. As with nearly everything else in this world, different cultures have different practice and beliefs when it comes to how they use plants as medicine. Herbal studies fall into different approaches that build the foundations of each type of study. Some are based on knowledge passed down and around from others. Some are based on the activity of the plants. Some studies are based within philosophical systems. Others take a holistic approach.  Many well built systems have been lost over time due to conquest and oppression. There are still remains of these systems and practices that are found in the form of knowledge passed down from generation to generation. Others have remained whole and are some of the well known practices to day such as Ayurvedic and TCM.

Let’s talk about the different herbal studies practiced around the world.


Traditional Chinese Medicine

TCM is an ancient form of medicine that is still practiced today. It emphasises prevention as a healing method, using herbs to strengthen and or regulate the body’s immune system. It goes beyond just herbs but at this point has over 5,700 herbs in its pharmacopoeia and more than 500 herbal formulas. It is a very extensive practice that uses five diagnostic methods to find disharmony in patients. Observation, Listening, smelling, questioning and wrist palpation. The use of herbs and other methods of this medicine such as acupuncture are determined by finding the harmony based on the theory of yin and yang.  It is far too big of a subject go into much more but dig deeper if it interests you. It is a very amazing, effective practice.




Ayurveda is the third largest medical systems after western medicine and TCM. It originated more than 3,000 years ago. Ayurveda is guided by two main principles, the mind and body are interconnected and nothing has more power to heal and transform the body than the mind. Energies in the body called doshas must be in the right balance for health and well-being. Ayurveda uses herbs, diet and other practices such as meditation and yoga, to bring balance to your body and mind. As with TCM, Ayurveda Medicine requires a lot of study and practice but is well worth it if this is your interest.  



Native American Medicine

Native Americans live in harmony with nature and this in itself is medicine. Their medicine comes from direct perceptions and knowledge that has been accumulated from the medicine man or woman. The process they follow is one of exchange from one creation to another. To them, the plants have life forces and spirit just as the person the herbs are meant to work with. Native American herbalists have a vast pharmacopoeia of medicinal plants that has been gathered over the years. Much of this knowledge was lost due to the tragic history of the Native American people. And much of this medicine has been kept close to the vest because of the conflicts throughout history.



Traditional Western Herbalism

Traditional Western Herbalism can sometimes be interchanged with Folk medicine but finding an actual definition can be difficult. It originated in Europe and early America, and in some ways takes knowledge from Native American herbalism. A lot was lost from the these early versions of western medicine because of conquests, especially in Europe. Early western medicine was based on plant medicine but as biomedicine and the ability to break things into molecules and constituents arose, the traditional western plant medicine was lost while we shifted toward more lab created medicine.

Traditional western herbalism was saved as different families held tightly to different recipes despite the conquests and changing cultures. They used them when needed on whoever needed it, but often did not share the recipes outside of the families.  While it seems as though Traditional Western Herbalism is not as well organized as TCM or Ayurveda, it holds the same foundational beliefs. Connection and balance of mind, body and nature is important to health and well being along with prevention of imbalances in these. Right now, because what was western medicine transitioned from plant medicine and body physiology, into biomedicine and seperate body systems, defining the foundations of western herbalism is difficult but possible.

Unlike Ayurveda and TCM, TWH is often written off as hocus pocus or only taken seriously when western medicine puts its scientific stamp of approval on a particular herb. The motives behind this may be an industrial move with money involved. You can be the judge on that one.

While I love to see scientific proof of how amazing herbs are, often the science that claims an herb is not effective in the way centuries of traditional use has shown are done in a way that is incomplete or misrepresented. Scientific studies are complicated and there are always many variables that go into a study and many variables that are not accounted for. Many of the studies done on the effectiveness of an herb are done in a biomedicine way. They break the herb apart and study the pieces and parts. This is not how herbs are used in herbalism therefore I can see why many of the studies don’t match up with the actual experience of centuries of herbalism. It is interesting to learn about herbs and see how they have actually remained in one form or another in our medical system. Anyone ever tell you to suck on a peppermint candy for nausea?

In China TCM is integrated into its medical system so they actually accept plant medicine and have a method of doing pretty accurate studies on the use of them. Western medicine has done a good job turning herbalism into hocus pocus and therefore there is no standard way they study the use of herbs as medicine.

You can find many shelves full of herbal pills anywhere from big box stores to health food stores but be weary of these. Herbalism is rarely about taking a pill and moving on.

Glad to say however it’s coming back! There are energies...there are systems… While much of what we know comes at us a little broken, passed down in pieces from different folk medicine practices and experiences, the pieces are being put back together and as a community we are rebuilding western herbalism and it is becoming less taboo.

Because I try to live as local as possible I choose to follow the ways of western herbalism as opposed to TCM or Ayurveda. The herbs used in western herbalism grow all around me, wild and free. Western Herbalism is what you will find in this membership. We will explore the foundations of western herbalism in this membership as well, discovering a definition or a system we can easily follow as we go.

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 Book Recommendations: Practical Herbalism, Traditional Western Herbalism.