Herbalism for Beginners: How to Become a Herbalist
Here we are, at the very beginning. A totally clean slate. Right now, I want you to forget everything you’ve read about what you “should know” or “should be studying” in order to be a practicing herbalist. Allow every single influence outside of yourself to exit your mind before you continue reading. Seriously. Take a deep breath. Clear your head. Because you are the brilliant force at the center of your herbalism practice.
Who you are as a person, what you are passionate about, and the needs you have physically, spiritually, and emotionally are going to be what determines how your herbalism journey takes shape. Although clinical herbalists are most often who we see sharing information online, clinical herbalism is just one of many paths for herbalists. There are many schools of thought and types of herbalists across the world, and you get to decide what type you want to be.
What is herbalism?
By definition, herbalism is the study or practice of using plants for medicinal or therapeutic purposes. It truly is not more complicated than that. The confusion creeps in when we try to decide what our practice will entail. Which herbs do you study? Do you need to go to school? What are you making medicine for? Will you need a license? Hopefully this post will give you a clearer picture about herbalism certifications, and answer some of your questions about where to start.
Do I need a license or certification to be a herbalist?
Nope. In the United States, there are no state or federal licensing boards for herbalism. Unlike medical doctors, nurses, or therapists, there is no legal recognition for herbalism certifications. As of right now, herbalism schools and their accrediting bodies are independent organizations that are at liberty to teach whatever information they wish to teach. To put it as simply as possible, completing a certification program is no more than a nod from your peers in the eyes of the law. Does this mean that completing a herbalist certification program is a waste of time? Of course not. But it does mean that you will need to enter the market as an educated consumer, with clear idea about what it is that you want to learn. Also, since herbalism is not federally regulated, it is extremely important that we are aware of the scope and limitations of our practice so that we do not harm others via misinformation.
Wait! If I don’t need a certification, then what is a Registered Herbalist?
Registered Herbalists are herbalists who are recognized by the American Herbalists Guild as demonstrating, according to the AHG: “a core level of knowledge and experience in botanical medicine practice that is recognizable as a meaningful standard to themselves, to the general public, and to other health professionals and institutions.” If completing a certification program is a nod from your peers, then becoming a Registered Herbalist is the ultimate nod. The American Herbalists Guild is a peer organization of herbalists that stands to support herbalists from a variety of backgrounds. Becoming a registered herbalist with the AHG is especially useful to those looking to practice clinical herbalism, as it can indicate to clients that you have invested in your education, and are acknowledged by your professional peers as an ethical practitioner. Becoming a Registered Herbalist is a great achievement, but isn’t necessary for practicing herbalism--especially if you are just getting started.
Types of Herbalism:
There are many schools of thought in the world of herbalism. Many herbalists borrow from multiple systems to complete their practice. For example, many western herbalists have started integrating the holistic approach from Eastern systems into their practice as the mind-body connection becomes more widely accepted in the west. Here are a few short descriptions of the three most common traditional medicine systems in the world:
Western Herbalism: Many types of herbalism fall under the “Western Herbalism” umbrella. This includes traditional folk medicine from cultures indigenous to or previously enslaved in the western part of the world. Western herbalism also includes modern scientific research of medicinal herbs and the implications of this research on human wellness.
Note: My study of herbalism is integrative and based on a combination of traditional folk medicine and scientific research.
Ayurveda: Ayurveda is a traditional medicine system originating in India. This system takes a truly holistic approach to herbalism, using self-awareness, diet, and plant medicine to create balance between the mind, body & spirit. You can find a great overview of Ayurveda here:
Traditional Chinese Medicine: Traditional Chinese Medicine is one of the oldest holistic healing systems in existence. One of many principles in the foundation of TCM is that all body systems are connected and work together. TCM incorporates many modalities for bringing the body’s energies into balance including cupping, acupuncture, dietary changes, and plant medicine. You can find a great overview of Traditional Chinese Medicine here: https://www.actcm.edu/chinese-medicine/
Types of Herbalists:
Herbalists can practice in a variety of professional and community settings. The person seeing clients in a clinical practice, and the person using herbs from their garden to make remedies for their family are both doing meaningful work as herbalists. Here’s a short list of different paths herbalists can take:
Growers: Grow plants for the purpose of personal use, distribution, or manufacturing products.
Wildcrafters: Specialize in plant identification and forage for plants in nature.
Herbal Educators: Educate others about the various uses of plants and herbal preparations based on traditional practice, scientific research, or a combination of both.
Folk Herbalists: Practice traditional medicine-making, typically through methods passed down through a specific area in the world.
Clinical Herbalists: Practice as healthcare providers to the general public.
Community-Based Herbalism: Herbalism practice is informed by identified community needs. This practice could include growing, foraging, educating, or medicine making for the purpose of supporting identified community wellness needs.
So, where do I start?
Let’s start small. Investing in herbal education can be expensive, and if you’re not ready to make that financial leap, self-study is a great option for getting started. In the next post, I’ll be sharing ten plants to start out with to begin building your home apothecary. These plants will allow you to get familiar with the different parts of the plant, and experience making herbal preparations with plant materials of varying densities.
Ready to stock your apothecary? Let’s go: