Pursuing Your Interest in Herbalism

The road to an education in herbalism can branch to many paths, and there is no one true way to mastery.
By Jesse Wolf Hardin
February 26, 2014
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An education in herbalism can be self-taught, gained as an apprentice, learned in school or any combination of these paths and more.
Photo courtesy Plant Healer Press
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The Plant Healer’s Path (Plant Healer Press, 2013) addresses topics vital to an empowered, effective herbal practice, including many issues that have not been addressed by mainstream sources. Jesse Wolf Hardin, a renowned herbalist and co-founder of Plant Healer Magazine, brings to readers enchanting tales, profiles of many medicinal plants, and recipes favored by herbalists. The following excerpt, taken from “An Herbal Education,” offers invaluable advice for anyone looking to pursue an interest in herbalism.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Plant Healer's Path.

What qualifies one as a good herbalist? An ability to learn from experience, intuition or insight, intimacy with plants, and rapport with clients are certainly all credible criteria, but utterly essential is your base and depth of knowledge. Even the most intuitive practitioner could be more effective with an intense study of medicinal plants and their constituents and actions, of phytochemical and clinical research, the history of herbalism and healing traditions from around the world, botany and physiology, psychology and counseling, business management and communication skills to name only a few. Even the wisest of teachers will quickly tell you that they never stop being students, and the best practitioners continue to learn new things for so long as they live.

There would seem to be 4 main ways of learning the craft of herbalism. These are, in brief:

1. Self Education

This “do it yourself” method is largely a misnomer, since it includes not only learning by experience, but also learning from books – which means from someone else’s experiences and methods. There are many extremely effective or widely popular herbalists who have never had a teacher or completed an herbal course, however, including Susun Weed, Jim McDonald, Michael Moore and Kiva Rose.

Disadvantages: It can be a lot harder to learn this way, with no one to ask questions of, no one to monitor us or correct us when we’re mistaken or doing something counterproductive. A lack of requirements and deadlines can result in a lack of focus and slowing of progress. And this route provides none of the credentials and associations that can be an aid when it comes to professional credibility, employment in the field, or gaining the initial trust of one’s students or clients.

Advantages: The least financially expensive way to learn. Learning at home. An infinitely customizable curricula.

2. Apprenticeship

This system of learning as we work is one of the oldest. A teacher/practitioner carefully selects a limited number of particularly apt and devoted students to work closely with, not only instructing them but giving them assignments that test the extent of their progress.

Disadvantages: Usually requires extensive commitment, physical relocation, labor on tasks unrelated to herbalism, and often financial payment as well. Only a very limited number of apprenticeships available. Provides no credentials other than a certificate of completion, and credit by association (“I studied with so-and-so”).

Advantages: As intimate a teacher/student relationship as is possible, close monitoring and support.

3. Home Study Courses

Other than self-educating or apprenticing, an herbal school is the primary way to learn an intense amount of information in a reasonable amount of time. This form of distance learning is perfect for folks who don’t live near an instructor, but have access to a computer and take advantage of a home study course’s digital, audio or video components. Some schools include online conferencing.

Disadvantages: Less student/teacher interaction than when attending personally, and thus potentially less oversight and feedback. Cost.

Advantages: Having an instructor, while studying in the comfort and privacy of one’s own home. A coherent curricula.

4. Attending a School

Besides apprenticing, the best way to get a maximum amount of personal instruction is to physically attend a school. Sometimes this means folks from the immediate area commuting to classes, other times it many mean living at or near the school site, and involve students relocating for a period of weeks or months.

Disadvantages: May require taking time off from a job to attend. Increased cost, in tuition, transportation and housing. Sometimes provides teaching from only a single perspective, tradition or methodology.

Advantages: Teacher/student interaction, the ability to ask questions in person and get answers in a more timely manner, monitoring of one’s progress. A large number of hours dedicated to the lessons. The support and camaraderie of fellow students. Possible accreditation and increased income potential. A cohesive, coherent curricula.

Choosing Your Ways of Learning

Which of the above ways you choose to increase your herbal education, should be predicated on:

1. What you expect to get out of it, in terms of specific kinds of information and methods, personal instruction and guidance, credentials or certificates, a likely future income, purpose or role.

2. How the different means for learning fits into your already existing lifestyle, schooling, work, family and other commitments. Your nature, such as whether you need a lot of attention, an easy going or hard driving instructor, lots of structure or lots of options.

3. What you expect to be able to do with the information you gain. If you plan to get work as a clinician, your needs will be different than if you plan to teach, produce and sell herbal products, mainly treat your family, volunteer at a free clinic, or practice as a community/folk herbalist.

In all cases, however, you will want an education that is in-depth and not superficial, grounded in but not restricted to good holistic science, requiring actual practice, and aimed at personal excellence and effectiveness.

School Selection

The following are some of the more vital factors to consider, when researching, comparing and assessing the various herbal schools... in approximate order of importance.

1. Does the school offer distance classes, day classes, on-site programs or lodging? What are the components of each?

2. Who are the main teachers, what is their personality and style of teaching, how much knowledge do they have, what reputation do they have and what do their former students say about studying with them?

3. Is most of the instructing done by the main teacher(s), or by assistants or guest teachers?

4. What herbal tradition or traditions, methodologies, modalities and perspectives are being taught?

5. What specific information and skills are being taught?

6. What is the primary level of teaching – beginner, intermediate, advanced, or a progression?

7. What is the commitment and cost?

8. What certification or credits come with completion of the course, if any?

No one factor should make all the difference, it is best to carefully weigh them all and notice how it feels as well as how practical it is. The teacher and school that build on your existing experience, stretches your thinking, and fuels your already existing passion... will be the school for you.

Teaching & Being Taught

Everything that we experience, good or bad, is in its way a teacher to us. And we are all teachers to a degree, whether we are conscious of it or not, daily communicating information about ourselves and the world we’re a part of. To the degree that we can consciously rather than inadvertently contribute, we can take responsibility for the ways we share it and the effects it has. This is true for everyone, but especially dedicated instructors such as the teachers of herbalism, school teachers and college professors, and all those like myself who write books or offer workshops.

I recall being disappointed as a child, with my school’s emphasis on memorization and measurement, classifications and concepts apart from experience, and conformity over original thinking. In contrast, we can dedicate ourselves to instilling essential qualities and skills such as: Awareness and focus, wonder and awe. Authenticity and personal expression. Reconnection to our bodies, to other peoples and species, and to the living earth. Sense of place, and land stewardship. New ways of seeing and the art of listening. The expression of empathy and compassion. Freedom with responsibility. Codes of honor. Integrity and devotion. We do well to stress the importance of inquiry over answers, inviting student participation, inspiring contemplation and solution.

If we want to evaluate any existing or proposed idea, lesson, text, class, practice, program or curriculum, we might consider the following: Does it contribute substantially to the an understanding of one’s true self, the full actualization and flowering of ours or our students’ authentic beings? Does it encourage being more expressive, thoughtful or sensual, or empathetic? Does it instill and encourage values that affirm health and the natural, freedom with responsibility, compassion along with the ability to firmly say “no”? Is it entirely human-centered, or does it draw parallels and connections to the land, fellow life forms, and spirit? Does it contribute to amazement and wonder, curiosity and inquiry, creativity and improvisation, spontaneity and celebration? Does it not just inform but also inspire, excite and empower? Does it evoke a sense of the awesomeness of life, of the magic and joy of existence? Does it teach the reasons or means for feeling more, committing more, and giving more?

A healthy, organic education may involve: Avoiding the linear and hierarchical appearance of straight rows, sitting in circles where students can interact with each other as well as with the teacher. Taking the lessons outside whenever possible, in order to draw directly from nature. Focusing attention, usually with a deep sharing. Using and eliciting personal, emotional, experiential anecdotes, such as how something made us feel, instead of just relaying facts or events. Always referring back to the current moment, drawing a connection between any subject and the students’ reality here in present time. Treating each and every moment as a decisive one. Giving students some responsibility for the direction of the studies. Allowing the interests and enthusiasm of students determine what gets explored. Being ready to set aside even the most important lecture to capitalize on the attention given to a bird landing on the windowsill, on a personal problem that arises, or a news event of great import. Surrendering the schedule, and staying on a subject until interest subsides or something important comes up. Helping students and friends to see, touch, experience the things discussed as often as possible, getting them to do and create as well as think. Sharing our emotions, needs, visions and hopes as well as information and observations. Deferring not to elders or authorities, but to personal experience, fresh discovery, the wisdom of our bodies, and the plant themselves.

Any encounter is an opportunity to be both a learner and a teacher, as we come to better listen to what the instructive world has to tell us, and increasingly take responsibility for the encouraging words and firm principals, the ideas and the feelings, practical skills and inspirational art, heartfelt hope and clear vision that we consciously and purposefully impart.

Human history, as H.G. Wells wrote, may increasingly be “a race between education and catastrophe,” and if so, it makes what we choose to learn and what we opt to pass on to others all the more significant. Like Henry David Thoreau, we may find in every plant’s seed a reason for inquiry and wonder, and the potential for a miracle of realization and growth in which we too participate.

More from The Plant Healer’s Path:

• Walking the Path of Herbalism


Reprinted with permission from The Plant Healer’s Path: A Grassroots Guide for the Folk Herbal Tribe by Jesse Wolf Hardin with Kiva Rose and published by Plant Healer Press, 2013. Buy this book from our store: The Plant Healer's Path.


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