How To Acquire an Herbal Education

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The more you learn about herbs, the more there is to learn. The hallowed halls of herbal education are neither set in stone nor bound by the usual walls of higher learning. The most well-worn paths of “yarb larnin’ ” curve along forest floors, in wild fields, and between garden walls. Here live the world’s most inspiring and respected teachers: the plants.

Experts agree that the ultimate form of education is experience, but ask them about other ways to learn about herbs and each answer differs.

Where To Begin?

An herbal renaissance has sparked an explosion of interest in herbs and demand for educational opportunities. Traditionally, herbal studies have taken two routes: live and learn with the plants or glean anecdotal wisdom from the experience of others. Today there are so many ways and so much to learn about herbs that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Choosing a course for your herbal education is best done by setting goals and checking out alternatives that suit your interests and aptitude. Before you spend any money, investigate as thoroughly as you can (see the box on page 59, “Ask the Right Questions”), then match your needs with the best prospects.

Omitting this step can lead to disappointment, disillusionment, or worse. One woman enrolled in a home study course in herbal medicine and then found out that some of its information was incorrect and detrimental to her health. Another budding herbalist couldn’t understand most of the material in a correspondence course that she took because it was too technical and advanced for her skills in chemistry and vocabulary. Still another student was outraged to find that courses were being taught by someone whom she considered incompetent.

“Almost any course of study has benefits and faults,” says Roy Upton of the American Herbalists Guild. “No course contains complete information for becoming an herbalist. This comes only with time, experience, and dedication to the study of the many aspects of herbalism.”

The guild has compiled a directory of herbal education, including residency programs, courses, seminars, training videos, research institutes, and publications. It costs $4 and may be ordered from American Herbalists Guild Directory, Box 1683, Soquel, CA 95073. A larger, annotated directory is available for $6.95 postpaid from Intra-American Specialties, 3014 N. 400th W., West Lafayette, IN 47906-5231.

Currently, the only professional standards for herbal education are guidelines devised and adopted voluntarily by groups of herbalists such as the American Herbalists Guild. Many formal programs offer certification upon completion of course work. Certification in herbal studies is neither a degree nor a license to practice clinical herbalism, but it is recognized increasingly within the herb world and among practitioners of alternative medicine as a way of documenting one’s accomplishments.

What Are Your Goals?

Active professional or armchair enthusiast? A teacher with a degree in plant sciences? A certified herbalist who works for a manufacturer of herb products? A garden club member who wants to grow a few herbs?

For many people, learning about herbs is both a systematic pursuit and a self-guided, lifelong process. The easiest way to start down that path is to take it one step at a time, cultivating patience along the way to prevent being overwhelmed by the enormity of the project. Decide which area of herbs interests you most, perhaps folk medicine or fragrance gardens, and develop your expertise there before moving on to another aspect. Or learn all you can about one plant or plant family before taking on another.

What Are Your Options?

When you’re ready, look more closely at the large and growing array of educational opportunities. Leisurely browsing in a library or bookstore, sending for promotional literature, reading current herb periodicals, and talking to local herb growers or fanciers will help you discover what’s available. If no herb classes or research libraries are available in your locale, plenty of information is within reach of your mailbox, phone, or computer.

When you have a general idea of the opportunities open to you, start evaluating your options. Think about what you’ve learned so far and what whets your appetite for more knowledge. Contact education sources and discuss details about their programs. Scrutinize agendas and brochures. They should explain course topics, teachers’ credentials, times, costs, locations, and facilities. If the essence of a course–its approach to learning, emphasis on certain aspects of herbs, and skill level–isn’t clear to you, then request more information from the instructor. Before you sign up for anything, talk to the instructor and try to get a sense of how you might relate to him or her. Ask for names of students who have completed the course who might be willing to share their experiences with you.

The best learning method is one that suits your personality and background. If imitative learning is your style, personal instruction may offer the responsiveness and encouragement you want from a mentor. For self-reliant learners and bookworms, printed materials may fulfill your fondest dreams. Are you up to electronic speed? Try video and audio cassettes, computer software, and library databases.

If disciplined study and specialization don’t fit in with your goals, informal learning experiences may satisfy your quest for herbal knowledge. One of the hallmarks of herbal education is its adaptability and availability to anyone who wants to learn, regardless of age, location, finances, or physical capability.

Ways To Learn: Herb Walks and Gardens

“Hands-on is the best way to learn,” says Susun S. Weed, an herbalist and teacher from New York who leads students on “weed walks” through fields and forests to identify wild plants and discuss their uses.

Whether you prefer a field guide with fingers, toes, and nose or one with pages, plant walks call for a notebook and sharp observation skills, and perhaps a camera. Good teachers tell plant stories, point out details, and answer questions.

You may prefer to learn about herbs in the traditional classroom: the garden. “The best place to start learning about herbs is by growing a few plants,” says Steven Foster, a botanist and author from Arkansas. He suggests that beginners start with culinary herbs and recommends medicinal plants and botanical studies for more experienced gardeners.

Expand your plant vocabulary (and perhaps your inventory) by tiptoeing through someone else’s thyme. Garden tours range from a walk and talk in an herb hobbyist’s yard to formal displays accompanied by a class, program, or meal at an herb farm, cottage business, or public garden. Discuss problems and possibilities in your own herb garden with an expert; learn to recognize specimens of living herbs that you’ve seen before only on a page.

Ways To Learn: Herb Classes, Workshops, Retreats

“The best way to learn about herbs is by taking a class,” says Rosemary Gladstar, an herbalist and teacher from Vermont. The trick is to find a knowledgeable teacher who encourages learning by doing.

Workshops usually entail more “doing” than classes consisting only of lectures and written homework. They offer the widest variety of topics and occur in diverse settings, from herb schools and shops to adult education classrooms and country kitchens. Workshops generally require a commitment of several hours whereas classes range from one-hour talks to yearlong training programs.

A retreat often means rustic lodging or camping out. Whether it lasts a weekend or week, retreats usually include herb walks, classes, projects, demonstrations, conversations, and meals. Herbalists, herb businesses, and groups organize these work-play events to serve broad interests or achieve concerted goals. Experts share their knowledge and lead activities, often carrying out a theme such as “a celebration of wild plants” or “for women only”.

Ways To Learn: Herb Schools

Two kinds of herb schools offer ongoing education programs: the home or workplace of an herbalist and traditional schools with a campus, instructors, and student residency. Courses usually emphasize herbal medicine and may vary in duration from one day or weekend to months or years of intensive training.

The faculty or host herbalist may combine traditional herbal knowledge with modern research and practice. Each school has its own style and approach to what is called “natural medicine” or “the healing arts” based on abstract ideals. This philosophy is also colored by instructors’ personalities and beliefs.

Herb schools provide broad-based curriculums, which may include yearlong apprenticeships or tutorial programs, year-round classes, symposiums, and correspondence courses. Typical course topics are herbal preparations and therapies, history, human anatomy and physiology, botany, ecology, and field activities.

Ways To Learn: Seminars, Symposiums, Conferences

Betty Ann Viviano, a teacher and the owner of an herb business in Oregon, tells her students a story about herbal education in the ancient city of Babylon. When a person was sick, she says, it was customary to lie in the street and ask passersby for their remedies.

Chances are you won’t take to the streets during a seminar, symposium, or conference, but you will have an opportunity to ask others for their advice. Each of these options is a platform for prominent professionals to present their topics of interest to a group. Participants meet kindred folks, gather information, and exchange ideas.

Typically, seminars are one- or two-day classes for advanced students; they address a theme and attract a large audience. For example, the 1993 Gaia International Herb Symposium, “Naturopathic Herbal Medicine: Herbal Healing Wisdom for the Future”, drew more than 400 participants.

Individual speakers and panels discuss any number of topics within the theme of a symposium. It’s usually a weekend event that includes workshops for intensive learning.

Conferences attract the biggest crowds–from local enthusiasts to international participants. Conferences that combine a professional gathering and public forum often span two or three days and include sessions with speakers, workshops, a trade show, organizational meetings, outside tours, and other special events. Professional associations or university staff may hold conferences annually. “The time spent between sessions in conversation is most valuable,” says Steven Foster, a regular participant and speaker. “You’re always going to get something out of conferences or symposiums with one-to-one contacts.”

Reading proceedings, a printed version of the presentations at a conference or symposium, is another way to learn, especially if you’re unable to attend the event itself or all of its sessions. A copy of a meeting’s proceedings goes to each participant or may be purchased from the sponsoring organization.


Throughout history, practical knowledge of plants has been passed from experienced teacher to eager student. Imagine learning ancient remedies and procedures under the tutelage of a native medicine man or journeying to a tropical rain forest with a team of ethnobotanists in search of new plant medicines! More commonly, less exotic apprenticeships match willing teachers with determined students in one-on-one programs designed to meet individual needs. Would you like to learn the ways of a wreathmaker, master herb gardener, or chef? Work at an herb nursery or farm? Volunteer at an arboretum or plan a theme garden for your town?

As an herbalist’s apprentice, you might assist in research and workshops, guide walks in the woods, tend gardens, harvest herbs, package products, or manage business details. Formal apprenticeships for beginning or advanced students typically require a commitment of two to twelve months.

Find apprenticeship opportunities by reading current herbal periodicals and asking around. Does someone in your area have a reputation for expertise in your field of interest? Have you been impressed with someone’s writing or other work? Contact him or her to discuss possibilities. Check the American Herbalists Guild directory mentioned above for ideas.

Correspondence Courses

“If one is not able to attend local classes, then a correspondence course is a good alternative,” says Rosemary Gladstar. “It’s a good way to learn if one is self-motivated. Some people learn better on their own at their own pace.”

Dozens of home-study courses offer systematic and comprehensive training in medical herbalism, growing and using culinary herbs, aromatherapy, and more. Many pioneers of the herbal renaissance have developed courses in response to demand for professional-level training.

“Direct study is always best,” says Michael Tierra, an herbalist and teacher from California, “but since there is no [legally recognized] professional degree as an herbalist in this country, most people cannot allot the necessary time to place themselves full time in a school.”

A correspondence course is commonly used in addition to other components of an education plan. As Tierra observes, “It would take a very dedicated student to sort out and master the essential elements of clinical herbalism solely from a correspondence course.”

Students receive lessons, one by one, in the mail. Most courses require reading and completing assignments, which might consist of questions or a project. Students return their assignments to the instructor for evaluation, feedback, and individual guidance.

Some courses emphasize hands-on learning with self-guided experiences such as plant identification, herbal formulations, massage practice, and scientific research. Most students finish a correspondence course in a year or two, depending on the number of lessons in the program.

Herb Study Groups, Clubs, Professional Organizations

For the benefits of camaraderie, travel, and special events, not to mention education, consider joining an herb group. Many groups offer newsletters, discounted books, membership lists, and resource databases in addition to regular meetings.

Study groups meet informally to discuss topics of interest or to host a speaker. They may sponsor plant sales, garden tours, and related events. Count on paying annual dues to all but the most informal groups.

Print and Electronic Media

With the invention of the printing press in 1451, the field of herbal knowledge gained tremendous new impetus. Today there is a vast selection of herb books for hungry minds. (See the box on page 61, “How to Select Good Herb Books”.) Magazines, news­letters, and trade journals allow subscribers to enjoy the regular arrival of news in their mailboxes.

Having at least one, or better yet a collection, of basic herb reference books can form the core of your home herb library. Filing cabinets can organize as well as store notes, clippings, and catalogs. Card or computer files are a handy way to collect information on individual herbs.

Computers have become a great boon to twentieth-century herbal education. A computer search for educational materials may trigger an ava­lanche of words. A few phone calls can yield a pile of paper from cooperative extension offices, an antique herbal from a rare books dealer, or bibliographies of research citations from university libraries. The amount of information available and the speed at which it spreads are mind-boggling.

Kate Carter Frederick is an herb writer and craftswoman in Des Moines, Iowa. She is a senior editor of Better Homes & Gardens special-interest gardening magazines for Meredith Corporation.