Woodcut of peasants in a herb garden – from the title page of The Grete Herbal

Why study herbal medicine? Insights from a student herbalist

Words by Neil Allies

Why study herbal medicine? It’s an important question and there is a huge range of answers: a desire to reconnect with old traditions; frustration with other medical treatment; personal experiences; a desire to help others; to feel more empowered to help yourself; an interest in the natural world and plants. Whatever the reason(s) for starting on the path to herbal medicine, two questions will at some point come up: what kind of herbalist do I want to be and how do I do it?

The first question might seem odd. Surely herbs do the wonderful things that they do, no matter who’s using them? But the variety of herbalists is huge. For many, being a ‘home herbalist’ and using herbs to treat common ailments of friends and family is incredibly empowering and enough in itself. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every home had access to a home herbalist to help treat all the tummy upsets, bumps, bruises, coughs, colds, cases of hay fever, sleepless nights (to mention just a few issues) that inevitably come up every year? For others, their aim might be to become a clinical medical herbalist, treating complex pathologies and training in clinical skills like a GP does. Some herbalists focus on energetics and plant spirits; others draw on phytochemistry and a more medical-school inspired approach. Some use Eastern models such as Ayurvedic, Tibetan or Chinese medicine; others use Western approaches. For some it might be a mix of all the above; for others, something entirely different.

The answer to the second question is just as varied. Herbalism is never fully ‘learned’ – it’s a lifelong path of always learning more and more! It’s true that the more you know, the more you realise that there is to learn! Teaching yourself by reading and, most importantly, ‘doing’ is a great start. There are lots of things that anyone can do on their own: learning how to identify plants and what their medicinal actions are, or learning how to make herbal oils, vinegars and tinctures. There are countless numbers of great books and websites out there. Guides like the three written by Julie Bruton Seal and Matthew Seal (Kitchen Medicine; Hedgerow Medicine; and Wayside Medicine) are brilliant ways to get started. There are also lots of short courses available that can open up a whole new world, as well as more substantial degree-level courses that allow you to obtain insurance and practise herbal medicine on the public. The National Institute of Medical Herbalists has a list of courses that might be a useful starting point for a more formal study path (https://nimh.org.uk/about-nimh/types-of-memberships/accredited-courses/).

But herbalism belongs to all of us. Whether a fully-qualified medical herbalist or an amateur home herbalist, it deserves a place in all our lives. So, whatever your experience, don’t be scared of learning and, most importantly, trying things out! Really importantly, you need to be safe and make sure you know what you’re picking and using, but there are lots of common and easily recognisable plants that can be really useful. Whilst writing this blog post, I counted over twenty common plants in my own small, courtyard garden, that can make effective medicine and delicious tea. A cup of fresh lavender tea, some nettle or raspberry leaf infused apple cider vinegar, rosemary-infused oil… the list could be endless! It really is that wonderfully easy to be able to start on a herbal path and take your own place in a millennia-old heritage.