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WTF is Herbalism, Anyway?

Updated: Feb 8

Hey there, folks! Welcome to The Hedge Witch Herbal Series! Back before COVID, I had the pleasure of teaching wildcraft herbalism classes with Main Line School Night (they have some truly awesome online course offerings that you can check out HERE!). Due to safety concerns, I had to suspend my workshop offering with them this year, but as this epidemic has continued to drag on, it occurs to me that there are many people who remain interested in herbalism, but don't really know where to start. So I am bringing my knowledge to you through the Hedge Witch Herbal Series (which will shortly have a companion Patreon)!

For me, practical herbalism and skincare go hand-in-hand. Few and far between are the formulas I have created that do not begin and end with research into the herbal actions and synergy of each ingredient chosen, to ensure that the end result is bioactive, functional, and effective. While I, and through me, The Raw Spa, are better known for topical herbalism, my passion for herbalism goes far beyond just what it can do on your skin. To me, herbalism is something truly unique, a balance of anecdotal lore and potent biochemistry. It skirts the line of science and alchemy in the most delightful way and is constantly evolving. There is a lot that I hope to cover through this series, but for now, I thought I'd kick things off by answering one of the most common questions that I get during my classes. "What is herbalism?"

In my experience, most people who are just starting out either take herbalism way too seriously or don't take it seriously enough. Let's build a better idea of what herbalism is (and isn't), so you folks can have a better picture of what you're diving in to!  

Herbalism can conjure up images of baffling exotic ingredients and esoteric knowledge. But even the herbs used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, like the ones above, have a far more practical (and sometimes even yummy) application!

Herbalism is a broad term that usually refers to traditional Western plant-based healing practices. These are practices that go back hundreds - and in some cases, thousands - of years. Every culture in the world at some point had a type of herbalism that functioned as their central method of healthcare. Ayurvedic practices of India continue to be utilized and are often increasingly incorporated into Western practices. Traditional Chinese Medicine is another well known, and well utilized, herbal method today.  While these healing practices were at one point used as a medicine, it's important in the modern age to differentiate herbalism from medicine. They are absolutely not the same.

Why not? Well, herbalism is not a "cure" for a problem, it is a "remedy". A cure is something that handles the symptoms of an issue until they come back. With a remedy the goal is to handle the underlying issue that causes the symptoms, looking at how the entire body, and the entire person, interact with a condition. 

If this sounds like modern medicine then think about how painkillers work. When someone has a headache, they take painkillers to cure the headache until it is gone. A remedy for that headache might be as simple as a glass of water if you're dehydrated or giving your eyes some rest from all that screen time you're getting. But we don't often say "I wonder what is causing that headache" when we can just make the symptom (pain) go away.  And as anyone who has ever taken cold medicine can tell you, making the symptoms go away for a little bit is not the same thing as getting rid of the cold. 

Herbalism can be as complicated as a compound tincture, or as simple as a cup of tea.

There are many different "traditions" in western herbalism. Ironically, the most well-known tradition, the Heroic tradition, is both more complicated and more esoteric in its uses and applications, relying on tinctures, compound pills, etc. Personally, I'm a fan of the Wise Woman tradition (No, I don't mean only women are good at it!). The "Wise Woman" tradition is gentler, and focuses on deeply nourishing and balancing the body, to help alleviate concerns. In my experience, it's often safer and utilizes more readily available ingredients. I won't be diving into the Heroic tradition, or Homeopathy, for that matter, with you guys. 

Which brings me to my second point of people who don't take herbalism seriously enough. The reason I only teach basic herbalism is that more advanced herbalism can be dangerous. Just as dangerous as a poorly tested medication. Far too many times in classes, people will tell me they want to learn herbalism because it's natural and therefore safer. 

Fly Agaric mushrooms- pretty to look at, and lethal to taste, if not handled correctly. 100% natural and organic.

Off the top of my head, I can list eight botanicals that will kill you with one dose, long before any pharmaceutical of the same dosage will have had a chance. I don't think any of us would say that cocaine is safe just because it's natural, and we certainly aren't making deadly nightshade tea this fall. Pinterest, and most of the internet at large, give a false impression that "natural is better". There are a wide variety of tinctures and pills that have incredibly specific dosages because at the right dose they can be fantastic remedies but in the wrong dose, they can kill you dead.

That sounds scary, right? It should. Herbalism is something that needs to be approached with respect. I won't be teaching the dangerous stuff. As your interest in herbalism grows, I encourage you to research. Not with Pinterest or with (not a real site. I know you clicked that link), but with real scientific studies, with books written by clinical herbalists, or by checking out the plethora of online herbalism schools that have come on to the scene recently. 

Some of the best and most basic herbal remedies are no farther away than your spice cabinet!

Used properly, herbalism is a wonderful way to take care of yourself, and others. Botanicals can replace materials in your first aid kit. It can be tasty and delicious (like key lime nettle cupcakes), or pungent and mysterious (like a mugwort and juniper joint salve). 

While most of what I'm hoping to cover focuses on wild herbalism (using native plants in my region), I'll also be introducing you folks to basic "kitchen herbalism" - no fancy-schmancy herbs required! I look forward to having you join me on this adventure, and can't wait to see where this starting point leads you! 

See you soon!

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