During my interview for Chinese Medicine school, one of the interviewers asked if I had ever had acupuncture or taken Chinese herbs. “Of course! Why else would I be here?” was my response. I thought they were either joking or patronizing, but they looked dead serious. They didn’t respond. I asked if people actually went to school for acupuncture without ever having it, and they replied with, “some people go through school, pass their boards and start practicing without ever having it.”
I was shocked. Chinese medicine isn’t the sort of field that people pick with the mentality, “I need a job, so why not do acupuncture?”. As I worked in the herbal dispensary and took Herbology classes, I found that its not entirely rare for students to have never taken the herbs they prescribe.
It hit me when I asked my provider if they could make my bulk formula taste a little better. In truth, it tasted a lot like rotten stomach acid mixed with a side of fermented garbage juice – it was very difficult to swallow, literally. He had no idea what was so bad about it, and said something like: “I don’t know how to do that. This is the formula, and it tastes the way it tastes”. Well, this particular formula had 15 grams of Ai Ye (Mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris) per dose, in addition to several other incredibly bitter herbs, that were boiled for 50 minuets in just over a quart of water, making for some very concentrated tea.
In prescribing individuated formulas, it is difficult and indeed impossible to try every formula you give to others. However, making and tasting some classic formulas and as many individual herbs as possible is not only doable, but required (in my humble opinion) to fully grasp the medicine. I am happy to report that we are doing just that in the lab portion of Herbology classes this summer. Bring it on, Gui Pi Wan!
This got me thinking of ways to engage with plant medicine to deepen our understanding of them and the gifts they have to offer. Luckily, there are a plethora of classes, workshops, study courses, books and blogs out there that explore medicinal plants in depth. For starters, check out the information on Dancing in a Field of Tansy‘s blog and join her in discovering an Herbal Ally. Here you can learn just about every way to both prepare your herb (teas, slaves, tinctures, ect…) and learn about its properties, energetics, and personality.
- What is this herb’s botanical name and family?
- Where does it grow, where is it cultivated and where is it native?
- What does this plant look like?
- What part or parts are used for medicine?
- What unique features does it have?
- Who are the closest relatives to this plant in my environment?
- What does it smell like, how does it taste? Why does it have these attributes?
- What are its energetics, actions and constituents?
- What formulas feature this herb and why?
- Is it endangered, commonly adulterated or heavily chemically sprayed?
- Is this plant mentioned in folk lore, ancient texts or old herbals?
- What, if any, research surrounds this plant?
Learning herbs in a school setting is an incredibly time consuming task as it is, so I can’t imagine that I will be able to to do this type of investigation for more than a few herbs at a time. But I can’t NOT do some digging to find answers and information – I am much too curious, or obsessed with herbs, or both (probably the later). I am going to do my best to sift through these questions and find some answers, busy as I am.