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.
When I come across a new herb on the intellectual plane (from a book or class) I tend to ask myself these questions:
- 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.
Herb Books, mmmm… I buy them, read them, and re-read them as often as I can. For every herb book I have, there are three more that I desire. So many amazing herbalists have published books, on just about every topic imaginable.
It was tough to narrow my favorite herb book selection. I sat in front of my bookshelf and paged through title after title; after 20 minuets of “this one is my favorite”, “this one is my other favorite”, I realized that all of them are valuable, useful, inspirational and informative (other wise I would not have shipped three boxes of them from Minnesota to Oregon). Some are sentimental, like Susun Weed’s Healing Wise. That was one of the first herb books I bought, and it significantly shaped both my view of plants and healing philosophy.
Here is the semi-narrowed down list.
#1 Most used, referenced, practical, favorite:
- “Medicines From the Earth” Conference Notes
These ‘books’ aren’t really books at all, they are a compilation of lecture notes to a botanical medicine conference. Many conferences have these sorts of publications, and even more conferences have recordings for sale. I find them truly, truly indispensable. Almost every day I engage with either the notes or the recordings (my iPod is full of Jill Stansbury, Donnie Yance and Mary Bove, among others). This particular conference is not unique in that there is a variety of herbal practitioners, from wild crafters, TCM practitioners to naturopaths. For a specific condition, and practical applications for practice, these are my absolute favorite.
Books for Understanding The Essence of Herbs:
- Matthew Wood’s The Book of Herbal Wisdom
- Micheal Moore’s Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West
The Book of Herbal Wisdom is the herbal that I have read the most. The stories, the history, the energetic details of the plants are enthralling and help the medicinal uses of the plants stick in my head. This book held even more relevance for me because much of it took place in my ‘backyard’ of Minnesota and Wisconsin. I had seen many of the plants in the specific places mentioned in the book, like yarrow on the rocky, windswept north shore of Lake Superior.
A few weeks before moving from Minnesota, a friend gave me her copy of Micheal Moore’s book. I have enjoyed reading it since, a herb or two at a time, as a way to get to know the herbs out here in Portland. Both of these books are very much infused with a sense of place, which I love. Wood seems to connect with the herb’s being or essence, while Moore has a deep understanding on what the herbs do in the physical body, or at lease that is what I take out of them.
Books for the Inner Goddess/Healer:
- Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Healing for Women
- Earth Mother Herbal by Shatoiya De La Tour
Anything by Rosmary Gladstar, could be on this list, really. She gets you to touch, taste, dream, sing and tell stories about the herbs, as a way of learning. Her work is infused with wisdom and ‘beautility’, inspiring her readers and students to be stewards of the earth and protectors of the plants. I have to wonder: just how many people have learned about herbal medicine because of her? Rosemary’s body care recipes are my staple, they are are so simple yet revolutionary.
The Earth Mother Herbal is a sweet, succinct and surprisingly diverse book. There is information about growing herbs, harvesting, making products, and for each herb in the herbal section an unique recipe or two follows. What struck me about this book is the encouragement of De La Tour to permeate your life with herbs, and not just for medicine. One section that I particularly love outlines examples of herbal gatherings for different seasons, with food, drinks, favors and activities all related to herbs.
Books for Women’s Health:
- Ruth Tricky’s Women, Hormones and the Menstrual Cycle
- Aviva Jill Romm’s The Natural Pregnancy Book
- The Core Balance Diet by Marcell Pick (one book that are not really an herbal)
When I said there are many herb book that I desire, most of those book are on the topic of women’s health. Australian practitioner Tricky’s book covers in great detail hormones and the menstrual cycle (as the title implies) with sound advice on herbs and supplements. The herbal entries are based both on historical and folk use and on modern research – a blend that not everyone can pull off as well as Tricky. I use this book as a reference constantly for both physiology and herbs. Reading this book helped me further differentiate herbs that may seem similar on the outside (like adaptogens or uterine tonics) through her specific examples based on the herbs themselves and as well as the intricacy of the body.
Romm’s pregnancy book made the list because it is the book that I lend out the most. It is at a beginner level as far as herbs are concerned, but that is a fine place to be at in a pregnancy book; you don’t want to be overwhelmed with herbal details when you have pregnancy, birth and postpartum to focus on.
The Core Balance Diet is indeed not an herbal, but it does have a good deal of herbal information in it. It made the list because I have found that applying the concepts in the book can greatly enhance the way I use herbs in everyday life. Don’t be put off my the word Diet in the title. It is about understanding six different ways our body interacts with the world (adrenal, hormonal, neurotransmitter, digestive, detoxification and inflammation) and how we can get our trouble areas back on track to lead a more balance life, inside and out. Very pertinent information for herbalists, I believe.
Best quick reference:
- Micheal Tierra’s Planetary Herbology
- Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine
Just the other day I was reading in Planetary Herbology‘s “herbs that release the exterior” category and gained some insight about the relationship and differentiation between diuretics and diaphoretics. Little thing like that happen whenever I open this book. When I want to know some basic information about an herb, this book clearly lays out the energetics (taste and temperature), constituents, actions, organs entered (this Chinese concept is useful for western herbs, too) and so on.
Making Plant Medicine seems to get opened in acute situations. Need a direction as to which herbs to use topically like right NOW? Cech has it. After making my much needed remedy, I go back to the book and read some more. I love Cech’s writing style and information. If it’s useful, it’s in this book.
Books for the Chinese Medicine (or the Books I Wish I’d Gotten Sooner):
- Dan Bensky’s Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica
- Dan Chen Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology
Before going to Chinese medicine school, I had an interest in Chinese herbs, but my first love was Western herbalism and I stayed away from the heady, theory-laden tomes of Chinese medicine. What a mistake! You don’t have to know Chinese medicine theory, Yin and Yang, or the 5 elements to benefit from these texts. Both books have the same information about the indications of the herbs, but Chen’s has a more western feel, with medicinal actions (diaphoretic, antimicrobial, brochiodialtor, ect..), chemical constituents and modern research, while Bensky is the standard herbology text and draws more from classical texts.
There are a few reasons I say this. First, because of the incredible organization of the material that is very conducive to learning. The herbs are grouped in ways that make exquisite sense, with explanations to why they are groups that way.
Another reason I love these texts is because of the importance of energetics. After reading one single entry (Ma Huang, ephedra), I understood more about energetics than after 8 years of studying Western herbalism and 4 months of formal Chinese medicine education, combined. What really helped me ‘get’ it was both the comparisons between herbs in the same category and sample herbal combination. Reading things in the line of “this herb does this to release the exterior, while herb #2, with a different flavor, does more of this action” is so helpful.
Non-herbal Gateway Book:
- Christiane Northrup’s Women’s Bodies Women’s Wisodm
This book has been a catalyst that has lead many people to herbalism. It may seem strange, because it talks a lot about natural health, nutrition, and emotions but not necessarily herbs. I mention it because I have lost count of the number of people I ran into that said this was the book that started their healing journey – myself included, this I consider it a ‘gateway’ book.
As a student herbalist, I am always challenging myself to keep learning. Right away in my herbal studies, I worked weekends at an herb shop with an herbalist/acupuncturist. I immersed myself in learning about herbs to harmonize the specific condition I was personally experiencing. Since I had about a half-dozen health concerns, this self-treatment kept me busy for quite some time. After a couple years I started to focus on the health concerns of my dog and my boyfriend, and although the work of treating myself and my family will never be over (especially my dog Isis as she has a bad case of eczema), I felt my learning stagnate after everyone was generally taken care of.
I work-study amidst beautiful southern trees like sassafras, tulip poplar, black elderberry and rhododendrons at a weekend conference in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina for two seasons. It was there that I met some of my favorite herbalists and naturopaths. These men and women showed me it is possible to be an herbalist and have a practice. Of course I knew it was possible to be an herbalist for a living, but I didn’t know if I could ever get to that point myself.
I tried to widen my repertoire but without someone to work with, reading about conditions that did not apply to me didn’t really stick. My focused shifted to learning how to make medicine, how to blend yummy beverage teas, learning about Ethnobotany and healing systems from different times and places. I also focused on meeting plants in my neighborhood and observing their habits; once identified I researched them and added them to my materia medica.
When I was accepted for an herbal internship in Vermont, I was expecting some serious cerebral stimulation. I thought almost greedily to myself, this is just what I need to gain a whole bunch of knowledge about herbs! As most of us know, what you want isn’t the same as what you get.
Granted, I solidified a lot of useful information about herbal medicine. However, the brunt of my learning turned out to be about the manner in which I learned about herbs and the body. Instead of learning from books, I realized I learn more by discussing them with others. Instead of focusing on what I know about herbs and “knowing” more, I learn more by exploring what I do not know and going into uncharted territory. Most of all, I realized that I learn most about herbs by opening my heart and senses to their green goodness rather than my mind.
Which brings me to where I am now. I feel a sort of stress to get everything right about the herbs I am studying now, but it is more important to realize that I don’t have it right and won’t until I address the unknown and draw organic associations as a process.