Here in the Western world, in addition to formal education, apprenticeship, and first-hand experience, reading books is still one of the main ways to accrue information and learn a particular subject. Luckily for those studying herbalism we have many valid opportunities to engage in all of these forms of learning. Home study courses, classes, conferences and books abound, and of course we can take a walk and meet some plants along the way.
There are many types of herbalism out there, and there are many corresponding books. When people ask for a book recommendation as they begin or expand their herbal education, I first ask a few prying questions to get a feel for their style of herbalism and learning. Matching an herb book to a person is not always transparent, though. For example, I knew one medical student who, contrary to my first impression, didn’t want any research-driven, phyto-chemistry heavy, plants as drugs resources (think Tyler’s Honest Herbal). Instead, it turned out she was craving the more New Age-y, mystical, plant spirit medicine type books as a break from the daily grind. The beauty of herbalism is that there are little rules – both ways are perfectly valid!
But when it comes down to it, most people that I talked to didn’t really care what they read, especially starting out. They were open to and thirsty for any decent herbal information. For pretty much everyone, Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal is a good starting place due to it’s beauty, wisdom, variety and practical bent. Matthew Wood’s The Book of Herbal Wisdom was recommended often, as it dedicates many pages to a single herb to help the reader get to know the plant, it’s energetics, and plethora of uses. There are more similarities then differences within herbalism (at least I think so); if it works and promotes health, it’s medicine.
Back to the book. Last week I finished re-reading a well-known herbal, The New Holistic Herbal by David Hoffmann. I choose to bring this book with me on vacation for a number of reasons. Mainly, it has a good herbal section, an alphabetical section of well over 200 herbs containing growing habitat, parts used, constituents, actions, dosage and of course indications. I am building an herbal reference notebook, so the book I brought with me had to have a decent herbal. The other reason I brought it with was simply to re-familiarize with a book I often recommend to as an introductory book (the last time I really sat down with it was in 2004). If I am telling others to read it, I better know well what’s in there!
In addition to the herbal, The New Holistic Herbal has information about preparation, chemistry, action categories, a small section on harvesting (the suggested harvest times are not for every bio-region, especially Minnesota!), self-care and prevention and a brief section on creating an herbal protocol for yourself. The uses of the herbs themselves and examples of formulas are in a body systems format. Basically, this book as a little bit of everything which is what makes it so useful for those discovering herbalism.
The edition in my possession was updated and printed in 1990, nearly 20 years ago, but it originally was published in 1983. Some ideas have changed with the times, and having read his much newer Medical Herbalism book, I know Hoffmann has updated some things, too. One example of this is seen in dietary recommendations. A healthy diet in the early 1990’s often emphasized whole grains, limited fats and lots of fruit. Nowa days, quality protein and veggies reign.
Details and dates aside, I’d still recommend this book as an introduction because of it’s underlining emphasis on holistic herbalism. Holistic in this sense emphasizes the interconnectedness of all life, within the earth and withing out bodies, and moves us to overcome “…centuries of conditioning to ‘apartness’ thinking”. The first page of the book says, “A herbal celebrating of the wholeness of life”.
Instead of listing all the herbs good for this or that, Hoffmann keeps reminding the reader of two underlining principles of herbalism. First assist the person, not the disease, and secondly, to learn the qualities of herbs (like action categories) – advice that is more pertinent now then ever.
My oh my, it has been quite a while since my last entry! I have no excuse except I have been enjoying the glorious summer in every moment I wasn’t running around busy with work and projects. Sometimes you need a break from the computer, ya know?
I had anticipated a summer of non-stop gardening, based on the fact I had about four plots and twenty-some different species of medicinal seedlings started in my basement. As soon as I planted out my seedlings in early June, a week of threatening frost, non-stop rains and high winds did not spare a single plant. Needless to say, I was heartbroken. After that miserable week, the weather cleared and I was able to plant out a few varieties; tulsi, figwort, chickweed (one can never have too much chickweed!), elecampane, teasel and wild carrrot fared the best.
In early June I was able to attend the inaugural Mid-America Herbal Symposium, held in Winona, MN. The conference brought in incredible herbalists from across the country to my state; there was no way I was going to miss such an opportunity! At the time of the conference, I was inthralled with exploring herbalists’ healing and health philosophies. I opened up my favorite herbals, and rather than flipping to the index to research the topic or herb on my mind as usual, I instead turned to the forward or introduction in the beginning of the book. Here the author introduces the topic of herbalism and expounds upon the simple idea (fact!) that plants can and do heal. While at the symposium, I kept picking up tidbits of the presenter’s healing philosophies that represent the basics of herbalism. One that kept grabbing my attention was, “treat the individual, not the condition”. Nicholas Schnell from Omaha, NE reminded us in a particularly insightful lecture about herbs for the GI tract, “don’t get caught up in the disease, but see how it manifests in the person”. This simple reiteration struck me like a thunderbolt; it has really revolutionized how I look at herbalism.
The lecture about the GI tract inspired me to make it a topic for the monthly study group, along with herbs for a healthy sleep, and a review of the rose family. The monthly study groups were a constructive outlet for me to focus my studying on a particular topic and to organize and present my information to a small group. As time goes on, I find I am becoming more comfortable sharing the itty bitty bits of knowledge I have. I also led two classes at a woman’s gathering on the south shore of Lake Superior in Wisconsin, one on herbs for pregnancy and another about the menstrual cycle herbs to promote a healthy cycle. The latter was a bit overwhelming to teach; there is so much information and possibilities. I love the interplay between all the different hormones and structures of the endocrine system. Here I am again, getting stuck in the details…
Speaking about herbs for pregnancy, I have been putting together some basic pregnancy formulas and selling them here and there. Who knew it’d be so fun making big batches of raspberry leaf tea blends?! I love getting out the fancy scale and making a big, aromatic, herbal mess on my dining-room table. One of my current herb goals is to make herbs more accessible to people in my community, and this is one tiny step in that direction. My biggest frustration is that there isn’t an herbal apothecary in Duluth that can formulate gobs of remedies for all sorts of people. Of course, I hope to be doing just that in the not-too-distant future, but until then all I can do is give people resources.
Back to the plants. I was able to explore a few mini-ecosystems in my region, such as the sandy forest of northern Wisconsin lake country (Hayward area), where I saw tons of blue flags, boneset, bugleweed, two types of meadowsweet, blue vervain, sweet fern (comptenia), cinquifoils, wild blueberries, lady’s thumb and the world’s tiniest violet-the flowers were about 1/4 inch in diameter. Down in central Minnesota outside of St. Cloud where it is flat, fertile and hot, I found rattlesnake master, native astragalus, yellow and purple coneflowers, prairie sage, wormwood, elecampane, bee balm, black eyed Susan, gravel root and nettle. One of my favorite finds was driving about an hour south of Duluth on highway 35: glorious pleurisy root, attracting bumble bees and monarchs to the its florescent array of orange flowers. Up on the Superior Hiking Trail, I found a patches after patches of Solomon’s seal, and harvested an eight-year-old root.
There were surprises in my own urban neighborhood, too. One sunny July day I woke up and decided I needed to order some figwort for the lymph stagnation I was experiencing. Sure enough, I found a stand of flowering figwort on my morning walk, on my favorite route that I’ve walked hundreds of times before. It was growing next to a group of aconite I’ve never noticed before, either. How can you miss the dramatic dark purple of monk’s hood?! I am so thankful that I found that figwort patch. Another plant I never noticed until this year is wild carrot growing abundantly in an ally by my house. How it missed my eye I do not know; as I sit at the computer I can see them across the street and through the window. Was it possible they were not there until this year? Perhaps, but I also think plants reveal themselves to you when the time is right.
This summer I delved into tincture making. I ventured over the bridge to Wisconsin to buy some grain alcohol with hopes of standardizing some tinctures, but I never found an accurate vessel to measure milliliters, so I just guessed. So much for standardizing! I have red clover, St. John’s wort, anise hyssop and other mints, boneset, blue vervain, tulsi, California poppy, bugleweed, horsetail, rose petal, rose petal elixir (inspired by Kiva Rose), sweet meliot, yarrow, shepherds purse, cottonwood, mugwort and the list goes on. In the next herbal study group, we are going to harvest roots, barks and twigs. Today I hope to gather some choke cherries and the green seed tops of wild carrot; and this week I am getting glycerine to make elixirs from the mints from the garden.I hope the fall is as productive as the summer has been; there is certainly a lot of harvesting left to do!