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Herbalism: Beyond The Basics


The most frequently asked question I get asked as an herbalist is “I want to learn more about herbalism and the concepts that you talk, write and teach about. What classes would you recommend, or what books would you suggest I buy that will teach me more advanced herbalism/the how and why of medicine making?”

I am usually asked this by people who are already fascinated with herbal medicine, and many of them have already spent several years making basic herbal teas, tinctures, infused honey etc., and they want to learn MORE. They want to learn which menstruums best extract which compounds, (alcohol, glycerine, vinegar etc.) which compounds require heat to be extracted, how to learn about contraindications, drug interactions, harvest times for maximum potency, and many other questions that are hard to find in most herbal books and beginner classes available these days.

In addition to “where do I learn more” being the most frequently asked question I get, it’s also one of the hardest questions for me to answer, as there is no book, or class (outside of herbal programs that cost thousands of dollars and years of study time and even many of those aren‘t extraordinary) that I’ve ever found that contains all the information needed for what I’ll call the “moderately dedicated/interested herbalist.” You either need to spend a lot of money, or be insanely dedicated. Most college level programs are out of reach of these intermediate level herbalists both in terms of the time dedication required and the financial output. And because our modern society has moved away from herbal medicine as “serious medicine” and replaced more advanced herbal medicine with pharmaceuticals; as well as moving to an “expert” based society, the information needed to successfully make more advanced herbal medicine has been mostly moved out of the reach of the common man. The herbal medicine making most people are familiar with today has been simplified (unfairly so) to the point where “anyone can do it.” And while anyone CAN start using herbal medicine, the result of this widespread simplification is that there is now teaching everywhere that only allows for mildly potent herbal preparations that are exclusively helpful for mild to moderate conditions. In other words they are lacking power. And because of this, many people now only see herbal medicine as something to reduce an unpleasant symptom, not actually heal the body in any profound way. Herbal books lining the shelves now, are full of information like “lavender can help an itchy bug bite” or “try peppermint for an upset tummy.” The actual how and why these plants effect the body, their chemical makeup, their potential dangers and interactions, etc. have been sequestered away from the public by either the complex and highly confusing language of research papers, or cost prohibitive higher educational programs. Now that’s not to say the information has been lost, far from it! It’s more along the lines of how the Catholic church refused to allow the Bible to be translated into a language that the common man could understand, and instead held the Holy book hostage in Latin. Not that some group of people is purposely trying to make herbalism hard to understand; rather because the common people lost interest in herbalism and sought out “experts” instead of learning this information for themselves as they had done previously for thousands of years; the more advanced info was slowly given over to the scientists, and their “language” of chemistry, and research papers.

You can find more advanced information on herbs that you need without spending tens of thousands of dollars on a formal education, but it will cost you a lot of time and dedication instead, and will require you in a large part to learn a whole new language. There simply aren’t a plethora of books that help herbalists move from intermediate to advanced herbalism.

I DESPERATELY wish there were, as it would save me an enormous amount of time trying to answer questions, and help guide beginning and intermediate herbalists in a helpful direction.

People often assume that since I can spout a lot of advanced information with relative ease about herbal medicine, and use advanced techniques in my own medicine making and herbal practice, that I can easily recommend a few books that will explain why I do what I do. Sadly, that’s not the case.

To explain better where my knowledge comes from, here is a little about my own person journey through herbalism.

I was always a kid who loved plants, animals, and anything to do with nature. At the age of 12 my passion for plants took a direct turn and distilled down into an obsession and fascination with herbalism. I became obsessed with herbs, how they work, what they do in the body, how to harness their medicinal qualities, and how to effectively use them every day. I devoured hundreds of books in my preteen and teen years, took local beginner classes on wildcrafting, medicine making, and growing herbs. I had virtually no friends, was homeschooled, and spent almost every minute of free time on learning about herbs. And since we were not allowed to be on the internet, or watch TV, listen to the radio, etc., that gave me extra free time most of my peers used on electronics, and I spent that free time obsessively learning and experimenting with growing herbs, and making potent medicine. I became a licensed nursery owner when I was 14 and sold herb starts wholesale to all the local nurseries in the surrounding area where I lived, and used that money to purchase more plants, dried herbs I couldn’t grow, and the ingredients I needed to make basic skin care and medicinal herbal preparations. My parents didn’t help fund my research or purchases, and I had to work my butt off for everything I got.

I then gave away for free the products I made to friends and family and asked for nothing but their feedback in exchange. I made thousands of dollars worth of products in my early teens and gave it all aways for multiple years JUST to get feedback. Asking questions like: Does it work? How could it be better? Do you like the texture? How effective was it in different circumstances? Etc. Adults were very accommodating and honest, and I got a lot great feedback over my teen years. I was told things didn’t work, or that people didn’t like things that herbal books ASSURED me would be extremely effective! This “negative” but extremely helpful feedback allowed me to improve my medicines and skin care products drastically, and also set me on the path of higher learning, because I realized that all the promises found in most basic herbal books were simply hollow. Beginner books (aka the books you find on the shelves of most book stores or Amazon) tell the properties of plants and state things like “this herb is anti-inflammatory, helps reduce pain, and speeds the healing of infections.” While that may indeed be true, the book would give no details about how or why a plant had those properties, or how to most effectively harness them. Instead, they would suggest things like making an infused oil with the plant that supposedly (at least it was implied) had all those previously claimed properties. (What would be the point of it otherwise?) The herbal oil was then suggested to be used topically to reduce pain, inflammation, etc. However, the writer did not have the knowledge to understand that while yes, the plant itself contains compounds that do have those effects, many of those compounds are NOT oil soluble, nor are they able to penetrate the skin barrier. Therefore an oil made will not contain those properties of the aforementioned plant, and thus will not be effective in reducing any of those symptoms.

As my research and experimentation of herbs continued, this great divide between the knowledge provided in most herbalism books, and the actual reality of what was extracted, absorbabl, bio-available, etc. became more and more obvious. Where was the REAL information? I knew plants were incredibly powerful and effective, but the information and recipes that were easily found were anything BUT powerful or effective. So I used my naturally obsessive nature and dove into reading all the research papers I could find online, hunted for old advanced herbal medicine books at used book stores, and then moved to medical textbooks, and modern chemistry books to find out more information about specific compounds found in herbs, how they interact with different menstruums, how they interact in the body, if they can pass the skin barrier, how they react in the digestive system etc. Fast-forward to now, as I’m in my late 30’s, and I’ve been madly researching medicinal plants and how they can be used effectively, for over 20 years. I’ve accumulated a vast amount of information In my own research, and information from formal education and certifications, and I utilize the information Ive collected almost daily in my herbal preparations and interactions with clients.

So….. when someone comes and asks me how to find the information I have spent 20 plus years accumulating from all over creation; I’m a bit at a loss. Honestly the programs Ive spent the most money on gave me the least information. And I HATE that! I want nothing more than to be able to say “here is a great class you should take to learn all this” or “here is a series of books that will tell you everything you need to know!” But alas, even after 20 years of buying books in hope I will one day find the Holy Grail of herbal medicine information, I still have yet to discover it. The pieces of the puzzle can be found, but the whole puzzle itself is not available in a handy boxed form. You have to be willing to curate the information yourself, bits at a time, from all over creation, for years. Unless you are willing to spend years of your life solely dedicated to learning, and spend thousands of dollars on a college experience. There is a reason really good herbal education programs are so expensive. It takes a massive amount of effort to curate this type of information and put it into a cohesive program. And while that is frustrating, it also prevents less that serious herbalists from simply learning the lingo and gaining trust and respect merely by reading a book. Respect and trust that should be reserved for those who have years of practice and experience, not mere book learning.

That being said, I do think there is a need for making this type of information more readily available. The older “advanced” herbalism books don’t have the advantage of modern chemistry and the understanding of how and why things act in the body the way they do, and because of this there is a huge need for more books that marry the old and the new ways together to be written. I hope one day soon to do my part in contributing to the writing of some of these new works that I know will one day be available for future generations. But until then, the only way to get this more advanced information is to curate it from a variety of sources.

I’ve spent years purchasing books in hope that I would FINALLY find “the one” that I could recommend to all the wonderful people who ask me how to find this information. And while I haven’t succeeded in finding “the one” I have found a variety of puzzle pieces in various books that could be very helpful for those wanting to expand their knowledge in herbalism and chemistry as it relates to herbalism. Below, I am going to list some book titles that herbalists who find themselves leaving the beginning or intermediate stages of herbalism and moving into more advanced herbalism might find helpful.

Some of these titles contain a mixture of beginner, intermediate, and advanced information, others are predominately intermediate information, and a few may require a significant amount of knowledge to correctly interpret and apply in a helpful way. Most of these books aren’t cheap, but if you’ve been dabbling in herbalism for very long you’ve found the cheap books are rarely helpful. I will include a brief description of what information these books cover, and who might find them helpful. I will also note if this book will be most useful for beginner, intermediate or advanced herbalists. Beginner herbalists are unlikely to find the intermediate to advanced texts very helpful, but more advanced herbalists may still find the beginner books helpful if they have not extensively studied those specific plants, modalities, applications, etc.


Native American Ethnobotany

By: Daniel E. Moerman

Intermediate-Advanced

This is a very large book and contains as vast amount of plants that are native to North America, and gives the details of what different indigenous tribes used those plants for. This is an excellent resource for the dedicated wild-crafter that wishes to harvest both medicinal and food plants. It goes into very little detail on how they used the plant other than specifying the part of the plant that was used for certain purposes, and contains very little information about how they processed or prepared the plant. It’s extremely valuable as a puzzle piece to get a window into what plants were used, and other books can come alongside that information and tell us more about how to prepare them in a potent and effective way. This book has been invaluable for me in my research to understand how wild plants can be used for our health and well-being. It also gives interesting details about how the indigenous tribes used plant material for daily living such as which plants are best for basket weaving, dying cloth etc.


Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants

By: Scott Kloos

Beginner to Intermediate

This is one of my most frequently recommended books for plant identification in the pacific northwest. It has fantastic photos, details about where to find the plants, when to harvest them, what parts to harvest, and what they are helpful for and what potential dangers they have. This is an excellent guide to have in your car if you are going hiking or wildcrafting, as a reference. Highly recommended for beginner wild-crafters.


Mountain States Medicinal Plants

By: Briana Wiles

Beginner- Intermediate

This is another of my most frequently recommended books for plant identification and wildcrafting in the pacific northwest. It is in the same format as the Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants book listed above (in fact they almost look like the exact same book) and has some overlap with the above listed book, but has enough difference that I recommend any beginner wild-crafter in the pacific northwest that is serious about learning how to harvest wild plants get both books. The photos are great, the details are good, it’s not too wordy, but contains valuable info. Highly recommended for beginner wild-crafters.


Medicinal Plants Of the Pacific West

By Michael Moore

Beginner-Intermediate

While this book does not have great photos, it covers a wider variety of plants than the two books above, and goes into greater detail on how to properly identify them in the wild, as well as more details about how to use them in herbal preparations and medicines. Michael Moore is a renowned herbalist that offers excellent insights into the herbs covered in this book.


Indian Herbalogy Of North America

By: Alma R. Hutchens

Beginner-Intermediate

This book is written in an encyclopedia format, and contains more than 200 medicinal plants found in North America, with descriptions of each plants appearance and uses, directions for methods of use and dosage, etc. There is also discussion about how Native American traditions compare with Russian and Chinese traditional herbal medicine practices. It is not a good plant identification book, but used in combination with other identification guides it can be a very helpful companion book. The descriptions of each plant are not lengthy, but they often contain information that other books eliminate, or fail to mention, which is handy for those looking for more information than the average herbal book provides.


The Fungal Pharmacy

By: Robert Rogers

Intermediate-Advanced

This book is a phenomenal resource for learning about the medicinal and nutritional uses of mushrooms and lichens of north America. If you want to know about mushrooms and lichen, THIS is the book for you. Detailed information about species, research, uses, and some photos that help with identification. It talks in much more detail about every species and their specific nuances than any other book I’ve come across.


Ethnobotany: Evolution of A Discipline

Edited and Compiled By: Schultes & Von Reis

Intermediate-Advanced

Ethnobotany the scientific study of the traditional knowledge and customs of a people concerning plants and their medical, religious, and other uses. This book gives a fantastic overview of how plant medicine has shaped cultures and geography. This isn’t a reference book, but will deepen your appreciation for what a profound way plants and their medicine have impacted our world.


The Herbal Medicine-Makers Handbook

By: James Green

Beginner-Advanced (for a quick reference book)

This is one of the #1 books I recommend for people asking me about medicine making information. It isn’t what I would consider advanced, but it has a lot more of the “why” answers than any other single book I’ve found. Information like the basics of when you would want to use alcohol, vinegar, water, or glycerine to extract certain things, etc. you will find in this book. Not specifics about each herb, just a general overview of why different menstruums are chosen for different herbs or different parts of the herb. It includes an overview of how to extract what you want to extract from a plant etc. and it goes into the basics/intermediate information on maceration vs percolation tinctures, making oil infusions, ointments, salves, balms, lotions, creams, suppositories, boluses, syrups, honeys, oxymels, electuaries, etc. This is an EXCELLENT choice for any herbalist that is looking to make herbal medicines for themselves or others.


The Medical Classic Of The Yellow Emperor

Intermediate-Advanced

This is a very old book, written in the form of a conversation between Huang Di and his ministers. The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Medicine contains a wealth of knowledge, including etiology, physiology, diagnosis, therapy, and prevention of disease, as well as in-depth investigation of such diverse subjects as ethics, psychology, and cosmology.

It is impossible to use as a reference book, but contains highly valuable information much of which has been almost entirely lost, especially in western herbalism.


Chinese Herbal Medicine

Materia Medica

Compiled And Translated By: Dan Bensky, Steven Clavey, Erich Stöger

Intermediate-Advanced

This manual contains a large amount of information about specific plants. It also goes into a fair amount of detail on how certain plants should be used/extracted etc. for maximum potency. This book does not go into any detail on why plants should be prepared the way they suggest, it just tells you for example “boil it” but doesn’t go into any detail as to why. It is an excellent reference source when combine with other books. It is also a great book for those who wish to know how to prepare herbal medicine in an effective manner, but don’t really care about the details of why. If you are a “just tell me how to do it” person, you may enjoy this book. You will need to have a fairly good foundation in herbalism and herbal medicine making in order for this book to be very helpful for you. It is organized by scientific name and the Chinese names of the plants, which makes it a little more awkward to use than many other books. But it does have an english index in the back, so with a bit of work, you can easily find what you need. Because the herbs in this book are all herbs used in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) there will be quite a few plants and herbs that are used frequently in North America that will be entirely missing. But the amount of overlap that TCM and Western Herbalism have, make this a very useful reference for any herbalist.


Herbal Antibiotics

By: Stephen Buhner

Beginner-Advanced

Stephen Buhner is one of my favorite herbalists and has fantastic information for beginners to advanced herbalists. For an advanced herbalist, they will know a lot of what is in this book, but are very likely to find a few gems that make this book well worth the investment and a good reference book to have sitting on the shelf. It’s organized well, easy enough for beginners to understand. It is limited to discussing the antibiotic properties of the list of herbs discussed. He does not go into details of the other properties the herbs being discussed also posses, but rather stays focused on the antibiotic properties.


Herbal Anti-Virals

By: Stephen Buhner

Beginner-Adanced

Just like Buhner’s book on Antibiotics listed above, this book is written with the exact same format, only with a focus of Anti-Viral herbs, how to use them effectively, etc. This is a valuable resource for beginner and advanced herbalists alike.


Traditional Western Herbalism And Pulse Evaluation, A Conversation

By Matthew Wood, Francis Bonaldo, and Phyllis Light.

Advanced

This book is a fantastic book for practitioners, especially those who are interested in learning about the age-old art of pulse-reading. It goes into details of different cultures and how they use pulse evaluation in their natural healing modalities, the basics of pulse diagnosis, pulse and circulation and what it means, blood types, elements, tastes, seasons of the blood, and much much more. Beginner, and most intermediate herbalists will not find this book very helpful, but advanced herbalists and other natural health practitioners may find incorporating pulse evaluation into their practice to be extremely beneficial in diagnosing and treating patients.


American Materia Medica Therapeutics And Pharmacognosy (1915)

By: Finley Ellingwood and John Uri Lloyd

Advanced

I put this in the advanced category because there has to be a fair amount of knowledge already present to use any of the information in a practical way. But for those looking for more information on how natural medicine and herbs were used in the past, this can be a very valuable resource. It contains detailed information on the recommended treatments for 1915 for a broad range of conditions. As always with old books, wisdom has to be used because many of the recommendations from that time period were proven later to be unhelpful or downright dangerous. But nonetheless, the information found here can be extremely helpful in filling in the holes that modern books have, and in shedding a light on how particular plants or extracts were used in the past.


Herbal Formularies For Health Professionals Volume 1

Digestion And Elimination

By: Dr Jill Stansbury N.D

Intermediate-Advanced

As the name would imply, this is a series of books, written for health care practitioners each book focuses on a particular system, or systems in the body. Even though they are designed for professionals, they are written in a form that intermediate herbalists will easily be able to understand, and contain a great amount information on more advanced herbalism, and move FAR beyond the usual herbal recommendations most books suggest. If you are an intermediate herbalist and aren’t practicing, but are struggling with your own health in one of these areas, you will likely find the book corresponding to your issue very helpful. The books do not build on each other, and are complete works in and of themselves, but are great as a whole set as well.

Herbal Formularies For Health Professionals Volume 2

Circulation And Respiration

By: Dr. Jill Stansbury N.D.

Intermediate-Advanced

Excellent book, read overview of volume 1 for more details on this series.

Herbal Formularies For Health Professionals Volume 3

Endocrinology

By: Dr. Jill Stansbury, N.D.

Intermediate-Advanced

Excellent book, read overview of volume 1 for more details on this series.

Herbal Formularies For Health Professionals Volume 4

Neurology, Psychiatry, And Pain Management

By: Dr. Jill Stansbury, ND

Intermediate-Advanced

Excellent book, read overview of volume 1 for more details on this series.


Impaired Health It’s Cause And Cure: A Repudiation of The Conventional Treatment Of Disease

By: Dr.John H. Tilden

Advanced

This is another old book, written in 1921. This book isn’t specific to herbal medicine, but is a rather detailed manual of diseases, the causes (or believed causes at the time) of those diseases, and how they were treated with a variety of natural, or pharmaceutical medicine. It talks about a lot of diseases that aren’t really common anymore, such as small pox, typhoid fever, etc., as well as many diseases still common in our society today. The information is very valuable for individuals looking for puzzle pieces on how to treat modern diseases that are poorly understood, but that have commonalities with these older diseases, and insights into how they were treated in the early 1900’s and what was and wasn’t effective.


The Complete Herbalist: The People Their Own Physicians By The Use Of Nature’s Remedies

By: O. Phelps Brown.

Intermediate-Advanced

This book was written in 1875, and is an excellent choice for herbalists who are looking for more information on the historical use of certain plants. It is arranged in an encyclopedia style, starting first with alphabetical lists of specific herbs and details about each plant and their uses. It then moves on to specific ailments, (again in alphabetical order) discussing how each condition should be treated. Of course, as always with old books, not all recommendations are safe or effective, but it can be an incredible look into how they did things in the past; as well as helping shed more light on some practices that are still considered safe and effective, and provide information on why certain preparations were made certain ways, or specifics on why it matters when a plant is harvested, or what part is used for specific conditions.


Herbal Constituents: Foundations Of Phytochemistry

By: Lisa Ganora

Advanced

If you don’t understand chemistry at all, or have no idea what compounds you are even trying to extract from the plants, you will find this book about as helpful as a book written in Greek (unless of course you speak Greek.) This book is invaluable for someone who knows exactly what they are trying to extract, and needs more information about what ways that particular compound is soluble, etc. Once you know the compound you are after (which is relatively easy to find out from other sources, books or online) then you need to know what functional group that compound belongs to. For example is the compound you are wanting to extract and use an Ester, or phenol, Sulfide, etc? This book can help you figure that out. It contains an overview of phytochemicals, the basic structure of phytochemicals, phytochemical bonding, functional groups, rings and ring systems, isomers and stereochemistry, etc. It also covers information on the solubility and extraction of herbal constituents, synergy and variability in herbs and formulas, herbal constituents outlines, carbohydrates in medicinal plants, lipids in medicinal food and herbs, amino acids and derivatives, polyphenols, terpenoids, alkaloids, and a phytochemical glossary.

This book is invaluable for the serious medicine maker, or someone who wants their medicinal preparations to be both as safe and potent as possible. However, like I said, to the beginner herbalist it will be extremely confusing unless you have a significant background in chemistry, and even for the intermediate herbalist a good portion of this is still likely to feel like staring at Greek. So don’t waste your money unless you are actually wanting to know details of the chemistry behind herbal medicine making.


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