Written by Nikki Darrell
There are many things to think about when training in herbalism, and this article guides you on what to look for to make sure you get the most out of your training.
There is a growing interest in herbs, herbalism and plant medicine in general. More and more articles appear in the media and on social media, including some ads that pop up claiming to fully train herbalists from £50.00 and in alarmingly short periods of time. It takes time to become a herbalist and even when the training is completed it is a continuing process of life long discovery and learning.
A plant science professor friend said to me that herbalists are rather unique since we have cross disciplinary learning covering plant sciences, human , clinical knowledge as well as understanding the philosophy of healing. We are a quite unusual people in these times of reductionist and specialist trainings. The interdisciplinary art and science of herbalism gives a worldview that is most valuable for the times we live in.
In this article we will explore the journey to becoming a herbalist practitioner.
“There are people and plants who form part of the herbal network or web as the mycorrhizal network underpinning the world of plant medicine, and the clinical professional herbalists are like the fruiting bodies that pop up and help to spread and extend the web.” – Andrew Flower
The herbal network includes growers, wildcrafters, manufacturers, educators, historians, researchers, chefs and cooks, scientists, lifelong enthusiasts and also the practitioners. Without the mycelium and supporting biome the practitioners would not come into being.
With such a diverse ecosystem, there are many ways to be part of it and many paths to be explored and some people decide they do indeed want to become practitioners.
Becoming a herbalist practitioner
Each person’s journey to becoming a herbal practitioner is highly personal and may be influenced in various ways:
Family or community; successful treatment of a condition by a practitioner or someone in the community; reading; botanical gardens or places in nature; an enthusiastic teacher at primary or secondary school; workshops; introductory training leading to more in-depth studies; apprenticing to a practitioner, these are some of the things that may kindle an interest in pursuing this vocation.
Anyone who starts to explore the rich ecosystem of herbal healing will at some point decide whether they are a lay enthusiast or wish to take their learning to a deeper level to become a professional/vocational herbalist.
Many people start with a foundation or introductory course to see if this path is indeed for them and there are some excellent ones such as:
- Heartwood foundation course
- The Scottish School of Herbal Medicine Apprenticeship
- The Rhizome Clinic Courses
- Grass Roots Remedies Wild Things
- Betonica Home Herbalist
- Anne Mcintyre offers courses in the Ayurvedic approach
- The Ayurveda Academy
- Plant Medicine School – At home with Herbs (this can lead to a herbal apprenticeship)
- School of Intuitive Herbalism
- Kitchen Medicine Introductory Course
This list of foundation trainings is not exhaustive, there are others of excellent quality and it really depends on what kind of course, teaching methodology and teachers appeal to you. There are also quite a few herbalists running short introductory taster courses in domestic herbalism, gathering or growing herbs.
Pathways to becoming the herbalist one wants to be
In order to become a herbalist one needs to decide on one’s pathway, although this may evolve and change of time and as one studies.
When choosing where to train it is important for a person to identify the best fit for them.
Some people like a more reductive biomedical or scientific approach and some prefer a more experiential and relational approach. It is important to explore the approaches taken by the various training establishments before making a choice.
One also needs to decide on the style of practice and the energetic system they wish to learn-TCM, Ayurveda, Western traditions, ethnic energetics from one’s own cultural background, Biomedical, Psycho-emotional, Relational for example. Some trainings are multifaceted, combining several approaches. There is no single way to practise herbalism so it is important to find what feels right for you.
There are also the practicalities of time available and finding a course structure that fits into your life commitments.
Then there is whether you prefer more online or in person learning, although most of the courses combine a mixture of the two as an adaptation to the times we live in.
Finally, there is the element of cost.
Thankfully, these days there is a breadth of training available and many of the schools are now working together to ensure inclusivity, diversity and mutual support between schools to open up student centred learning which helps the student become the kind of herbalist they wish to be and excel at it. It is exciting to see many of the schools collaborating to build a student centred approach with the possibilities of exchanges and decentralisation of learning but with the mentorship and guidance of the chosen ‘home’ school there to support and evaluate progress.
The purpose of undertaking a training is to gain the core competencies needed to be a herbalist of quality and of practitioner capacities.
Evaluation of competencies
The core competencies needed to become a proficient herbalist include most, if not all, of the following:
- Safety (herbal safety, red flags, drug herb interactions , posology or dosage facts)
- Professionalism-legal and ethical practice. Understanding the scope and limit of practice
- A knowledge of materia medica, the herbs used in one’s tradition, and sources of sustainable supply of herbs
- The capacity to study and integrate evidence from different knowledge sources including traditional, creative, and scientific. Both literary sources and direct experience
- The capacity to assess and diagnose
- A knowledge of medicine making, pharmacy, pharmacognosy and dispensing.
- Nurturing diversity and inclusivity and developing a culturally appropriate paradigm, including an understanding of the history and politics of plant medicine ( removing erasure, colonialism, commodification and appropriation)
- Patient-centred care-integrative and holistic. Acknowledging the importance of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of wellness. The capacity to offer advice on diet, lifestyle and other factors contributing to health and wellness in an achievable manner taking account of financial, cultural and other factors.
- Reflective practice
- Practice-based learning
- Sustainability-ecological, social and economic
- Communication skills
For a person training to be a herbalist there are 2 main options as regards the evaluation of competencies gained.
Most people attend their school/college of choice and work through the programme gaining competencies until they reach their final assessments and graduate.
Other people may have gained competencies in another country or in several locations and therefore their experiential learning needs to be evaluated to ensure they have gained the required competencies.
In the latter case some of the schools offer a bridging training whereby any gaps in studies and competencies are filled rather than having to undertake a complete programme. Alternatively, several of the professional associations offer a grandparenting process to enable those who have not undertaken an accredited course to identify any gaps and give advice on how to fill these to achieve the required level of competencies needed. These processes are often honed to make them more user friendly in many instances.
Along the journey to becoming a herbalist there may be many influences and detours, explorations and experimentations. And when one gets the piece of paper the learning and development does not stop- it is more of a starting point again since there is so much to learn and explore. This is the evolution of the practitioner. It truly is a lifelong journey. Continuing professional development and reflective practice are a valuable and necessary part of the practitioner’s work.
It is also important to check if one can get insurance as a herbalist with the course they choose to embark on. Check if schools are accredited with a verified regulating body and call the school, and insurance companies to be sure. This applies if you plan to take on patients as a practitioner.
What kind of herbalist do you want to be?
Once a person has become a practitioner the next step is to decide how they are going to use their skills and this may change over time. It may also be influenced by how they came to decide to be a herbalist in the first place.
Some people choose to have a consulting practice working in a clinic one to one with patients as their entire work.
Others may decide to use their skills in developing products and supplying these OTC either in a shop setting or over the internet.
Some may decide they wish to work with the plants-growing harvesting and processing.
Some go into research whether historical, lab based, ethnobotanical and traditional herbal practice or one of the other fascinating areas of this discipline.
Some go into a more artistic way of working- story telling and writing, drawing, painting, dyeing, fabricating, performance art.
Then there are those who wish to use their knowledge to share information and skills with those who wish to use herbs for the health of themselves, their family and community. They may run workshops and short course about plant identification, wild crafting, growing herbs, simple medicine making or other skills. They help people learn how to safely harvest and prepare their own domestic remedies from the plants growing around them and also from kitchen materials and ingredients like ginger, cabbage, cinnamon, salt and many more.
Practitioners may work with in their local communities with special interest groups, schools, community gardens, active retirement groups and many other groups to educate and teach safe community herbalism.
By broadening the concept of what a herbalist is from purely a consulting practitioner we see how those who have trained can use their expertise and knowledge to further promote and educate people about the value of our medicine so that we can work towards once again having a herbalist in every community and communities where herbal medicine is seen as a first choice in health care and a vibrant and valuable part of keeping ourselves well and treating disease. All this helps to shift the societal culture forwards to a place where this potentially most sustainable form of medicine is once again central in our culture. This is the way it is for over 60% of the world’s population.