What is Herbalism?

“A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself.”

~ Ferris Bueller

Herbalism is the study or practice of working with herbs for a medicinal and therapeutic effect.    

I know, this sounds terribly dry.

But beyond that, there are about as many definitions for Herbalism as there are people practicing it.  So to get to the bottom of what herbalism is, you first need to look at the herbalist.

Most folk’s idea of an herbalist falls into one of several categories. Witch. Snake oil salesman. Hippie grandmother. Mad scientist. Or some combination of these. And while some of these labels might apply (and indeed, are self applied by some folks), the truth is always more complex.

There are many different structured traditions of herbal medicine. Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, Unani Tibb, Naturopathy, Western Herbalism. These are just a few common approaches, and just within these there are countless variations.  You can see where this could start to get complicated. 

To throw another wrench in the works, many herbal practitioners don’t just work with herbs. Most herbalists I’ve met, whatever their background, are usually looking at a bigger picture as well. Diet, exercise, mental and emotional health, and human community are just a few aspects that most folks are taking into account. Not to mention more energetic/spiritual kinds of work.

Take all these factors together, and you now have a proper jumble.

Sweet old abuelas in the American Southwest and nationally certified doctors in Europe. Ayurvedic doctors in India, TCM doctors in China, Shaman's in the forests of the Amazon. And ‘regular’ folks from all over the world just trying to heal themselves with plants grown in their own gardens. These can all be considered herbalists, practicing some kind of herbalism.

The moral of the story? If you are a fan of herbal medicine, or an aspiring herbalist yourself, don’t get too caught up in the details. Much as we might like to have a nice tidy answer, herbal medicine is just not something that can be summed up with an ‘ism’.  With a something as big and vague as this, it is important to find your own definition. 

This is the definition I come back to:

It’s the symbiosis of plants and people.
It’s part of being human.                                                                                                                         And if you let it, it’s where the line between being separate from everything and being connected begins to blur.

How to Learn More

Sign up for one of our Introduction to Herbalism classes, and dive into the world of herbal medicine.


Check out the Resources section of our website. We are always updating with new pages on herbal medicine and plant info.