Instinct and intuition make the art of home herbalism, but they should be rooted in a strong foundation to be successful. Before we dive into formulas and recipes and parenting hacks to get remedies into toddlers, let’s establish a common foundation of principles.
Home herbalism, and folk medicine in general, is a nonhierarchical practice that disrupts white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and other manifestations of the Supremacy Paradigm Bullshit Parade, simply through virtue of being accessible to and the provenance of normal folk, both currently and historically. In other words, it’s ours because it was always ours and we continue to make it ours, by using folk medicine and teaching others.
There are many different schools of thought in herbalism; they are all right. We accept this basic premise as a gesture of mutual respect across cultures and a rejection of patriarchal white supremacy.
Sometimes, an herbalist or other flavor of folk healer may engage in aggressive criticism or censuring of other practitioners’ perspective; this is a manifestation of internalized supremacy. The way that Western Traditions herbalists use herbs is not more right or less right than how Ayurvedic practitioners work, for instance. We may differ on the language we use, our philosophies of energetics, even our understanding of the role of organs in the body, let alone how long we brew tinctures or whether we call alteratives “tonics.” Debate is essential to further our understanding of herbs and healing, but it must originate from a place of curiosity and collaboration; the practice of cutting each other down in order to promote one’s own world view as the only “correct” one harms the art as a whole.
All this is to say: it is a nonhierarchical art. We can all be herbalists, we can all hobble and putter and figure it out, and we can all enthusiastically leap into making our own mistakes. As long as a folk healer is practicing their art ethically (toward people, plants, and everything else), and is not potentially hurting anyone, we all get to be right.
Holism is the central pillar of holistic medicine. This principle states that everything is connected and affects everything else. The idea that you could be walking around with heartburn, trouble sleeping, a stressful job, and a crush on your barista, but none of it is connected: that is a fallacy we resoundingly reject. All things are connected, from the communities of cells in our microbiome and our busy little mitochondrial RNA to our relationships with our families and communities, and to the larger natural world of which we are a small part: our lives directly impact the lives of all other creatures and all aspects of the world around us. We are but a Russian nesting doll.
The goal of all schools of holistic medicine is to reestablish or maintain balance. It is a practice of nurturing our existing strengths and restoring areas that have eroded. The focus is generally on health maintenance and maximization, not heroic medicine. If you cut off your hand, please go to the hospital. We use herbs to maintain or return our bodies to balance by compensating when we are out of balance, without overcompensating in the other direction. Ideally, we start with gentle, nurturing remedies and increase in strength as needed, to promote a reestablishment of balance instead of overcompensation. This is especially important when using herbs with children, pregnancy, and the elderly, as these life stages tend to be more receptive and sensitive.
The principle of synergy states that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. My favorite metaphor for this is from an old student. I explained (at great length, and with many hand gestures and probably some pacing), and ended with any questions? and she yells out GUACAMOLE and in that moment I was in the presence of genius. Because yes: synergy is the difference between tomatoes, onions, and avocados, and guacamole. Synergy is important both in terms of understanding how herbs work and how to use them effectively.
Whole plant medicine is when remedies are made from actual plant parts, like root tincture, not isolated or standardized compounds. It is often more effective than isolated compounds because many compounds combine synergistically within the plant, working together to accomplish change, whether that’s protection from bacterial infections, warding off insects, or protection from sun damage; plants don’t have legs, after all; instead, they have anthocyanins. This is part of why herbs often have deeper, more long term benefits than pharmaceuticals: herbal medicine is a collaborative effort of phytochemicals working to promote the life of the plant, not an isolated chemical compound affecting a single site.
Additionally, some plant medicines have a synergistic effect when we use numerous parts from the same plant: I tincture echinacea leaves, flowers, seeds, and roots separately as the seasons progress, then combine them all for a stronger, more complex remedy; this is also sometimes called “whole plant medicine,” which is understandably confusing.
Synergy can be enhanced by the route of administration. Nutritive herbs yield more minerals into a vinegary bone-broth soup, and the love and care in cooking increases the healing properties. In general, the practice of food as medicine increases synergy: there is very little that can’t be improved by lactofermentation and essential fatty acids. The bright resiliency of wild-crafted St Johns Wort, thriving on wind and neglect and dry soil, comes out best in a high alcohol tincture: no succor for the thirsty. Honey is a remedy in its own right, and will impart anti-inflammatory anti-infective probiotic healing awesomeness to whatever you put in it, but picture honeyed tea when you have a sore throat: the sticky soothing slide of the honey relieves pain even as it helps the herbs stick where they need to be, making the herbs more powerful.
Something is soluble if it dissolves in a particular liquid: picture stirring sugar into hot tea (soluble) versus cold water (not). Plant compounds that we use for medicine have to dissolve in the water/alcohol/honey/oil/etc. All plants contain both water-soluble and alcohol-soluble constituents. The question is how the medicinal compounds that you want extract best. The plants have a preference for the ideal balance to get the most well rounded medicine; make water-preferential or alcohol-preferential medicine based on what results you want (i.e. burdock tincture versus burdock vinegar). Most plant medicine is best with a balance of both: dandelion, nettles, holy basil. Some really extract best in one or the other: slippery elm, echinacea. Remember that vinegar extracts water-soluble (polar) compounds (and in the case of minerals, is better than water at it). This is not the place for a long exploration of solubility in medicine-making, so please see this article for a more in-depth discussion, and here as it applies specifically to tincture-making in 301 easy steps.
Herbs are not substitute pharmaceuticals, and they aren’t intended to be. A common fallacy is the idea that an herb can be used instead of a pharmaceutical in exactly the same manner. There are some cases where this may work reasonably well, like taking valerian instead of ambien, but the vast majority of the time this is not the case; herbs often take longer to work, work more thoroughly, and work best as part of a formula or protocol. Pharmaceuticals are made up of one or several isolated, concentrated compounds, whereas herbs are made up of hundreds of complex, interacting, synergistic magical things and sunlight and the dreams of raindrops and unicorn flatulence and also phytochemicals.
Herbs and drugs are not the same, so let’s accept the premise that we will not be replacing a pharmaceutical with an herb. An example I see frustratingly often is the birthing couple who wants to avoid getting induced with pitocin (an IV medication that causes uterine contractions to induce labor), so buys evening primrose oil (EPO), but doesn’t start taking it until the midwife has given an induction deadline. EPO works well as a cervical ripener, to make the body receptive and juicy and ready to labor, but it’s not plug and play like pitocin: waiting to the last minute usually doesn’t work. The EPO protocol involves weeks of vaginal suppositories and is most effective combined with acupuncture and a partus preparator formula. Many people have just enough herbal information to know EPO without the fluency to use it effectively, which can be extraordinarily disappointing to birthing families. No magic pills in herbalism.
We are each the utmost authority on our own health. We are not the utmost authority on someone else’s health. Even when someone is making an unarguably bad choice (quit smoking already) we are not the expert on what’s inside them. We are experts at our practice, and we can be of most use by providing tools to help them self-empower in their healing process: contextualizing what is happening, potential outcomes, risks and benefits of therapies, setting achievable goals, etc. The modern model of the unquestionable doctor-god is problematic in that it directly disempowers healthcare seekers, which sows a lack of agency and prevents self-actualization, especially in the presence of trauma. When in doubt, try “Tell me more about that” and dive right in.
Building a basic fluency in herbal concepts takes time, and is definitely less fun than learning individual herbs, but the harvest you reap is a well-developed instinct for how to amass and apply your home apothecary.
May your kitchen witching bloom as you mull it over.
This is an excerpt from Heart & Hearth, my radical family herbalism column in the glorious Plant Healer Magazine. If you don’t already subscribe to the best magazine in herbalism, you can click the link in the sidebar to learn more (and subscribing through that link supports my work, so thank you!)