Folk Herbalism

The Roots Revival


The Reevaluation, Reclamation and Resurgence of Folk Herbalism

“To ignore the experience of people trained in the science of their day, or simply expert in the practical application of folk medicine, is both culturally bigoted and unscientific. We cannot presume that conventional modern science knows everything. Folk tradition includes many more layers of nuanced experience, including information drawn from the imagination, intuition, observation of animals, bedside experience, taste and smell, that the inherently limited boundaries of modern science cannot include. These layers of knowledge enrich, rather than deduct from scientific endeavor.”
–Matthew Wood (Traditional Western Herbalist)

“We were created out of the earth there. Well, we’re part of the earth, and that’s what we’ve got to go back to the earth to get something to keep this body a-ticking. Just like the tree, of course, and the herbs here, they’ve got sap in em, and we’ve got blood.”
–Tommie Bass (Appalachian Folk Herbalist)

With the current economic hardships, there’s been a revived interest in all sorts of folk arts as well as an upsurge in enthusiasm for the do-it-yourself mentality. And rightly so, as our culture finally awakens to the need for increased sustainability and self-sufficiency. Once relegated to the impoverished or for decorative purposes only, gardening has seen an incredible upsurge as we once again take an interest in where and how our food is grown. Likewise, many folk arts, from artisan breads to hand woven fibers have become increasingly popular and valued in recent years. Handmade has become something to value rather than scorn in favor of their store boughten counterparts. Locally crafted goods are esteemed over exotic imports as being not only more economical, but also more meaningful and desirable as they connect us to our own bioregions and facilitate an intimacy with place.

In the context of herbalism, however, it seems that the term “folk” is still frequently accompanied by disdainful sentiments, and for the more open minded, a sense of the quaint and cute and old fashioned. Yep, go ahead and look up folk herbalism or folk medicine. Count how many times the terms “rustic”, “primitive” and “non-scientific” come up. Stedman’s Medical Dictionary is kinder, defining  folk medicine as the “treatment of ailments outside clinical medicine by remedies and simple measures based on experience and knowledge handed down from generation to generation.”

Technically, the term folk in this context applies strictly to non-professional or lay people using local or handed down knowledge to treat illness. More realistically, folk herbalism is simply whatever herbal practitioners (professional or not) and practices not currently recognized as valid, acceptable or popular by conventional medicine and mainstream culture. In the U.S., that seems to be just about damn near all of us. Yeah, sure, some of us have managed to fit in a little better, but among plant-loving people there’s still likely to be sage leaves clinging to our lab coats and chokecherry twigs tangled in our hair no matter how many hospitals or integrated clinics we’ve worked in.

I personally see the term folk as an underlying commonality for all grassroots practitioners, all those herbalists who get out in the forests and meadows and gardens and harvest their own medicines and who can recognize their favorite remedies while still growing in the ground and not just from a label on a fancy bottle. After all, folk are just the people. Usually the common people, the non-elite who need sustainable, cheap remedies that actually work without worrying about academic theories or even government endorsement. Implied by the term is a lack of exclusivity, embracing rather than shunning and encouraging a sense of sharing what we know without hoarding or copywriting our experiences. At its root, folk arts of any kind tend to be unpretentious while still beautiful and useful, a testament to the efficiency and aesthetics of an earlier era with increasing relevance for our current challenging times.

Traditional & Folk Herbalism

The more popular term “traditional herbalism” encompasses folk herbalism as well as a great deal more, including the more highly systemized herbal practices around the world, such as Ayurveda, Unani Tibb and Traditional Chinese Medicine. All folk herbalism is a form of traditional herbalism, but not all traditional herbalism is folk herbalism, especially as some traditional medicine becomes ever more formalized and merges with conventional medicine. By it’s very nature, folk herbalism tends to be unstructured, unruly and constantly adapting to the needs of the current place and people. Standardized extracts aren’t likely to be of much use to these people, as they almost always prefer making their own herbal preparations and are more likely to trust a remedy made from the whole plant than isolated constituents for isolated health diagnoses.

Many, if not all, forms of the more systemized herbal traditions include within them many elements of folk herbalism. As with any attempted categorizations, the borders are fairly fuzzy. What’s probably most important to recognize about folk herbalism is its wild and wooly nature that generally defies being fit inside any construct and tends to vary radical depending on locale, culture and era. There are certainly underlying commonalities though, especially a dependence on weeds, locally abundant wild plants and easily grown garden herbs as well as the independent nature of its practitioners and their deep connection with plants, people and place. Experience, empiricism and even thoughtful anecdote are also essential elements of this ubiquitous breed of botanical medicine.

A Reclamation

“I’m very sad that I don’t know the names of any of these plants or anything about them. I’m sure they are there yet and the same things could be done with them. They were made into ointments and liquids… It’s the one thing I regret very much: that I didn’t take more interest in those things I saw her doing.”

-Kate Ann Maclellan, Tigharry (North Uist speaking of her grandmother’s knowledge of herbal medicine, from The Scot’s Herbal by Tess Darwin)

In the small mountain village where I practice, much of the population still utilizes plant based medicine to some degree. For many of these people, especially those under fifty, this knowledge is limited to a few important local plants and usually only with a very limited of context of knowing this plant is “good for an ulcer” or this plant will “cure cancer if you drink it until your pee turns green”. The older folks, particularly Hispanic, Apache or Navajos, eighty or older, tend to have a much broader and deeper sense of herbal medicine. Many of them are shy and loathe to speak to those outside of their family or clan about the plants, but those who trust me enough to tell me their stories and pass on their wisdom often mourn the disinterest of their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren in traditional healing arts. They seem patently amazed that a 30 year old woman has such an abiding fascination in what many of them have given up as lost knowledge.

I grew up in both urban and rural areas in the Southeast and Midwest where I heard frequent mention of using plants for healing purposes. My mother taught me to forage for wild foods in city and woods alike and we had a garden wherever we lived, and I was ever drawn to references to plants used for healing in my parents’ gardening books and on the tags of kitchen herbs brought home from local nurseries, yet I had no idea that there were people in the Western world still using it as their primary form of healthcare.

Studying with those who have more experience and insight than we have, is an excellent and effective way of learning for most of humankind. Whether observing a father or grandmother, or apprenticing to the teacher we feel most aligned with, this is the type of education that most of us are best suited to. Thanks to herbal pioneers like Rosemary Gladstar and Michael Moore, we once again have access to an enormous amount of knowledge that would have otherwise been potentially lost. And just as in the wild mountains here in New Mexico, there are folk herbalists in every bioregion, some actively in the role of teaching and others not, but certainly many with the desire to teach what they know and to prevent the loss of hard earned knowledge.

Not everyone can be or needs to be an herbalist, but everyone can benefit from the empowerment and usefulness of foundational plant-based self-care. Education is an enormous gift at any time, but especially in the modern age when regimented and industrialized society – and a scarily precarious economy makes sustainable, accessible ways of caring for ourselves, our family and our communities more essential than ever. The more that we learn and teach, the greater the reclamation of our natural human heritage, the vital threads tying us to place, plants, and the healing of ourselves and our world.

Urban Herbwives & Steampunk Root Doctors

Those herb-gathering maidens frolicking across the canvases of idyllic Pre-Raphaelite art, can lead to a romanticized vision of the folk herbalist’s work. Likewise, appealing images of the old time herbwife, 19th century root doctor or tribal medicine woman are easily inflated into an idealized stereotype that at first glance has little basis in the reality of an inner city practice or urban backyard. But anyone who’s ever spent an afternoon sweating in the glaring high elevation sun of the Southwest mountains trying to unearth a bit of Redroot knows better, just as does any mother who’s spent the night awake and keeping watch over her son’s fever while persistently spooning mouthfuls of diaphoretic tea into his mouth. The reality of herbs and healing is a gritty but beautiful blend of oozing wounds and gorgeous flowers,  mind-numbing work and ecstatic moments.

Rather than simple emulation or attempted reconstruction of past roles, it makes more sense for us to thoroughly study the traditions of our forbearers to garner what works in the current context and adapting other parts to better application. And if we look deeper, at the impulses and skills common to people throughout time and history, it clearly becomes possible to remember and honor these archetypes in an honest and practical way without abandoning them completely. Regardless of where live, we still gather wild greens and medicine-rich roots from the fertile ground. We still watch for signs of fever and make poultices for wounds. So much has changed, and yet so much remains the same in the practice of this timeless art. Like the weeds themselves, we adapt and grow in new environs and situations, and in this way thrive.

It makes good sense to adapt and evolve archetypes to our situations and environs based on what is currently needed, applicable and relevant. As the dominant system increasingly does a tail spin and we face greater ecological degradation and financial stress, we look more toward finding our foods and medicines close to home, building close knit communities and developing stronger relationships with the land where we live. And to do this most effectively, we do need to look to historical role models for inspiration and insight. We see a cultural shift in this direction in literary and art movements such as “Steampunk”, where participants are focused on returning to the Victorian-era practice of creating and maintaining beautiful, long-lived useful objects rather than mindlessly buying disposable poor quality items. Even such seemingly small steps regarding aesthetics and technology can help trigger and fuel the larger changes that many of us are hoping to see.

Present circumstance calls for a great deal of ingenuity and courage on all fronts, including botanical medicine. I am inspired by the mingling of Physiomedicalist philosophy with Anishinaabe materia medica, Victorian influenced botany with the newest DNA based plant taxonomy in the herbal community. Tribal and punk sensibilities showing up integrative clinics while traditional Appalachian herbalists discuss the phytochemistry of key remedies. These blendings, while not always initially harmonious, are a clear indication of a vital, dynamic community effectively adapting to pressing issues with panache and evolving skill.

Diversity & Dynamism

“In our work and in our living, we must recognize that difference is a reason for celebration and growth, rather than a reason for destruction… It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

- Audre Lorde

Folk herbalism certainly includes kitchen herbalism and backyard herbalism, but can also encompass many forms of professionalized herbalism as well. It’s likely that the greatest majority of folk herbalists primarily treat their families or close friends, although many will eventually look to help their larger community, especially when word gets out and people come knocking on the front door, looking for diaper rash salve and something to quiet an old cough. And some will go on to make teaching and practicing the mainstay of their livelihood, passing on their knowledge to an even wider range of those interested in plant medicine.

Unfortunately, even from within the herbal community, there seems to be the tendency to create hierarchal divisions of professional, community, kitchen and other types of herbalists. I certainly see that these descriptions can be useful in helping potential clients and students choose who they’d benefit most from working with. What seems less useful is the creation of a hierarchy of what is best or most credible.

It is understandably easy for some newcomers to see folk herbalism as an easy route, and a way to bypass a steep learning curve while still accruing the title and much craved credit, but that’s also the quickest road to being called quack as well as potentially harming those we aim to help.  But folk herbalism isn’t necessarily any easier or quicker to learn than biomedical information. In fact, it can take far longer and be more difficult to understand and integrate passed on or experiential knowledge when not accompanied by the well-financed and widely disseminated resources that abound in mainstream medicine. Finding a good teacher in our bioregion and sorting through subjective experience is often time consuming and frustrating, especially without peer support and social approval of our pursuits.

What we most need within herbalism right now is increased diversity, not less. Just as in any intact or recovering ecosystem, diversity breeds health and proliferation. We need the grandmother in her kitchen serving Chamomile tea to a teething toddler just as much as we need the professional herbalist working in a clinic or the rural rancher who treats a bull-gored horse with Indian Root. None of these choices are more valid than another, they are all vital elements of a thriving culture and people.

I don’t see the necessity for only one type of healthcare and healing, even within herbalism.  I hear many arguments from all different camps each insisting that their method is the best, the most natural or the only effective way. Personally, when it comes to human health and well-being, I think we can use as many options as are viable, sustainable and relevant. Our very strength is often in our differences and the way we come together to work from so many angles and perspectives. It’s time to break down these needless divisions, these private clubs of who’s important and who’s not. In a grassroots vocation, there’s no reason or room for harmful divisiveness that could well alienate many talented and skilled members of our craft.

Those of us residing in Western Civilization are a mostly mongrel people and our herbal traditions reflect our varied heritage. Remnants of Greek humoral theory merge with Cherokee materia medica only to further blend with Hispanic energetics concepts and German phytotherapy. We’re a wild and weedy bunch, with a penchant for sidewalk-cracking garden escapees and feral flowers. Our traditions have loose ends and broken strands. We weave and reweave while bringing in the multicolored fibers from a hundred different sources. We’re eclectic but still somehow cohesive, even as we struggle for clarity and coherence in our approach and practice.

To deny our diversity for the sake of homogeny and a more respectable appearance is to give up some of the incredible dynamism of Western herbalism, and perhaps especially American herbalism. Instead, we have ever growing reasons for a celebration of the kaleidoscope of our colors and tones. Just as in folk music, our traditions and practices build one off the other, incorporating new harmonies into time-honored melodies, mixing modern instrumentation into century old songs.

A Rooted Revolution

“You cannot take what you have not given, and you must give yourself. You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”

-Ursula Le Guin

We’re still the “folk”, including herbalist doctors and curanderas, plant-loving nurses and squat-dwelling herb students. We need education and healthcare everywhere, in both clinics and on the streets, in urban centers as well as the backwoods. Herbalists, by their very nature, tend to be boundary walkers, traveling between different worlds and communities in order to provide care and help to those who need it most.

What we all have in common is the knowledge that healthcare and healing are not only the terrain of the expert and the elite. We know that human has the right to facilitate healing in themselves and their family through food, lifestyle, herbs and more. This is an imperative element in sustainability, self-sufficiency and personal responsibility. A roots resurgence in folk wisdom is not only about healthcare but is one part of a return to direct connection with the natural world and our own bodies. The honoring of folk medicine, of the herbal knowledge of the common people steeped in the day to day work with the plants is in itself a sort of revolution.

Radical acts are often simple acts. As herbal medicine becomes more and more regulated and tightly defined internationally, those at the grassroots hold firm to the work they’ve always done. With or without approval by governing officials, their commitment is to the people they care for and to the plants themselves. The powers that be may well continue to attempt to progressively increase their control over what an herbalist is, what an herbalist does, what plants an herbalist works with and how herbalists make their medicines but those dedicated to the prolific power of plant medicine know that herbalism is an innately wild craft that will persist regardless of rules and regulations.

After all, there’s a certain, irreplaceable power and beauty to knowing your medicines so well that you know them by the shape of their stark winter stems, by one whiff of their just sliced roots, by the particular pattern of their seeds within its fruit. Whether feral sidewalk weeds, carefully tended garden flowers or wild mountain roots, the work of the herbalist is grounded in place. And also in community – whether seeing folks on their own back porches or in integrative clinics, we are inextricably interwoven with the people we care for and offer knowledge to.

Folk music, folk dance, folklore… it can be easy to forget that healing is an art as well as a science, and that the lines between the two are less certain and distinct than is generally acknowledged. Folk herbalism doesn’t just mean rustic or undeveloped, but rather, points to a long history of traditional knowledge passed down and refined over time. Even where our traditions have fractured or been partially forgotten, new knowledge and experiences are forever sprouting up with each new generation, the persistent call and craft of plant-based medicine consistently regrowing even when cut down. Every folk herbalist is an integral part of this vibrant resurgence, insistently emerging from our shared roots.