3 Herb Mamas

THE EDUCATION OF AN HERBALIST (Part I)

on November 24, 2014

Echinacea sprout

Getting an herbal education, or perhaps any type of education for that matter, implies that there is a starting point and an ending point. It suggests that a time will come when one will graduate, so to speak, and will have become a master of the subject. I’ve been studying herbs in one form or another for well over three decades now and I can still honestly say that I would classify myself as a rank beginner. The difference between me now and that green 20 year-old is that I find it exciting, rather than overwhelming, to consider all that lies ahead for me to learn, explore, and discover about the fascinating universe of Plants.

I’ve wanted to write about my own journey and process of “getting an herbal education” for the past year but I have had great difficulty finding the right words to convey all that these years have encompassed. It is still a huge challenge for me but I have decided that it has steeped long enough in my brain and, for better or for worse, it is time to pour out the infusion and give you the opportunity to “drink up” (or at least give it a cursory sniff). There are, naturally, as many ways to learn about the world of plants/herbs as there are individuals. My path has been just right for me but I am hardly saying it is the only way.

One of the most frequent questions I am asked is, “How did you get started? I am interested in herbs but I have no idea where to begin!” That is a great question. Each person starts from a different place, background, life experience. Learning about herbs, at least initially, is best approached within the framework of a person’s daily life and what matters most to them. If you love cooking, then learning to tend a small culinary herb garden, harvest, and preserve would be an excellent place to start. If you have a chronic health issue, diving into intensive research about natural and botanical options for supporting optimum health might prove useful. (One caveat: Beware googling and internet surfing! There is A LOT of information out there available at the click of a mouse but quantity does not in any way equate with quality.) Maybe you are a crafter or textile artisan; growing fiber plants and plants that can be used as natural dyes, gourds, everlasting flowers for drying, or some other botanical crafter’s garden would be an intriguing place to start. There are many, many places to start but to be sure that it is a passion that will last, you should begin with your own driving interest. Or, perhaps like me, explore the discontent with some area of your life. It may motivate you to find out what herbs have to offer. It’s a little crooked and off-the-beaten-path, like most good stories, but I will share my own beginnings in herbalism by way of description, rather the prescription.

Dandy

Maybe my herbal education began with the simple question, “What is wrong?” I was 19 years old, if I remember correctly, or maybe I was 20. I had just come out of the hospital after a very costly 3-day stay for yet another urinary tract infection (UTI) that had escalated quickly and had me doubled over in extreme pain. My mother told me that I had my first UTI at the age of 10 months, and recurrent ones throughout my young life, worsening as I entered puberty. I had come to know tetracycline (and other antibiotics) intimately… and to know that they did not confer lasting health for me. There was a family history of kidney disease on my mother’s side. In fact, two women in the family would die from complications of kidney disease in the coming years, although I did not know that then. During my hospital stay I had had nothing to eat or drink and basically simply spent the 3 days in bed with a glucose drip. Perhaps there were antibiotics in that IV as well. I’m not sure. At any rate, I checked out of the hospital with a determination that it would be my last UTI. Ever!

I made a bee-line for a little health food store in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia and headed back to the book shelves. They had both a research area and books for sale. After perusing the titles, skimming indexes, and trusting my intuition (Finally!) I gathered up a small stack of books and sat down on the wooden bench nearby to read as I breathed in the wonderful scents emanating from the glass jars of bulk herbs that surrounded me. I can still smell that delicious place in my memory. After a little while I’d decided which books I would buy (HERBS & THINGS:Jeanne Rose’s Herbal by Jeanne Rose and HYGIEIA: A Woman’s Herbal by Jeannine Parvati Baker) and which herbs (Dandelion, Red Raspberry, Comfrey, and Spearmint). I didn’t know it then but my life was about to take a turn for the better and I would one day be blessed to learn from both of these amazing women. Those books still have pride of place both on my, admittedly crowded, herbal book shelf as well as in my heart.

I’ve had four children and plenty of adventures in the 33 years since I found those books but I have never had another UTI. I not only found empowering information and herbal allies but I also found my passion in life. I couldn’t seem to read enough about herbs. I squeezed an old metal bookshelf from a flea market into my tiny city apartment kitchen and started filling it with jars of dried herbs, which I began to use daily for teas as well as cooking. It would be many years before I learned to prepare syrups, tinctures, vinegars, or encapsulated herbs but I certainly brewed and consumed hundreds of pots of tea. It is still a favorite daily ritual all these years later.

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I think I consulted those two books for some purpose every single day over the ensuing 5 or 6 years and they are still in use today. That was the main way I learned back then: reading and brewing pots of tea, drinking them and noticing how I felt and how they affected my health. When I married the love of my life at 24 I had a whole new reason to dig deeper into the rich, earthy world of botanical blessings as we learned more about cyclical fertility and natural family planning.

When we conceived our first child I became a correspondence (although she called it a correspon-DANCE) student of Jeannine Parvati Baker’s Hygieia College, an unconventional school taught in the “Mautic” (or way of a woman) tradition. It was a very unique approach, a mystery school as she called it. All work was turned in and responded to but not returned. Upon completion I also returned all the course materials so there is no tangible residue from the process. However, it was a transformative experience and all that I learned is still being lived out in my daily life. It certainly impacted our choice to home birth and home educate our children. It affected how and where we wanted to live and raise our family. And I was still brewing daily pots of tea.

Autumn Country Road

Over the years that magically spiraled out into decades before I knew it, I had embraced the opportunities that came along to take classes and workshops with a number of well-known herbalists, sometimes just for a day or a weekend, sometimes as long as a week at a time. Rosemary Gladstar, Doug Elliot, Phyllis D. Light, Mimi Hernandez, Paul Strauss, David Hoffman, Matthew Wood, 7Song, Deb Soule, and I’ve probably forgotten others. Additionally, I’ve benefited from the written teachings of many other herbalists who have walked this earth before me and am so thankful for the books they took the time to write. I know how hard it is for an herbalist to come in from that beautiful green world and apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair long enough to get a book (or books!) written. I am so grateful for the work of each and every one of you in the world.

Jeanne and other teachers

 Left to Right: Leah Maggie Garfield, Rosemary Gladstar, Nan Koehler Soloman, Jeanne Rose, and Jeannine Parvati Baker

I’ve saved talking about my most significant and enduring herbal teacher for last. Remember that first book I mentioned purchasing on what I now think of as a fate-filled day in the health food store? HERBS & THINGS? I would eventually begin my studies with Jeanne Rose via her correspondence courses. And that, as poet Robert Frost would say, has made all the difference. Jeanne Rose has graduate studies in Marine Biology and her thoroughness and attention to details is reflected not only in her teaching methods and assignments but in all that she does professionally, and I suspect privately as well. Many call her the Grande Dame of Herbalism and I consider her the foremost expert on Aromatherapy. Choosing to study with Jeanne Rose has meant raising the bar in my own life, demanding that same thoroughness and organization that she displays in her 25+ published books. Like me, she loves the natural world, but is never lax about research, record-keeping, and academic discipline. And she expects the same from her students.

In this day and age no herbalist can expect to retain every fact, every Latin binomial, every contraindication. We are, after all, living in the Information Age. Jeanne Rose is masterful at organizing information into a plethora of tables and charts that, once I learned to use them, helped me to be less vulnerable to the whims of my brain’s information retrieval system. If you are young you may not fully appreciate the value of this yet, but I assure you that one day you will. My textbooks for the Herbal Studies and Aromatherapy courses range from herbals to anatomy and physiology tomes, poetry to botanical keys. I might be reading historical works hundreds of years old or one hot off the press but I can assure you I will not be consulting the almighty Google search in its hit-or-miss fashion for reliable information.

One habit I have developed from studying with Jeanne Rose is keeping a daily Herbal Experiments Diary. Some of my experiments might be as simple as tasting a leaf and noticing the effects. Some might be as elaborate as stratifying herb seeds for months, planting, tending and waiting 3 years to harvest and prepare. Although it was a challenge for me at first, this one habit has probably been the most important overall in my process of becoming an herbalist. It is not so much an assignment, as an approach to life-long learning. It nurtures my sense of curiosity and trains me to be observant and to write down my results so the experience has enduring benefit. These experiments revealed to me that even the everyday things that I do can be educational, that learning is not something that only happens in a classroom or by using textbooks. I like to think of my recording of these experiences as a sort of Botanical Playbook. Even adding a dash of Cayenne to a store-bought jar of pasta sauce and noting that everyone in the family thought the spaghetti sauce was especially good is an application of the scientific method. Hypothesis: A dash of Cayenne might boost the flavor of our hum-drum sauce. Experiment: Add a pinch of Cayenne to said sauce. Results: Although I didn’t mention the experiment to the test subjects 5 out 6 participants said the sauce was extra special. (I liked it, too!)

Studying

Herbal Experiments Diaries

I am heading into the season when my academic studies are most intense. During the winter months I love to dive deeply into botany, anatomy and physiology, biology, and chemistry as it all relates to herbalism. Jeanne Rose’s Aromatherapy & Herbal Studies Course is intensive, taking 2-3 years to complete, and is organized into three sections, a Seasonal Herbal (12 chapters), a Medicinal Herbal (12 chapters), and Reference Herbal (12 chapters). In addition to my Herbal Experiments Diary, I must keep an herbarium (either real or photographic). I actually have a photographic one already but carrying it to so many weed walks and herb talks for years has taken its toll. I’ve also decided I would like to have an actual herbarium with real plant specimens so I’ve pulled out the old plant press and have begun filling it. There are case studies to prepare and document as well, and I have access to my teacher via telephone 4 days per week during her student hours when I can ask questions.

For me, this course of study along with the ongoing education provided from both gardening and wildcrafting (gathering where no man, or woman, has sown) herbs for food and healing is a perfect fit. I also attend hands-on botanical identification and herbal preparation classes as time and opportunity allow. I like to visit farms, especially ones practicing organic and sustainable methods, botanical gardens, and the homes and gardens of my herbalist friends. There is no area of my life that is separate from my love of plants now.

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This morning before it was barely daylight I had packaged up Elderberry syrup that I had prepared and allowed to cool overnight so that my husband could deliver it when he went to work this morning, brewed two pots of tea, made vanilla bean yogurt, gathered Rose hips and prepared a vitamin C-rich syrup, did several loads of laundry using my own homemade, natural soap, fed my Nubian goats their grain with chopped Apples, Carrots, Kelp, and Garlic/Ginger paste and a splash of Fire Cider (Yes, they are definitely herban goats!), and gathered up the recycling for drop off today (For me, keeping the Earth clean and green is part of herbalism). These things have become as natural as breathing and gradually and subtly over more than 3 decades I realize that I have become an herbalist.

Aromatherapy Certificate

Recently I completed the Aromatherapy Course — Home & Family through Jeanne Rose and I can tell you that the certificate of completion means more to me than a diploma from Harvard could. I will frame and hang it up in my study area as a reminder of the joy as well as challenge of these studies. I look forward to the day when others will be hung alongside it. I feel extremely fortunate to be walking this Earth at a time when I can study directly with such a knowledgeable teacher and benefit from her 40+ years of teaching experience.

Jeanne Rose

My teacher, Jeanne Rose. Simply the best!

http://www.jeannerose.net/courses.html

http://www.jeannerose.net/books.html


One response to “THE EDUCATION OF AN HERBALIST (Part I)

  1. Jeanne Rose says:

    I really enjoyed reading your article and the attention to detail. And thank you very much for the kind words, they are much appreciated.

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