Herbalists feel deep connection to plants and the earth; they like to speak of their relationship with plants and the respect for what they contribute to the earth.
“Once you spend enough time with plants, you get to know them and see what they have to offer, their generosity, their beauty, their scent,” says Lupo Passero of Twin Star, a New Milford-based apothecary and school of herbal and energetic arts. “Just following nature and paying attention to the beautiful order that was created for us is so intriguing. And it’s a never-ending study, so it’s not likely you’ll ever get bored. One could study herbal medicine for 50 lifetimes and still wouldn’t learn all that there is to learn about the plants just in their immediate ecosystem.”
There are currently no state or federal laws regulating herbalists, which suits Passero just fine: “I think that’s a blessing because I would hate to see the government get their hands on something that is really a birthright of all people. A lot of herbalists could have gained their knowledge directly from indigenous people, or their own grandmother, or an elder in the community who has worked with plants for a lifetime. Just because someone went to the best herb school in the country doesn’t mean they’re going to be a better herbalist than someone who has studied with their grandmother or a First Nation’s person for the last 10 years.”
That being said, herbalists do self-regulate, following guidelines set forward by the American Herbalists Guild (AHG), which was founded in 1989 in the mountains of Breitenbush, Oregon. While there are no formal “degree” programs, herbal education, like yoga teacher training, is based upon the hours spent learning. The AHG recommends that a practicing herbalist have more than 1600 hours of training.
An herbalist’s education should include medical applications of the plants, botany, plant identification, phytochemistry, understanding herb/drug interactions, medicine-making and proper formulation. Passero recommends students study for two and a half to three years before going out to practice on their own. And while not all students become herbalists, they do find ways to incorporate what they’ve learned into the paths they’ve been traveling. For example, a massage therapist may start working with botanical oils, while a therapist may use flower essences with patients and a chef may add new herbs to her menu.
“There are many different ways to share this knowledge, and that’s why we call it an art as well as a science,” says Passero.
Customers should be comfortable asking herbalists very specific questions, such as where they studied, what they studied and how long they studied. A good herbalist should learn by getting outside and working with the plants, not only studying them on the internet. In addition to affirming an herbalist’s knowledge, clients should be comfortable with their personality and most importantly, their personal philosophy of health and healing.
“My personal philosophy is looking at folks’ emotional, mental and spiritual needs as well as the physical needs because they’re all connected,” says Passero. “But clients should follow their gut and their own intuition when choosing someone to work with. Just because somebody is a professional doesn’t mean will be the right fit as your practitioner.”
Gayle Nogas, a master herbalist and longstanding member of the Connecticut Herb Association,also stresses that those seeking herbal remedies should educate themselves on herbs, treatments and especially possible interactions with pharmaceuticals.
“I wish I could get the word out there to people: Don’t be stupid, don’t be stupid,” she says. “A health magazine, vitamin shop or someone on TV tells you an herb is good for you, and you want to take it. But you have to be in charge of your own health. If you are on medications or have a serious illness—heart conditions, COPD, high blood pressure—herbs can interact with them. They’re not something to play with it. You really need to find knowledgeable people to discuss it with and do the research. An organization like the Connecticut Herb Association would be a good place to start.”
Clients should also ask where an herbalist sources their herbs. According to Passero, many herbs can be grown locally, so there’s no reason they shouldn’t be organic, locally sourced or wildcrafted. “You don’t really want to go with herbs that have been shipped in from India or China unless they are plants indigenous to those areas that we can’t grow here,” she says.
Additionally, when browsing in a local herb shop, Nogas encourages customers to use their own discerning eye and sense of smell. Herbs should be colorful and fragrant. If they’re not, they are mostly likely well past their useful prime: “When I teach my students, I show them crappy herbs and compare them to really good herbs, so they know the difference.”
Most importantly, a reputable herbalist will not offer a diagnosis for what ails you. While they can recommend herbal remedies that have supported similar symptoms, they are not qualified to offer medical advice.
However, many clients visit an herbalist with a diagnosis in hand, often after conventional medical treatment has not worked or may have exacerbated symptoms. Again, while the herbalist cannot offer a “cure,” they can recommend herbs that have been shown to offer relief from symptoms or to support body systems that are not working at full capacity.
The traditional medical establishment usually doesn’t recommend herbal treatments due to regulatory issues (since herbalism is not a regulated industry, medical doctors can’t prescribe herbal remedies as treatment or cure). Yet, Passero says doctors, nurses and pharmacists alike attend classes at Twin Star to learn more about herbalism; as many of their patients increasingly seek out alternative, natural and herbal remedies to ease what ails them, the more conventional medical practitioners want to be more knowledgeable about their use and potential interactions.