How do you become an herbalist?
This is a question I am frequently asked, and the answer is not as simple as you’d think. In the United States, herbalism is not considered a “real” medical practice. There are no federal or state regulations or licensing bodies. There are no accredited university programs. There is not a degree that can be achieved.
Most American herbalists learn their practice through a combination of self-teaching and apprenticeship. The number of books, journals, magazines, and websites devoted to herbalism is astounding. There are a growing number of excellent online and onsite programs that are affordable, too. The information is definitely out there. It is up to each herbalist to decide their own path through it all.
For me, I have chosen to do a little bit of everything. As a professor of history, I am skilled at research and teaching. I know how to dive into a subject, learn everything I can about it, and distill that information to share with others. I’ve brought this same energy and process to learning herbalism.
In addition to reading everything I can on herbs and their healing properties, I have attended several workshops and conferences devoted to herbalism. The Potager in Des Moines (the brilliant and generous Rachel Delphine Berndt) offers wonderful classes. I also enrolled in the online version of Rosemary Gladstar’s classic Science and Art of Herbalism course. I have taken a couple of short courses through Herbal Academy, too. All of these have been incredible and enriching experiences.
In the late spring of 2019, I traveled to England with a group of my students to learn about the practice of herbal medicine there. We had a wonderful experience, and I had the opportunity to ask herbalists about their recommended paths for training. Several suggested I look into the online Heartwood Foundation Course.
In the UK, medical herbalism is a recognized practice that is included in university curricula and regulated in various ways. The National Institute of Medical Herbalists is the main professional body overseeing this regulation and accrediting medical herbalists in the UK. In 2016, the NIMH launched an education branch, Heartwood, to expand educational and training opportunities for medical herbalists. Their intention is to combine affordability with excellence.
The first step in the Heartwood program is to complete the Foundation Course. Successful students can then apply to pursue either the 3-year or 5-year Professional Courses, which include clinical components. The training offered in these courses are equivalent to a university degree. However, successful completion is recognized with “a Diploma, rather than a degree, as a degree requires University accreditation, which would hike the course costs up,” explains Heartwood graduate Beth Moorhouse. “The diploma status allows costs to be more affordable while allowing graduates to legally and respectably practice.”
I enrolled in the June 2019 class of the Heartwood Foundation Course. While balancing my time has been tricky, I have enjoyed being a student again. I am learning so much about human anatomy, plant science, and material medica. I haven’t decided yet if I can finance the cost of the Professional Courses. Since the United States does not require herbalists to be licensed or formally trained, this is not a “have to” for me, but a definite “want to.”
Whatever path I choose, I am as committed to maintaining and advancing my herbal knowledge. As a scholar of history, I am continuously updating my knowledge – I read new scholarship, explore new topics, expand my thinking and practice. This is no less true for my work as an herbalist. I think it is important for each of us to remember that there is always more to learn. Our journeys never really end.