Finding Your Herbal Path

The world would benefit from more healers who value botanical medicine.

As a former community college academic advisor, I worked with hundreds of students of all ages and backgrounds over a twenty-year career and discovered that most students had one thing in common when it came to career selection: they hadn’t given it much thought or research. Income was often named the most important factor so high-paying professions in the business and health fields were at the top of their lists. But when I asked students what they wanted to do – the tasks and responsibilities – each work day, most could not identify what that might look like.

The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”

~ David W. Orr, Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World

Another important factor in career development is the inherent change that is part of the modern workers’ career path. While some workers choose to stay in the same type of job for most of their working life, many Americans will change careers four to seven times in their lifetime. Some workers completely change industries and train for new occupations. Others stay within the field they know but desire more or different responsibilities.

During my two decades of advising, I don’t recall having a student declare that they wanted to be an herbalist, herb farmer, or herbal entrepreneur. But times have changed and more people are considering developing a career in botanical medicine. How people find their way to an herbal career often involves a personal journey but most herbalists agree that herbalism is a calling – a mission of sorts that is rooted in a reverence for plants and a desire to help others heal and thrive.

Is there a need for herbalists?

In 2016, the American Botanical Council reported that US sales of herbal dietary supplements topped $7 billion. Millions of Americans are seeking less invasive and affordable alternatives to modern medicine, and as a result, the herbal industry has experienced explosive growth over the last four decades. The problem is many consumers have little understanding of how to utilize the benefits of botanical medicine, often relying on social media and web searches to provide incorrect information.

Opportunity Calls

When interest in botanical medicine began to rise in the 1960s there was limited access to herbal education. In 2022, there are now dozens of herbal education programs, hundreds of educational books on herbal medicine, and countless websites and blogs that offer a wealth of information. There are a variety of career paths within the industry of herbalism and yet, many don’t fully understand what an herbalist does or are aware of the increasing demand for domestically grown medicinal herbs. Developing an herbal career path that serves your desires, goals, and lifestyle should also be based on full awareness of the differing opportunities.

Choosing any career should involve ample research and begins with examining your own goals and interests, your current lifestyle, and your access to education and training.  Another important aspect of career research includes a thorough understanding of the industry you are considering and details about the specific professions. Research can begin with reading descriptions about careers but ideally, interviews with working professionals will provide a clear picture of all aspects of the profession. My years as an academic advisor revealed that many people rely more on their ideal understanding of a profession, rather than considering both the ideal and the less ideal. People are often influenced by a personal experience with a professional and assume that their limited exposure is a strong foundation for entering a field. 

The First Step

Identifying personal interests and professional goals is the first step. Starting with the most basic question of why you want to be an herbalist will highlight what you do and don’t know about the profession. Broad generalized statements like “I love herbs” or “I want to help people”  can provide a basis for motivation but is unlikely to sustain an educational investment, much less a career. I recall a conversation with a biology instructor who entered a dental graduate program because he wanted to help people improve their dental health but dropped out after two years because he discovered that the day-to-day tasks of a dentist were highly repetitive, performing the same routine exams and procedures. Given the high tuition costs of graduate school, he acknowledged that was an expensive lesson to learn.

Career Research Questions

  • What kinds of tasks and responsibilities does an herb-related profession do on a day-to-day basis?
  • What kind of skills are needed to be successful in this profession?
  • What are your interests in this profession? Why are you attracted to it?
  • What challenges will you face in an herbal profession?
  • What barriers are you aware of that would make training or education difficult?
  • How will you pay for your education?

Are you Ready to Commit?

People often forget to assess their lifestyles when considering a commitment to learning. How much uninterrupted time do you have each week to read, research, study and write? Learning experts recommend that you should plan to devote two hours of study time for each hour of instruction. Herbal learning requires fieldwork; time spent in a garden or the wild, identifying plants, harvesting, and processing them. Do you have the time and transportation to complete fieldwork? Many adult learners already have a full plate of commitments: jobs, families, and household management. Educational programs require time, energy, and dedication, and adding a full-time educational program may not fit with your current lifestyle.

Books are an excellent source  for Studying herbal medicine
Books are one source of botanical learning
Image by lil_foot_ from Pixabay

Herbal Entrepreneurs

One of the most overlooked aspects of an herbal career is the reality that most herbal professionals are entrepreneurs. Organizing and operating a small business requires a different set of skills and knowledge. Marketing your services or products, building a clientele, troubleshooting problems with reasonable solutions, managing botanical inventories, and maintaining detailed accounting records can easily become primary tasks of your profession and they have little to do with your intention of directly working with plants and people. While there are some employment opportunities for those trained in botanical medicine, it is primarily a field for entrepreneurs.

Lifelong Learning

Learning new tasks and knowledge to stay up-to-date in any career is now an accepted part of professional growth. As a profession in the health and wellness field, herbalism requires a professional commitment to learning: reading relevant professional publications, attending herbal conferences, consulting with other health professionals, and a commitment to lifelong learning about plants and practicing herbalism is an important component of professional success. 

Plant identification is a key skill for herbalists.
Plant identification is a key skill for herbalists.

One of the advantages of the herbal industry is the opportunity for people to gradually move into different kinds of herbal entrepreneurship. Using the herbs she has grown, an herb grower can become an herbal product-maker, a commercial herb farmer, or a professional wildcrafter. A community herbalist could become an herbal educator, empowering individuals to become home herbalists. A clinically-trained herbalist could work in an integrative medical clinic, develop an online or local practice, or teach at herbal or medical schools. For most people considering an herbal career, it usually starts on a personal level: becoming a home herbalist.

Home Herbalists

Home herbalists use herbs as both food and medicine for their families and friends. They may have been mentored by an elder family herbalist, they could be self-taught or they may have taken an introductory course or workshops. Home herbalists recognize the importance of lifestyle behaviors and promote healthy diets, daily movement, and a balance of activities and stress management. They use their knowledge to treat common illnesses like colds, influenza, digestive complaints, and skin problems using medicinal herbs but also respect the limits of their knowledge. They make a variety of herbal remedies such as teas, tinctures, and salves from herbs that they may have grown and wildcrafted. They understand the basics of anatomy and physiology and can recognize symptoms of viral and bacterial infections.

Our families and communities would benefit greatly if every family had a home herbalist. Learning how to care for our bodies brings an acute awareness of our health and that knowledge makes you an informed consumer, especially when working with healthcare providers like doctors and nurses.

Processing calendula for a home apothecary
Processing calendula for a home apothecary

Community Herbalists

Another path for an herbalist is a community herbalist. Historically known as village healers, community herbalists serve the immediate communities in which they live. They offer the same healing advice and assistance that a home herbalist does but include community members. Access to a larger group of people requires a broader range of knowledge about wellness and illnesses, and most community herbalists will have several years of clinical training, fieldwork, and mentoring. They are practicing herbalists, meaning they meet with people and offer advice and herbal medicine or they may choose to educate about herbal medicine by teaching classes and workshops. They likely charge fees and/or barter their services.  

Grinding herbs in a mortar & pestle
Grinding herbs in a mortar & pestle
Photo by Katherine Hanlon on Unsplash

Some community herbalists have taken on the challenging work of serving overlooked populations such as people who are homeless and people who struggle with mental health issues. Community herbalists also provide first aid treatments at large public gatherings that range from music festivals to political demonstrations. 

Clinical Herbalists

A clinical herbalist is a practicing herbalist who has extensive education and training in botanical medicine and practice in a clinical setting. In some parts of the world, herbalists are regulated and licensed but in the US, herbal practitioners are not licensed or regulated by a government agency. During the 1990s, a group of herbalists formed the American Herbalist Guild, a professional organization for practicing herbalists, and developed a set of criteria for awarding the professional designation of Registered Herbalist (RHG). Applicants must present documented evidence of the following to qualify:

  • A minimum of two years of comprehensive academic training in botanical medicine
  • A minimum of 400 hours of clinical experience, with at least 300 hours working directly with clients that include formal procedures of health history intake, assessment, and follow-up care
  • Materia medica – working knowledge of a minimum of 150 plants as used by clinical herbalists
  • Experience and knowledge of herbal protocols
  • Knowledge in relevant sciences: anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology, and plant chemistry
  • Understanding of practice management and ethics

Herb Growers

If you prefer working more with plants, there are other pathways: herb farmers and professional wildcrafters are focused on sustainably growing and harvesting quality medicinal plants. Most of the herbs purchased in the US are imported from other countries and there is increasing demand for domestically grown herbs. Conscious of the reality that many of our wild medicinal plants are under a variety of threats that will lead to extinction, herbalists are seeking cultivated varieties of native medicinal plants. Herb growers do not have to be educated in the medicinal applications of herbs; rather, their expertise is in the organic production of medicinally strong plants.

Herbal Product-Makers 

A stroll through a farmer’s market or a bit of research online reveals a large number of herbal products made by individual herbalists. Products range widely and can include culinary items like herb-infused vinegar and seasoning blends, medicinal remedies like salves and teas, and cosmetic products like lotions and body butters. The competition for cheaper products in stores means that well-developed marketing skills are a primary requirement for success.

Herbal medicine-making
Herbal medicine-making

Herbal Educators and Writers

As the interest in herbalism grows, so does the need for educators who not only instruct but can nurture and mentor budding herbalists. Teaching can take many forms: thorough course content in traditional and digital classrooms; intimate one-on-one mentoring or apprenticeships; short workshops and classes for community members and even herbal educational travel expeditions!  Another method for educators is writing articles, blog posts, and books and recording podcasts and videos to educate those who are seeking to understand more about herbalism.

Herbal Presentation at a community library
Herbal education at a community library

All of the Above

It is not unusual to discover herbalists who have developed a professional path that includes all of the above. Some herbalists transition into different opportunities in different parts of their lives or might maintain a part-time clinical practice, teach workshops or at herbal schools, grow herbs and make their own medicine, publish an occasional article or write a book. While rooted in the field of herbalism, such a diverse herbal path requires years of formal and self-taught education, practical hands-on experience, and continual skill development.  

Choosing an Herbal Education Path

Once a specific path is chosen, selecting an educational program is the next step. Assessing your current knowledge levels and researching the necessary coursework to achieve your goal will help to narrow your choices. Within the field of botanical medicine are three primary systems: Ayurvedic, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Western Herbalism. Though many herbalists have studied the history, philosophy, and primary concepts of all three, a new student will likely settle on one system to practice within.

Do you have a preferred way of learning? Lectures and slideshow presentations are common instructional methods and most of us are familiar with this form of instruction. Online courses may consist of extensive online reading, short videos, and homework assignments.

Understanding your preferred way of learning can help determine whether you want to attend classes in person or participate in either a distance learning or online program. There are advantages and disadvantages to each method.

If a program is available locally, attending in-person classes offers a formal structure for learning, provides opportunities to develop supportive relationships with instructors and other students, and highlights bioregional plants. Many learners prefer the accountability of an on-site class structure which helps to keep them on task.

In the last decade, online herbal programs have become available. The benefits of online learning are access and flexibility (you can study the materials around your schedule). Because of these advantages, online education programs have become popular but statistically, online courses have a dismal rate of completion. Learners must be highly motivated and commit to a schedule of studying regularly.

What to Look For in a Program

When considering any herbal education program, look for the following: clear and detailed syllabi with learning objectives; thorough descriptions of content, assignments, and assessment strategies; course requirements for completion; prerequisites and support services like student discussion groups, faculty mentors, and technical and customer service contacts. Reputable programs offer detailed bios about their instructors: educational and training backgrounds, number of years as a practicing herbalist, and experience as an instructor. Ask about student and faculty contact time: will you have access to an instructor to ask for clarification and feedback?  How is your work assessed and your progress evaluated?  Research the full costs of the program including tuition, books, and supplies (e.g., dried herbs), and inquire about refund policies. Many programs will offer an introductory lesson or sample of their content. Positive testimonials or recommendations from current and past students can be influential but should not be the sole basis for program selection. 

Program Prerequisites and Mentorship

A practicing herbalist must know human anatomy and physiology, and most herbal programs do not offer specific instruction in these subjects. If your career path includes practicing herbal medicine in a clinical setting, you should invest in learning about human anatomy and physiology.

A mentoring experience for practicing herbalists and/or a clinical training experience is key to developing clinical skills. Some programs offer these once coursework is completed but others may lack these opportunities. The American Herbalists Guild has a listing of mentors who can provide mentoring. 

Certificates, Degrees, Licenses & Accreditation

In the US, herbalists are not regulated or licensed so terms like certified and master herbalist do not apply to the actual profession. Many programs offer certificates, which indicate that you have completed their program. Some programs refer to their courses as Master Herbalist programs but that term is only recognized by the school that bestows it. The content and quality of the herbal education are more important than the certificate or title awarded once completed.

Accreditation is a criteria-based approval granted to vocational schools, colleges, and universities that have met the requirements. Several accredited colleges offer degrees in botanical medicine and your career path may have more opportunities with an accredited degree. 

How to Pay for Your Herbal Education

This can be one of the biggest challenges for learners to overcome. The price of educational programs can range from several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. Some schools have created payment plans but many require total costs paid upfront. Financial aid like Pell Grants and student loans are only available to schools that have been accredited. Inquiring early on about costs and payment plans can save time and disappointment so I encourage you to consider your finances at the beginning of your career research. 

If you feel the calling to work with plants and people, then a career in herbalism can move you toward your goal. The opportunities to share your passion while offering support and healing are expanding. Develop your herbal path alongside a lifestyle and career that allows you to blossom.

Learn more about Herbal Learning Resources here.

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