Christopher Hobbs at the American Botanical Council Garden imparting knowledge to other herbalists attending the AHG 2010 Symposium

I just read a very silly article in the Globe and Mail called The promise and perils of backyard herbalism by Adriana Barton.  In this, she tries to pit herbalists against ‘real’ science and research.  I love how this article reveals how bound-up we are in our respective beliefs.  Some people are thoroughly disgusted with anything beyond the allopathic medical model.  Why is this?

In her first few paragraphs, she takes Kyle Patton as a typical herbalist. His training is sited as a 7 month course in Ithaca, New York.  I would say that Patton may be passionate and he might have learned a lot during this course, but he is relatively new to herbalism with only a 7 month course under his belt.  I am curious to know how he is already prepared to lead courses in herbal medicine.  Judy Nelson, of Dominion Herbal College, is right to say that a credible herbalist is someone that people might go to for teaching or advice. Nelson notes such a person should have studied at the very least for 4 years, and this should include a good deal of supervised clinical hours.  Herbalism is both an art and a science.  I personally believe that you need many excellent mentors to be your teachers.  Kyle Patton states that herbalism is not book learning.  I will give him a break, he is new to it all and hopefully he was misquoted, because any credible herbalist I know will tell you it is both book learning and experience with plants and practicing traditional methods.  It takes many, many hours of study of both the human body and plants. It takes practice in working with/being-with both the plants and humans.  I think clocking about 10,000 hours in total is about right before anyone should really call themselves an authority on herbal medicine.  And guess what?  You have to keep going with it if you want to stay fresh!  This is not to say that people can not learn along the way and work towards becoming an herbalist.  It is just that if you are choosing mentors or experts in the field, look for one whose dedication to herbal learning can be respected.

a mentor of mine, Christine Dennis, as she leads a class

Today’s popular culture is in a bit of a DIY state of mind.  DIY is trendy.  But Adriana Barton is quite frankly out of touch to write that all herbal medicine is a DIY trend.  Over 80% of the world uses herbal medicine as their primary medicine. The World Health Organization recognizes this!  Herbal medicine is not just one tradition.  There are many, many traditions around the globe for producing effective herbal remedies.  People learn what is passed down in their families, people practice herbalism around the globe.  This is quite simply anything but a Do-It-Yourself type trend.

Barton’s article gives examples that make herbalism look wacky.  She states that researchers, “caution that “natural” doesn’t mean necessarily “safe”,” AND she states that these “researchers” have evidence of misdiagnoses, incorrect preparations and heavy metal contamination amongst other contaminants. These sages also informed Barton that St. John’s Wort interacts with everything.  I would like to challenge this and say that “researchers” are not the only ones saying this.  Credible herbalists know this too.  We learn about plant constituents, their actions and compare this to pharmacological texts and pharmaceutical industry manuals. A comprehensive knowledge of interactions and contraindications is fundamental to herbal medicine. Had Barton asked me, I would have told her as much as her researcher did. We have been saying and using this information too!  Good herbalists stay up to date with the latest research on herbs. Our vocation is to work conscientiously with the remedies that grow on our planet.

Also, as a herbalist, I agree with the researchers that mistakes do happen in terms of dosage, plant identification and plant remedy suitability.  Westerners are highly urbanized, and we should not kid ourselves that our oneness with nature is sometimes no more than a mere feeling. Few of us have this sense due to actual relationships to plants and the land.  Adulterations do happen.  From time to time, people do not identify plants properly.  It turns out that one time a commercial producer ended up picking plantain and toxic immature foxglove plants and putting them in the same batch.  Oops!  If a commercial producer can do this, there is a chance you could too. I learned this account from Roy Upton’s presentation at the 2009 American Herbalist’s Guild annual symposium, “FDA Good Manufacturing Practices and Community Herbalists.”

AHG 2010

Folks that have been interested in herbal medicine for a few years now; Christopher Hobbs, Mark Blumenthal, Roy Upton, Robin Marles

I am not saying that the people are not qualified to participate in herbal medicine.  I am saying that we need skilled experts, including herbalists, to guide us.  It is terribly interesting how Barton’s article goes so far as to quote the researcher on how it is so impossible to reason with backyard herbalists because,  “It is like a religion to them.”  I think that there is a serious issue here if we get locked in ideological camps and cannot reason with each other.  There are times when allopathic medicine is the most effective, efficient and humane of medicines.  There are also times when people find healing with herbs.  There are times when allopathic medicine is not effective. Sometimes herbal remedies work best.  Not only that, but many herbalists are researchers, they study medicine, some go on to becoming doctors.  For these folks, it might have began as a seven-month course, but it continues to grow.

Things get even worse when I read Barton’s other article, When it comes to herbal medicines, buyer beware.  It should be titled: “The obvious reasons journalists are not necessarily the best people to do summaries on herbal medicines.”  Not only is the information misleading, but there is no mention of the Latin names for precise plant identification. Only the common names are used.  She lists feverfew, milk thistle and lavender as safe for most people and black cohosh, licorice root and pennyroyal to be used with caution or not at all.  I would counter this and say that to use any of them, you are better with counsel from a credible herbalist.

As far as summaries go, there might be better ways of describing the herbs she mentions.  Yes, most herbalists would agree, feverfew has brought great results to some who suffer from migraines. And yet every herbalist should know that one needs to take this remedy over a long period of time in order to see an effect.  If you use it like an Advil, it will not work.  Milk Thistle is not a primary herb used to reduce blood sugar.  It is known to be one of the very best liver remedies.  Most herbalists will tell you that black cohosh is not the menopause herb.  It is in fact an antispasmodic, pain reliever and it is used to relieve muscular pain. Licorice root is usually not used in high quantities in formulas and when used in the right context, for the right people, it has a long history of safe use.

Lavender is not primarily used for hair loss.  And why is Barton suddenly talking about aromatherapy with the mention of thyme, rosemary and cedarwood oils to mix with the lavender?  Any aromatherapist would ask the simple question when seeing this formula; which thyme oil are your talking about?  Which rosemary oil are you talking about?  Also, it’s irresponsible of Barton to hastily state that lavender might disrupt hormones in young boys without giving context or information on studies. The effect is to create fear of something that simply cannot be understood in a few paragraphs of news text.  And then, with the pennyroyal example, she compares leaves of pennyroyal to concentrated essential oil of pennyroyal.  This, too, is really silly.  Anyone who has tried the famous oil of oregano, made with the essential oil of oregano, typically sold as a product already diluted with olive oil will tell you that it is not the same experience as a cup of mint or oregano tea.  The leaves of pennyroyal are not the same as the highly concentrated essential oil of pennyroyal.  To say that pennyroyal oil is most famously known for liver and kidney damage, seizures, lung failure and brain damage is really obscuring the story.  I mean, this is true, but that is not the story!  It was used by young women trying to induce abortions on their own.  No credible herbalist that I know would ever, EVER recommend this!  I am not sure a credible herbalist recommended this in the first place.  It is a sad cautionary tale.  You don’t forget it.

Another part to the article that bothers me is that there is no mention of the ethics of picking wild plants in an urban environment or any environment.  Wild plants growing in the wrong places can be toxic due to the soil and the plants being exposed to toxins.  Also, plant diversity in cities is already at risk.  If we start to recommend that everyone living in a small area start picking wild plants for medicine, this will further destroy an already perhaps exhausted and not exactly healthy environment.  Ethical production of herbal medicines needs to consider sustainability.  Isn’t this one of the best reasons to choose herbal medicine, it can easily be made sustainable and accessible?  I think it makes more sense for people in the urban settings to grow what they can in the community gardens (without pissing off the other gardeners because herbal medicines, such as milk thistle, st. john’s wort and others are naturally robust in gardens), and partner with interested local organic producers outside of the cities before we start recommending wild crafting.  Who wants to look at a bald Mont Royal in Montreal?  Do you want to be the herbalist responsible for creating something like this?

So, it might be that herbalists, ones that are really interested in practicing as herbalists, are needed in many different domains.  Professionals such as pharmacists and researchers from universities have studied alongside me, so I know that they are picking up a few things from the herbalists.  If you are choosing to use herbal medicine, seek out many books, seek out many experts, and keep exploring. Herbalism is not an easy field to master.  At the same time, small steps and good advice from credible folks will give you the courage to keep exploring and to do this responsibly.  Yes, it can be like cooking, it can be like art.  But we have all heard of food poisoning.  Cooking and herbalism is not all so common sense.  The plants may be communicating, but would you not want to test the message?  Science and intelligence through practice helps, in both the areas of cooking and herbal medicine.

Tammy Schmidt, CHT.