What is an Herbalist?

By Jackie Johnson ND, Northeast Wisconsin Unit


“What is an herbalist?” is a perplexing question.

Is it someone who cooks with herbs?  Or cleans with herbs?  Is it the person who has grown them in their backyard for the past 30 years and incorporated them into their life?  Or the person who played with them to the point they felt they wanted formal schooling to learn their chemistry, botany and current research?  Is it the person who offers suggestions to others for a healthier lifestyle that includes herbs?  Is it the person who gives herb classes? Or the person who hangs out a shingle? Can you be an herbalist at age 30? Or do you have to be 40, 58 or 65 years old?


In the 1990s Frontier Natural Products hosted wonderful HerbFests.  Speakers were knowledgeable, helpful and willing to share.  Several made comments that impacted my herbal being.

One gentleman spoke of an elderly client he was helping with a particular tincture.  He said he had a choice – he could have the client return daily for a $5 tincture, or he could teach him to make it.  He chose the latter.  As a teacher, he epitomized an herbalist.

20160806_054440But, what is best  –a degree from an herbal school or university, an herbal internship or 30 year of hands-on experience?

It depends. Who would I want beside me if needed?

I value practical experience.  But I also respect the discipline and focus demonstrated in earning  a degree, especially when dealing with health problems.

As an aside I remember studying for my bachelor of science in criminal justice and wondering why I needed some of these classes. Many years later, I understand. They gave me greater perspective; the opportunity to recognize there may be several methodologies available to solve any problem.

Recognizing only one herbal approach is a self-imposed restriction.  With so much of our herbal knowledge lost through the ages, do we really know if one way is the only way?

20170511_191241I like the herbalist who points me in a direction with herbs I can readily attain, or better yet, grow.  And I love cooks who can make a handful of green stuff taste better than the best restaurant.   I’m equally comfortable with the herbalist who knows 100 herbs, and another who “knows” 20 herbs, but knows 20 uses for each of them.

Many types of herbalism exist – traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, folk, western, science-based, or a happy combination of any or all of them.

Check out all of them. Learn from as many people as you can. Make your decision of what feels best for you. Each piece makes up the whole and offers yet another chance for growth and wisdom.

An herbalist/author/teacher was once said, “You’ll know when you’re ready to say ‘I am an herbalist.’”

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