How to Find a Professional Herbalist 

    This was published in the 2005 Wicca Almanac and was intended as a discussion about all the misinformation that has been, and still is, going around about herbs, their use, their misuse and how to tell the difference.  We are too trusting as a community, and we tend to believe all the hype we read because "it's natural" or "it's herbal" rather than doing the research and listening to common sense.  Hopefully this educational piece will ring true for some folks.


    I made my way through the College corridors to the classroom marked ‘Herb Class”.   The local college had a Woman’s Day where they presented classes on topics and issues that attracted and interested primarily women.  This class was supposed to be a discussion by a local ‘herbalist’ on something.  The course description was rather vague.  I wasn’t aware there were any ‘certified’ herbalists in the area and this intrigued me, so I scurried through the unfamiliar college corridors to her class.

    I settled into my school chair, and brought out my notebook.  On the desk of the teacher were a few recognizable plants… Echinacea, blue strawflowers and others.

    I expected a lecture on the various types of herbs that grew locally, but the class that was given was much more similar to some on-line courses I had attended and some magazine articles I had been reading lately.

    The herbalist started with an introduction to laws regarding "herbalists", "certified herbalists" and "prescribing herbs. "   She stated a disclaimer regarding medicinal uses for herbs, explaining that while she was talking about "folk references" for what some herbs are used for, she was not recommending these herbs for any of these uses.  She also explained that she was not a doctor and could not, by law, prescribe any herb for the treatment of any kind of ailment, and if you are ill, you should seek professional medical help.  I was dealing with a professional herbalist, and it was a delight to hear what I had already been hearing from professionals in the pagan community and had said so often myself.

    I’ve been on so many pagan "herbal" lists where the most common question was What herb can I use for such and such?, and there is always someone who will offer a home remedy without asking any kinds of questions.  They are quick with the answer and never pause to think if they should answer at all.

    When I have questioned some of these people regarding their speedy advice, or make a comment about "laws" or maybe "allergies", the response many time is how dare you deny me my right to seek medical help from someone else other than a doctor If I want to use a natural means to heal myself, I will.  More often than not, they are indignant and rude because you suggested they should consider what they are doing.  And while they may have some information, they usually do not have enough.

    We seek the roots of natural healing in the herbs from the earth and the fact is many people discussing herbs on the internet these days have little or no proper information.  They have a few books referencing herbs, maybe the books are magical references, some of them may reference Culpepper's The Complete Herbal (an outdated, inaccurate and dangerous reference book) and many of them have an instant remedy for anything that ails you.  A person with a little information in this area can be very dangerous.

    How can you find a professional herbalist?  What criteria should you use to choose someone to work with?  The first thing you have to ask yourself is "Why are you looking for an herbalist to begin with?"  If you are seeking education, look to a school.  For general information, a certified herbalist is your best bet.

    What certifications should an herbalist have?  It depends on your state and their laws and standards.  Most states require some kind of certification to be a recognized herbalist.  Check credentials, as these days there are many "on-line schools" with little or no background or no state certifications.   The school should be certified at least by the state where the school is located.   The herbalist should have certification from a state certified school. There is also the title of Master Herbalist associated with someone who has gone further with their studies.

    If you check some of the schools, there doesn’t seem to be much standardization in the length or types of courses that make up the schools.  Some offer 6 month courses, others two year courses.  There are six day intensives for master courses, and others offer 10 week master courses.  It is your responsibility to research the school and the herbalist.  You can find out a lot about the herbalist from the courses he/she has taken to achieve the title.

    Are you are looking to study the healing properties of herbs?  What are you going to do with that information?  Let’s look at some very serious legal issues here, and then discuss what your options are.

    It is Federal law that you must be a board certified doctor in order to prescribe any kind of treatment for an ailment.   How this law is interpreted is on a state to state basis.  Each state decides what each certification will be allowed to prescribe.  In Ohio, for example, only a doctor can diagnose an ailment and prescribe treatments.  This includes herbs.  Herbs are considered treatments.  So are dietary supplements.  Chiropractors here in Ohio are permitted to suggest dietary supplements to their patients.  That is an exception.  However, acupuncturists are not permitted to prescribe anything for their clients.  The State of Ohio passed a law allowing acupuncturists to be certified to practice a few years ago[i].  There is a well known case where an acupuncturist wrote an article for the newspaper The Cleveland Plain Dealer about this change in the Ohio law[ii].  In this article she mentioned it was her practice to recommend Oriental herbal remedies to her clients after a session.  The State of Ohio promptly  notified her that she was under investigation on charges of "practicing and prescribing medicine without a license[iii]."

    Laws in each state differ.  You need to make yourself aware of the laws in the state you live in.  Chances are, however, that you will not be able to prescribe any kind of herb unless you study to become a doctor.   Any professional herbalist will tell you this right up front.

    The reason for this is very clear.   Liability!!!  There are the issues of allergies.  How do you know if the person you are talking to is allergic to a particular plant?  How can you test this?  What do you do if a person has an allergic reaction to an herb?  Can you afford a law suit if this person is seriously hurt by your recommendation?

    Liability!!!  What if this person is pregnant?  There is a whole set of plants that are abortive in nature that are available for sale in most health food stores.  Do you know which ones have these properties?  Did you know that some plant oils are also abortive in nature and should not be used by a pregnant woman?  What if this person loses her baby because of your recommendation?

    A certified herbalist will know these questions as well as the answers.

    How long should one take an herb?  Again, this is a very serious question and again, a liability.

    Most herbalists will tell you that any herb should not be used for more than 15 days at a time.  At that point, you should have either found relief from whatever it is you started taking the herb for, or it will not work.  Best way to test this is to stop using the herb for a week.  If the symptoms return, then the herb was masking the problem and should be discontinued and better treatment sought.   Two weeks on, one week off.  If it does not work on whatever it was you were taking it for, it’s not going to work after two weeks.  Much like when a doctor prescribes antibiotics for an ailment.  The treatment lasts 15 days at max.  There is a reason.

    There are a few very serious issues to address in our community when it comes to taking herbs for an ailment that is self diagnosed.

    First of all, you are not a doctor, so why are you self-prescribing an herb?  Have you seen a doctor for your ailment, and did he agree to this herbal replacement for your illness?  The most common answer you will get is "No," followed by a very quick… "because", and the most common word you will hear in the because part is money.  There is some kind of poor logic to I can’t afford a doctor so I will self prescribe an herb cause it will save me money and cure me.

    A good herbalist will never suggest any kind of herbal remedy for any kind of ailment.  Their reply is See a Doctor!  We are seeing people in our community who are very sick being taken to emergency rooms because they refused to see a doctor and figure a few herbs will substitute.   It is more costly in the long run to have to be taken to the emergency room of a hospital and treated for a life threatening situation that could have been avoided had you seen a doctor first.  A professional herbalist would have told you that right up front.  And no, I am not crazy about our American Medical fiasco - but I also know the law.  The laws must be changed first before we can get into a better medical system.  That, however, is another article.

    The other serious issue is common abuse of an herb.   The one that comes to mind is the over use of St. John’s Wort.  This herb, available on any health food store shelf, has been suggested for everything from daily stress to bi-polar treatment.  Research suggests there may be some merit in this; other research shows significant side effects.  The plant’s properties also seem to be habit forming.  I have heard repeated comments from people who have "self prescribed" the herb for themselves, to the effect that they could not make it through the day without their St John’s Wort.  Or they just can’t seem to be able to stop using it because they can not deal with being without it.  While the medical profession has not yet made St. John’s Wort a controlled substance, this sounds like an addition to me.   Again, a professional herbalist will have applied the 15 day rule and suggested you consult a doctor concerning this.

    Other issues in self prescribing multiple herbs are the combined effects of the herbs, or how the herbs will react with other herbs or prescribed medications, and again, not knowing the true side effects of certain herbs.

    A woman I know was going in for major surgery in a couple of weeks.  When we were eating breakfast together one morning, she opened her purse to take some pills.  Among the tablets was a capsule which resembled the many herbal capsules you buy over the counter.  She then started to tell me that she has been taking ginkgo biloba for her bad memory and how this was helping her so well.   However, ginkgo biloba is a blood thinning agent, and with her going in for surgery, I immediately suggested she discontinue the herb and tell her doctor she was taking it.  It is very clearly stated in most herbal reference books that interactions include bleeding when combined with warfarin, raised blood pressure when combined with a thiazide diuretic and coma when combined with trazodone, among other things. [iv]  Yet people pop these herbs regularly without so much thought for the potential side effects and drug reactions.

    Consulting a good herbalist would inform you of these things and make sure you understand.

    While it’s nice to be able to point out plants in the field and know what parts are used from these plants, over the counter herbs many times do not tell you what part of the plant is in the tablet or capsule.  While some may be obvious, like oils in gel caps, others, such as teas, could contain flowers, leaves, stems or roots.  What strength is that dosage?   How strong are the ingredients?  Do the strengths vary from package lot to package lot, from manufacturer to manufacture and from year to year?  Did they use three year old roots or five year old roots?  This can greatly effect the strength of the product.  How much should a person take?  Is it based on body weight?  Or maybe the age of the person?  Should this be given to a child?  What are good brands that are consistent in strength and quality?

    A good herbalist will always bring these questions up, and have answers that will reflect their level of expertise.

    There is a lot to consider here when we discuss herbs and herbalists.  There are people on line, in casual classes and who we encounter every day that can do more damage in a few careless words than you can imagine.

    As a final note, we do not even consider what we do with herbs for our own entertainment.  A very common home made item is May wine.  While we include sweet woodruff in the additions to a bottle, I have read recipes which suggest including wormwood in the mix.  There is also a home brew ale made with wormwood.  How many of you know that wormwood is a cumulative poison and you should not be using that particular item?  Cumulative poison, as in it does not poison you right away, but long term use can lead to poisoning.  You do not build up immunity, but rather you build up a toxic level of this herb in your bloodstream.

    Be very careful if you are a novice or just starting out on the herbal path.  Seek a professional with credentials to help you study and learn.  The total sum of knowing about herbs is not from a book, or even a group of books.  It comes from learning from professionals, doing research, talking with the person seeking advice and knowing the law and how you have to adhere to it.   Seek a knowledgeable person who will guide you with professionalism, wisdom and knowledge of the law.


    [i] ‘Ohio House Bill 341 passed into law August 2000

    [ii] Cleveland Plain Dealer July 2001

    [iii] The Right to Bear Herbs in Ohio’ By Anne Kinchen, RAc Acupuncture Today, 11-Mar-2002

    [iv]American Family Physician  http://www.aafp.org/afp/20030901/923.html

    Copyright © 2004 Boudica Foster

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Boudica Foster is the pen name for Margaret Foster. All website material written, drawn or photographed is the work of Margaret Foster.