Herbalism (“herbology” or “herbal medicine”) is use of plants for medicinal purposes, and the study of such use. Plants have been the basis for medical treatments through much of human history, and such traditional medicine is still widely practiced today.
A herbalist is:
- A person whose life is dedicated to the economic or medicinal uses of plants.
- One skilled in the harvesting and collection of medicinal plants (see wildcrafter).
- Traditional Chinese herbalist: one who is trained or skilled in the dispensing of herbal prescriptions; traditional Chinese herb doctor. Similarly, traditional Ayurvedic herbalist: one who is trained or skilled in the dispensing of herbal prescriptions in the Ayurvedic tradition.
- One trained or skilled in the therapeutic use of medicinal plants.
- One who is skilled in the preparation/manufacture of dried and/or liquid herbal products who possesses a pharmacognostic, formulary and/or clinical understanding of the products being prepared/manufactured.
Herbalists must learn many skills, including the wildcrafting or cultivation of herbs, diagnosis and treatment of conditions or dispensing herbal medication, and preparations of herbal medications. Education of herbalists varies considerably in different areas of the world. Lay herbalists and traditional indigenousmedicine people generally rely upon apprenticeship and recognition from their communities in lieu of formal schooling.
Four approaches to the use of plants as medicine include:
- The magical/shamanic—Almost all societies, with the exception of cultures influenced by Western-style industrialization, recognize this kind of use. The practitioner is regarded as endowed with gifts or powers that allow him/her to use herbs in a way that is hidden from the average person, and the herbs are said to affect the spirit or soul of the person.
The energetic—This approach includes the major systems of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, and Unani. Herbs are regarded as having actions in terms of their energies and affecting the energies of the body. The practitioner may have extensive training, and ideally be sensitive to energy, but need not have supernatural powers.
The functional dynamic—This approach was used by early physiomedical practitioners, whose doctrine forms the basis of contemporary practice in the UK. Herbs have a functional action, which is not necessarily linked to a physical compound, although often to a physiological function, but there is no explicit recourse to concepts involving energy.
The chemical—Modern practitioners – called Phytotherapists – attempt to explain herb actions in terms of their chemical constituents. It is generally assumed that the specific combination of secondary metabolites in the plant are responsible for the activity claimed or demonstrated, a concept called synergy.