Written by Elliott Brinkley, Clinical Herbalist and Owner of Dancing Willow Herbs
When I first became interested in herbalism, I walked into a local herb shop in Albuquerque with the intention of finding a good herbal book. The person working behind the counter had the impression that I knew more about herbalism than I actually did, and recommended a classic, yet advanced book to me.
I remember sitting with this book in a cafe, enamored but overwhelmed. I was entirely unfamiliar with the concepts of herbal energetics, the complex anatomical mechanisms and most plants in the book. I desperately wanted to understand the words on the page, but they floated over my head barely out of my grasp.
I needed more foundations, more fundamentals, a mentor, and more experience with the plants themselves.
It can be an overwhelming world for the beginner herbalist. There is so much information about plants and their uses, that sometimes the nuances are lost. People don’t know where to begin, what is safe or how to properly prepare herbal medicines.
This blog post will give you a road map of where to start as a beginner herbalist. You will learn tangible ways to get started in the most well-rounded way possible to develop deep connections with the plants.
1. Get a beginner-friendly herbal book
While a book will never replace in person learning, mentorship and personal experience with plants, it is a really great way to get oriented in the world of herbalism. If you are local, stop by our shop to browse our selection of beginner herbal books. These are some of my favorites:
For the absolute beginner:
- Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide, Rosemary Gladstar
- Body into Balance, Maria Noel Groves
- The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook, James Green
- Wild Remedies: Rosalee de la Floret & Emily Han
2. Do an herb of the week or month
This is what I recommend to anyone who wants to develop a deeper relationship with plants. An herb of the week/month is when you spend an allotted amount of time, diving into a single chosen plant. The goal is to incorporate the plant around you in as many ways as possible. You may try different herbal medicine preparations (tea vs tincture, etc.), do research about the plant, and observe what you may be experiencing while working with it. This opens up the doorway to create a relationship with the plant in a way that is rooted in your personal physiology.
In herb school, every week we would work with a new plant as an herb of the week. This was not only a valuable resource for cultivating awareness of how plants work in our personal bodies, but also in understanding the limits of book learning. Especially in the group setting, we would find empirical effects from plants in the group, absent from any literature. For example, Passionflower is generally considered a relaxing herb that helps to calm the mind, soothe racing thoughts, and help someone fall deeper into sleep. Several people in our herb school experienced an adverse, opposite reaction to the plant which had them unable to fall asleep because their mind was racing! While passionflower is still considered a calming herb, it is important to realize the individual nature of plants and their effects on our unique constitution and body. The only way to understand how an herb works with you is to consume it and then observe how it feels in your body.
Below you will find several ways to start incorporating your herb of the week or month, as well as journal prompts to help you dive deeper into understanding the way that the plant feels in your body.
Ideas for Herb of the Week
- Make your plant into a standard infusion: add 30g by weight of herb (or 4 tablespoons) to a quart sized mason jar and fill to the top with hot water, let steep for 30 minutes to overnight, strain and then drink. Generally best for leaves, flowers, arial parts of the plant.
- Make your plant into a decoction: add 30g by weight (or 4 tablespoons) of herb to a medium sized pot, add 2 quarts of water, bring to a boil then let simmer until reduced by 1/2, strain and drink. Generally best for roots, mushrooms, bark, seeds and other tough materials.
- Take your herb as a tincture using standard dosage for medicinal effects.
- Take 1-3 drops of the tincture to feel energetic effects.
- Add the tea, the plant, the essential oil or flower essence to your bath.
- Incorporate the herb into your cooking.
- Add the tea, essential oil or flower essence to a spray bottle and spray around your home.
- Make art with your plant as the subject: draw, paint, collage, write a song, etc.
- Research the plant in all of your herbal books, or online (herbal blogs, or clinical studies).
- Consider writing a monograph with all the information that you find about your herb.
- Learn about the botany of the plant and go searching for it if it grows in your area.
- Consider growing the plant in your garden.
- Do a plant meditation with the tea, tincture, flower essence, or fresh plant: consume or sit with the plant, quiet your mind and ask for its connection/guidance.
Herb of the Week Charting
- Plant latin binomial and common name(s):
- Plant part (leaf, flower, berry, root, etc):
- Form taken (tea, tincture, flower essence, etc):
- Does the herb feel hot or cold (in your body, on your tongue)?
- Does the herb feel moist or dry (does it feel heavy/coating or does it tighten your tissues)?
- Where do you feel the herb in your body? Did sensations move to a particular place/organ?
- Does the herb feel stimulating or relaxing?
- Are you noticing any physiological effects?
- Intuitive/emotional/spiritual observations?
3. Attend herbal classes
We can only learn so much from books, or personal experience. Having a mentor and learning through their experiences- personal, clinical or otherwise- allows us to affirm our knowledge, gain different insights and connect with likeminded community.
When I took over Dancing Willow Herbs, one of my major visions was to create more herbal education through our shop. Over the past year, we have had great success in holding regular classes at the shop. We squeeze everyone into the back of the apothecary, but there is limited space. Since we have been selling out classes, we wanted to expand and experiment with virtual offerings. This way, we can spread this herbal knowledge with as many people as possible- even if they live across the world!
If you are starting out your herbal journey (or even if you are well along it and want more foundations), our Introduction to Herbalism class is for you. We will be filming the live class to provide you with the option of attending in person or watching the virtual recording on your own time. The class is structured to help you build your base of herbal knowledge by introducing you to several gentle tonic herbs, the concepts of herbal energetics, the history of vitalist herbalism and basic medicine making techniques. Sign up here!
Browse our classes page to join us for any other upcoming classes and events.
Wherever you are on your herbal journey, know that you are not alone! Be easy on yourself, start simply, and have fun with it! The plants are excited to have your engagement, your interest, and want to work with you.
A warm welcome to the world of herbalism,
Elliott & the team at Dancing Willow Herbs