According to the World Health Organization (WHO), herbalism is the use of crude plant material such as leaves, flowers, fruit, seed, stems, wood, bark, roots, rhizomes or other plant parts, which may be entire, fragmented or powdered. The term herbalism refers to the long historical use of these medicines to support the healing function of the body. Because of the long tradition of using botanicals to promote health, the use of herbs is well established and widely acknowledged to be safe and effective.

Folk Herbalism, such as Southern and Appalachian Folk Herbalism and Traditional Western Herbalism, is a therapy associated with Traditional Medicine. Traditional Medicines is the sum total of knowledge, skills, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures around the world. Whether explicable or not in scientific terms, Traditional Medicine is used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness (WHO). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers Traditional Medicines, such as Appalachian Folk Medicine, which are built upon both theory and practice, as complementary and alternative medicines or whole medical systems.

WHO also recognizes that Traditional Medicine encompasses health practices, approaches, knowledge and beliefs that rely on plant, animal and mineral based medicines, spiritual therapies, manual techniques and exercises, applied singularly or in combination to treat, diagnose and prevent illnesses or maintain well-being. Traditional Medicine modalities include Traditional Western Herbalism, Native American Medicine, Ayurveda, and Traditional Chinese Medicine as well as the traditional or folk medicine of other indigenous groups.

Put simply, herbalism uses plants and foods for healing and for building and maintaining good health. Herbalism is the oldest known medical practice with an unbroken tradition that reaches back to the very beginning of recorded history. Other healing modalities such as conventional medicine, homeopathy, naturopathy, flower essences and food science have evolved from herbalism. In addition, professions such herbalists, healers, bonesetters, dentists, doctors, pharmacists, nurses, surgeons, and massage therapists all owe their origins to herbalism.

Today, herbalism is considered a biologically based practice by the FDA and includes the use of dietary supplements, foods and other natural substances. Dietary supplements consist of herbs, vitamins, minerals, amino acids and certain glandular substances used to supplement the normal diet.

In addition to herbs and foods, herbalists frequently use other natural approaches to wellness including sunshine, detoxification practices, exercise, lifestyle changes, fresh air, hydration and hands on healing. While practitioners such as naturopaths may also employ these tools in their work with clients, when it comes to the nuances of recommending herbs, herbalists generally receive much more stringent and in-depth training than is received by traditional naturopaths or naturopathic physicians. In other words, herbalists are specialist in herbs but their techniques are not restricted to herbal use only.

Herbalists come in many varieties: practitioners, growers, wildcrafters, medicine-makers, manufacturers and/or teachers. Whatever path an herbalist chooses, he or she retains a core belief in the power of plants and a love of nature and the environment. Herbalists embrace the recognition that God created this planet just for us and the plants for our use. That’s accompanied by faith in a botanical ecology that guarantees a holistic relationship among people and plants. So whether we learn about and use herbs from a strictly scientific perspective or rely on intuition and spiritual insights, we need to honor the being who created this place and these medicines for us. Then we can meet the plants with reverence and honor as another of God’s creations.