The Herbal Equation: Plants AND People

I know how it goes when you first start studying herbalism, you get SO excited about learning about all of these beautiful amazing plants.

I mean after all, isn’t that what usually gets us into herbal medicine to begin with, an absolute love for plants?

But they are just one half of the “herbal equation.”

It’s one thing to learn everything there is to know about herbs, to harvest them, grow them, and prepare them into medicines, but we have to pull back and remember the entire purpose of working with herbs to begin with: to heal someone.

This necessitates that we balance our herbal studies with learning about people as well- they are the other half of the equation. In order for us to be effective herbalists, we have to know as much about people as we do about our remedies. This includes constitutional systems, anatomy and physiology, as well as some pathology and understanding disease processes.

On top of that, we have to know how to relate to people, that is, how to do a good intake, assessment and evaluation of the person in front of us asking for help.

As you walk your plant path, I want to offer you encouragement to not lose sight of the people that you will ultimately give your herbal remedies to. To take the time, energy, discipline, and determination to understand the human being as much as you understand the plants.

After all, what’s the point of growing and wildcrafting herbs and making medicine with them if you don’t know how to work with the person you’ll give them to? Our knowledge of herbalism ultimately needs to be balanced between plants and people.


Last week I shot a video talking about the concept of ecological physiology and being able to understand the reflection between the human body and nature and ecosystems, juxtaposing that to a mechanistic understanding of how our bodies function. It got me thinking about the practice of herbal medicine in and of itself and the importance of balancing our studies and our work as herbalists. When we get into herbal medicine, it’s easy to get excited about the plants. Obviously, we’re herbalists, so we love plants, and we love going out into nature, and we like harvesting the plants and growing the plants and making medicine out of the plants and studying and learning about the plants.

But what I’ve noticed with a lot of folks, especially those just getting into herbal medicine, is that it can be easy to forget about the other half of the herbal medicine equation, which is the people. As herbalists, our ultimate goal is to help people, to bring the healing power of the plants to the people. To me, the ecological function of the herbalist is to be a bridge between the earth and the world, between the botanical kingdom and the human kingdom. 

In order for us to effectively be that bridge, we have to have a foot in both worlds. We have to have one foot in the plant world and one foot in the human world. It’s one thing to learn about the plants and harvest them and make medicine. But what’s all of that for? What is all of our knowledge and our understanding, all the medicines that we make and all the medicines that we grow—what’s it all for if we’re not going to actually know how to give it to people? Learning about the plants is only one half of the equation. We have to know as much about people as we do about the plants. To me, this is a critical element of herbal medicine that is commonly overlooked but is incredibly necessary. 

When I first started practicing as an herbalist over 10 years ago, it became very clear to me how important knowing how to work with people is: knowing how to do a good intake and interview; knowing how to ask people the right questions so that you get all of the information that you need in order to select the appropriate remedies; that you have an understanding of their constitution, the overall makeup of their body; that you have an understanding of the organ systems, how the organs function, what happens to them when they become dysfunctional; that you’re able to translate between the symptoms that someone is having and relate that back to what’s going on within the organs and the tissues of the body; and being able to learn how to assess those things, being able to learn how to understand the core patterns of what someone is going through so that then we can translate that over to the plants that we all know and love so much. 

This is a really important aspect of herbal medicine and ultimately requires us to broaden our knowledge and our understanding. We can’t get so tunnel visioned in on the plants that we forget about the people that we’re going to give them to.

We’ve got to remember that there are different layers or levels or scales of the practicing herbalist. A lot of us get into plants because maybe we’ve got something going on in our own bodies that we need help with, and we don’t want to take a conventional approach. We’d rather work with the medicines of the earth. Maybe some of us have a calling to be of service to our families. I know a lot of herbalists who get into plants because they have kids, and they don’t want to take their kids to the doctor and pump them full of a bunch of antibiotics and vaccines, and so they turn to the plants. Maybe you have a calling to be of service to your greater community. Maybe you want to help your family and your friends, your greater community. Maybe you’re a practicing physician, an ND, an MD, an acupuncturist, and you want to get more to that clinical level where you’re seeing clients and seeing patients on a consistent basis. 

Whatever level or scale of herbalist that you’d like to become, or that you currently are, there is a critically important facet to understanding the people that you’re going to give the plants to. There are a lot of layers to that, from knowing how to interface and interact with people to knowing how to get all the information that you need. 

You have this framework, this knowledge, this understanding of the plants. We also need a framework, a knowledge, and an understanding of people so that we can translate between the two, so that you can see what the root issue of what’s going on with this person is, and then being able to translate that or bridge that over to the plants that you work with so that you can give them the right remedy that is not just going to suppress their symptom or take their symptom away but is actually going to get to the root cause of the problem. 

The root of the problem might be in the body, it might be in the mind, it might be in the emotions, it might even be on the level of the soul. My approach to herbal medicine—and some may disagree with me on this, some may not practice in this way and that’s totally okay—but for my orientation, these herbal medicines have the ability to affect us on all of these levels. Plants don’t just affect us on a physical level in our body. They have an effect on our mind. They have an effect on our emotions. They have an effect on our soul. They have this ability to catalyze our spiritual transformation. 

From an alchemical perspective of the world, the mind and the emotions and the body and the soul aren’t separate things. These are all integral facets of the wholeness of who we are. The practice of true holistic herbalism from my perspective is using the whole plant to treat the whole person—body, energy, and spirit. 

That is the model that I propose in the evolutionary herbalism dynamic. That is the healing that I believe is important for the world at this time, because humanity has sickness that is beyond our physical bodies, and a pill may not get to the root of that problem.

I’m not speaking ill of allopathic medicine or biochemical medicine. It all has its place. Everything has its place. Biomedicine has saved my life multiple times. Maybe it has for you too. But I believe that the herbal medicines have an ability to heal us. It’s not just a belief. To me, this is a truth, that herbal medicines have this ability to facilitate a deeper level of transformational healing that is needed on the earth at this time. 

A theme that I see among a lot of herbalists is that there’s neglect, or misunderstanding, or just lack of awareness around the importance of taking the time, the effort, the energy, the discipline, and the commitment to understand the human organism to the level of depth that we want to understand our plants. I hope this helps you to start considering deepening your study of people so that you can ultimately be a more effective herbalist. The world needs more people to step up and provide the healing that people need, and to be the bridge between the world and the earth, the plants and the people. 

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