Herbalist  What They Do

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dotHerbalists make botanical medicines from plants to help improve their own health while treating and educating others. They are usually self-employed, except when they work in the manufacturing of herbal products. They otherwise run clinical practices, work as consultants, write books, teach at conferences and herbalist colleges or work in health food stores.

"Working in herbalism doesn't mean you have to be a clinical herbalist," says Margaret Bert. She is the dean of academics at the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies in Boulder, Colorado.

"You can work in writing, developing product lines, working as a manufacturer's representative or assistant. You can also incorporate herbalism into another practice like massage therapy, acupuncture or psychotherapy.

"When I counsel students who come in here asking what kind of career they can expect from herbal medicine, I always ask them what kind of career do you want? Because it's something more self-actualized, you have to have your own motivation to set up your own niche in it."

dot"There are so many areas you can go into. There's lots of options and opportunities and I think it's gonna get better and better," says Harwinder Mattu. She is a medical herbalist from England who now lives in North America. Mattu says there's been an explosion in North American herbalism.

"The growth has actually been phenomenal," she says. "I think people are just looking for something else and not knowing what else is out there, and suddenly all these herbs are going into the pharmaceutical industry very quickly.

"You're getting cough mixtures with echinacea and the herbal sleep remedies and anti-depressants and that kind of thing. So there's a lot being brought to the attention of the public through the pharmaceuticals, but people are realizing there's a lot more out there."

dotAviva Romm is a herbalist, author and executive director of the American Herbalists Guild in Canton, Georgia. She agrees that the rise in public interest in herbal products has spawned a major industry.

"Over the past 10 years, I've seen greater interest in herbal medicines and greater dissatisfaction with Western medicine," says Romm. "It's really escalated to increase multiple times in profits. It's now a $12-billion a year industry."

dotBut this unchecked overnight growth has led many to doubt the safety of unregulated herbal medicine. Many herbalists are now organizing themselves and pushing for professional status and regulation of herbal products.

"With rapid growth, there's good and there's bad," says Shawn Schultz. She is a herbalist from Pattersonville, New York. "There's a lot of new products on the market that aren't worth anything. And there's a lot of people who are taking a two-week course and saying, 'Oh, I'm a herbalist,' and I'm afraid they're going to do more harm than good."

dotThe American Herbalists Guild (AHG) currently insists its members pass an exam and have a substantial number of clinical practice hours under their belt. It's now trying to achieve recognized certification for its members. That would allow for resident herbalists in medical clinics and physicians' offices.

The AHG is also eager to be given the power to regulate the herbal industry itself, without interference from the government and pharmaceutical giants.

"If it doesn't come from within the organization, chances are it will come from the outside," warns Romm.

"There's a big threat right now of pharmacists and physicians taking over the clinical aspect with a license that excludes us. So there's a need for the herbal profession to organize and make sure that the physicians and pharmacists don't corner the market on products."

"Whenever the government gets involved, they tend to over-regulate things," says Schultz. "You're going to get people sitting behind a desk that don't understand herbs that are regulating things. It would be better if the people who worked with herbs and understood them made the decisions."

dotWhen they're not treating clients in their homes and clinics, herbalists can often be found tending their gardens and greenhouses or wandering in the wild. They gather most of the ingredients themselves, and concoct their own remedies in their own labs and kitchens.

"All clinical herbalists make their own remedies -- that keeps things inexpensive for yourself and your patients," says herbalist Kevin Porowski.

"They don't necessarily grow their own herbs, but they'll buy them, or gather them from the wild. That's called wildcrafting -- where you go to a clean environment, pick your ingredients, bring it home, dry it and make your tinctures [a stock mixture of herbs and solvent], or creams, balms, capsules, teas and other concoctions."

dotThe work's physical requirements involve being able to do some wildcrafting and take care of a garden. But those with physical disabilities have the option of buying their ingredients from other herbalists.

"Growing plants can be quite physical -- I have about three acres to tend here," says Schultz. "But someone who couldn't grow their own would just purchase their supplies from a reliable source. A lot of herbalists who don't grow their own plants will buy them. But I like to know exactly when things were harvested and grown."

dotLike most self-employed workers, herbalists' hours vary. "I see people a few days a week, from early in the morning until evening," says Schultz. "I try to keep it to a couple days a week, so I have a life, because I have a lot of other things that I'm involved in. But it can be like a full-time thing just like doctors' hours, or you can just do it in the evening or on weekends."

At a Glance

Use plants to improve people's health

  • Most are self-employed
  • Many herbalists gather their own ingredients
  • Learning from other herbalists is one way to go