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Roots Revival: Celebrating the New Folk Herbalism Resurgence

Posted Jan 10 2011 1:45pm

This particular piece is part of a larger project I’m working on for the upcoming issue of Plant Healer: A Journal of Traditional Western Herbalism but something that I feel strongly about sharing with all my blog readers as well. As most of you are well aware of, grassroots herbalism is something I’m incredibly passionate about and I see more reason than ever to be celebrating the growth and diversity of our community than ever!



by Kiva Rose

“All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.”

-Louis Armstrong

“We were created out of the earth there. Well, we’re part of the earth, and that’s what we’ve got to go back to the earth to get something to keep this body a-ticking. Just like the tree, of course, and the herbs here, they’ve got sap in em, and we’ve got blood.”

- Tommie Bass, Appalachian Folk Herbalist

With the current economic hardships, there’s been a revived interest in all sorts of folk arts as well as an upsurge in enthusiasm for the do-it-yourself mentality. And rightly so, as our culture finally awakens to the need for increased sustainability and self-sufficiency. Once relegated to the impoverished or for decorative purposes only, gardening has seen an incredible upsurge as we once again take an interest in where and how our food is grown. Likewise, many folk arts, from artisan breads to hand woven fibers have become increasingly popular and valued in recent years. Handmade has become something to value rather than scorn in favor of their store boughten counterparts. Locally crafted goods are esteemed over exotic imports as being not only more economical, but also more meaningful and desirable as they connect us to our own bioregions and facilitate an intimacy with place.

In the context of herbalism, however, it seems that the term “folk” is still frequently accompanied by disdainful sentiments, and for the more open minded, a sense of the quaint and cute and old fashioned. Yep, go ahead and look up folk herbalism or folk medicine. Count how many times the terms “rustic”, “primitive” and “non-scientific” come up. Stedman’s Medical Dictionary is kinder, defining  folk medicine as the “treatment of ailments outside clinical medicine by remedies and simple measures based on experience and knowledge handed down from generation to generation.”

Technically, the term folk in this context applies strictly to non-professional or lay people using local or handed down knowledge to treat illness. More realistically, folk herbalism is simply whatever herbal practitioners (professional or not) and practices not currently recognized as valid, acceptable or popular by conventional medicine and mainstream culture. In the U.S., that seems to be just about damn near all of us. Yeah, sure, some of us have managed to fit in a little better, but among plant-loving people there’s still likely to be sage leaves clinging to our lab coats and chokecherry twigs tangled in our hair no matter how many hospitals or integrated clinics we’ve worked in.

I personally see the term folk as an underlying commonality for all grassroots practitioners, all those herbalists who get out in the forests and meadows and gardens and harvest their own medicines and who can recognize their favorite remedies while still growing in the ground and not just from a label on a fancy bottle. After all, folk are just the people. Usually the common people, the non-elite who need sustainable, cheap remedies that actually work without worrying about academic theories or even government endorsement. Implied by the term is a lack of exclusivity, embracing rather than shunning and encouraging a sense of sharing what we know without hoarding or copywriting our experiences. At its root, folk arts of any kind tend to be unpretentious while still beautiful and useful, a testament to the efficiency and aesthetics of an earlier era with increasing relevance for our current challenging times.

The more popular term “traditional herbalism” encompasses folk herbalism as well as a great deal more, including the more highly systemized herbal practices around the world, such as Ayurveda, Unani Tibb and Traditional Chinese Medicine. All folk herbalism is a form of traditional herbalism, but not all traditional herbalism is folk herbalism, especially as some traditional medicine becomes ever more formalized and merges with conventional medicine. By it’s very nature, folk herbalism tends to be unstructured, unruly and constantly adapting to the needs of the current place and people. Standardized extracts aren’t likely to be of much use to these people, as they almost always prefer making their own herbal preparations and are more likely to trust a remedy made from the whole plant than isolated constituents for isolated health diagnoses.

Many, if not all, forms of the more systemized herbal traditions include within them many elements of folk herbalism. As with any attempted categorizations, the borders are fairly fuzzy. What’s probably most important to recognize about folk herbalism is its wild and wooly nature that generally defies being fit inside any construct and tends to vary radically depending on locale, culture and era. There are certainly underlying commonalities though, especially a dependence on weeds, locally abundant wild plants and easily grown garden herbs as well as the independent nature of its practitioners and their deep connection with plants, people and place. Experience, empiricism and even thoughtful anecdote are also essential elements of this ubiquitous breed of botanical medicine.

Folk herbalism certainly includes kitchen herbalism and backyard herbalism, but can also encompass many forms of professionalized herbalism as well. It’s likely that the greatest majority of folk herbalists primarily treat their families or close friends, although many will eventually look to help their larger community, especially when word gets out and people come knocking on the front door, looking for diaper rash salve and something to quiet an old cough. And some will go on to make teaching and practicing the mainstay of their livelihood, passing on their knowledge to an even wider range of those interested in plant medicine.

Unfortunately, even from within the herbal community, there seems to be the tendency to create hierarchal divisions of professional, community, kitchen and other types of herbalists. I certainly see that these descriptions can be useful in helping potential clients and students choose who they’d benefit most from working with. What seems less rational is the need to create a hierarchy of what is best.

What we most need within herbalism right now is increased diversity, not not less. Just as in any intact or recovering ecosystem, diversity breeds health and proliferation. We need the grandmother in her kitchen serving Chamomile tea to a teething toddler just as much as we need the professional herbalist working in a clinic or the rural rancher who treats a bull-gored horse with Indian Root. None of these choices are more valid than another, they are all vital elements of a thriving culture and people.

I don’t see the necessity for only one type of healthcare and healing, even within herbalism.  I hear many arguments from all different camps each insisting that their method is the best, the most natural or the only effective way. Personally, when it comes to human health and well-being, I think we can use as many options as are viable, sustainable and relevant. Our very strength is often in our differences and the way we come together to work from so many angles and perspectives. It’s time to break down these needless divisions, these private clubs of who’s important and who’s not. In a grassroots vocation, there’s no reason or room for harmful divisiveness that could well alienate many talented and skilled members of our craft.

Those of us residing in Western Civilization are a mostly mongrel people and our herbal traditions reflect our varied heritage. Remnants of Greek humoral theory merge with Cherokee materia medica only to further blend with Hispanic energetics concepts and German phytotherapy. We’re a wild and weedy bunch, with a penchant for sidewalk-cracking garden escapees and feral flowers. Our traditions have loose ends and broken strands. We weave and reweave while bringing in the multicolored fibers from a hundred different sources. We’re eclectic but still somehow cohesive, even as we struggle for clarity and coherence in our approach and practice.

To deny our diversity for the sake of homogeny and a more respectable appearance is to give up some of the incredible dynamism of Western herbalism, and perhaps especially American herbalism. Instead, we have ever growing reasons for a celebration of the kaleidoscope of our colors and tones. Just as in folk music, our traditions and practices build one off the other, incorporating new harmonies into time-honored melodies, mixing modern instrumentation into century old songs.

We’re still the folk, including herbalist doctors and curanderas, plant-loving nurses and squat-dwelling herb students. We need education and healthcare everywhere, in both clinics and on the streets, in urban centers as well as the backwoods. Herbalists, by their very nature, tend to be boundary walkers, traveling between different worlds and communities in order to provide care and help to those who need it most.

What we all have in common is the knowledge that healthcare and healing are not only the terrain of the expert and the elite. We know that human has the right to facilitate healing in themselves and their family through food, lifestyle, herbs and more. This is an imperative element in sustainability, self-sufficiency and personal responsibility. A roots resurgence in folk wisdom is not only about healthcare but is one part of a return to direct connection with the natural world and our own bodies. The honoring of folk medicine, of the herbal knowledge of the common people steeped in the day to day work with the plants is in itself a sort of revolution.

After all, there’s a certain, irreplaceable power and beauty to knowing your medicines so well that you know them by the shape of their stark winter stems, by one whiff of their just sliced roots, by the particular pattern of their seeds within its fruit. Whether feral sidewalk weeds, carefully tended garden flowers or wild mountain roots, the work of the herbalist is grounded in place. And also in community – whether seeing folks on their own back porches or in integrative clinics, we are inextricably interwoven with the people we care for and offer knowledge to.

Folk music, folk dance, folklore – it can be easy to forget that healing is an art as well as a science and that the lines between the two are finer and grayer than is generally acknowledged. Folk herbalism doesn’t just mean rustic or undeveloped, but rather points to a long history of traditional knowledge passed down and refined over time. Even where our traditions have fractured and been partly forgotten, new knowledge and experiences are forever sprouting up with each new generation – the insistent call and craft of plant-based medicine consistently regrowing even when cut down. Every folk herbalist is an integral part of this emerging resurgence from our shared roots.


All photos © 2011 Kiva Rose

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