What Is Herbalism?

Klaus Ferlow HMH—11/2011
Master herbalist, Klaus Ferlow, examines what herbalism actually is and gives a brief outline of the history of herbalism. Rather than a backup to normal orthodox medicine, herbalism should be primary healthcare.

MOST PEOPLE IN NORTH AMERICA might not be familiar what herbalism is all about and I would like to inform you about the history of herbs and why it is very important for your health and well being.

I would like to start by using the quote from Debra St. Claire, Master Herbalist (MH), graduated from the Dominion Herbal College, Burnaby, B.C., the oldest North American Herbal College since 1926 said in her Pocket Herbal Reference Guide from 1992:

"After the ability to synthesize medicine from inert substances such as petroleum and minerals was developed the therapeutic use of herbs diminished. The art of pharmacy turned to the production of drugs which could bring the quickest relief of symptoms, ignoring the reason that the symptoms appeared. As we look back, perhaps it is time to reconsider the path. The use of these substances has spawned a myriad of unexpected problems, such as suppression of the very signals that our bodies produce to alert us to a need of change. Pain itself is a call to action – a call to remedy an imbalance in our lifestyle. The proficient use of herbal therapy is directly connected to our ability to sense the first signal and to adjust our lifestyle accordingly. It is when these signals are continually ignored that disease has a chance to set itself more deeply within our bodies."

I myself was honoured by the Dominion Herbal College for my lifetime of dedication to the cause of herbal medicine, as practitioner, manufacturer, author, promoter and defender of herbs and the practice of art and science in herbal medicine. I received an Honorary Master Herbalist Diploma November 25th, 2008 and I am only the 5fth recipient of this prestigious Award in their 86th history.

"Herbs and plants are medical jewels gracing in the woods, fields and lanes, which few eyes see and minds understand." Carolus Linneus, Naturalist 1707 – 1778


A plant that is used as a medicine is referred as an herb, the Latin word herba, the Old French erbe, and the derivation of Middle English herbe. It can be pronounced with or without the initial "h-sound". Originally, the term herb only applied to non-woody plants. Later it came to be used to refer to any part of any plant used for flavouring or medicine. In the field of complementary and alternative health care, (CAM) – I really don’t like that term since we are dealing in traditional medicine and CAM as far as I am concerned should be used by the allopathic medicine - it is now used to mean any plant, in whole or in part, having nutritional and/or medicinal value. Individual or combined parts of plant that may be used include: seed, fruit, flower, leaf, stem, or root/rhizome.

Herbalism, or phytotherapy, is the use of plants to support the natural healing ability of the body. Several types of herbal medicine systems are in use today – including Ayurvedic, Chinese, European, Native American, and Western Herbalism. Even though each system uses different morphologies, terms and herbs, each of these systems treat the whole body holistically; using the energy of the plants to work in synergy in each individual, in order to help the body to heal itself because the body itself is the best healer! Herbs have a remarkable history of healing human beings and maintaining good health when properly used.

Most herbs in their natural state are safe, and do not leave a residue in the body that could produce negative side effects. The opposite is with most drugs, synthetically developed in laboratories, even though some are extracted from plants. When these plants are not used in their natural state it can result in harmful side effects. Drugs tend to treat or mask a symptom or condition, while the use of herbals emphasizes that one could avoid getting sick in the first place because herbs help to balance and support the body.

The compounds in herbs work synergistically in the body to promote healing. All plants have therapeutic properties as they contain a variety of biologically active substances. Plants undergo photosynthesis, transforming carbon dioxide into energy rich substances. The resulting carbon chains are further transformed into a variety of compounds such as lipids, alkaloids, essential oils and tannins. Through other biochemical process, minerals and nitrates are absorbed by the roots and transformed into vitamins, trace minerals and antibiotics.

Herbs can affect biological systems in our bodies at the cellular and organ level. Ultimately these high levels of biologically active substances can produce pharmacological and therapeutic effects. The natural value of herbs is very high and organically grown herbs (without the use of chemical fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides spraying) offer maximum benefits. Herbal medicine represents a particular approach to healing which differs from allopathic medicine. Rather relieving single symptoms with a single active ingredient, herbs offer a holistic approach by striving to heal the entire body by treating the cause. Medicine can only be truly holistic if it acknowledges the social and cultural context which the illness occurred, and then the desired healing takes place.

The renewed interest in holistic traditional medicine, as well as a great number of other alternative complementary therapies, has encouraged changes within the existing medical profession. It is incumbent upon us all to seek out and utilize appropriate health alternatives. It appears that these opportunities will continue in the coming years. It might surprise you that even today 80% of the total world population of 7 billion is still using herbs, herbal remedies and homeopathy for healing. This was also stated a few years ago by Chris Kilham, the medicine hunter, author, lecturer – he teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst at his lecture at public health shows in Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

There are multiple ways to dispense herbs: aromatics, decoctions, hot or cold infusions, juices, creams, salves, ointments, liniments, lotions, soaps, shampoo, toothpaste, sprays, medicinal oils, conditioners, teas, poultice and fomentations, powders, perfumes, syrups, tinctures, extracts (alcohol or glycerine based), pills, tablets, capsules, and whole herb (dry or fresh) and for cooking. The herbalist takes into consideration the nature of the imbalance and the method to best take full advantage of the healing attributes of the specific herb. To increase effectiveness, herbs may be used both internally and externally.


Medicinal plants are mentioned in the Bible, and various herbs are mentioned throughout.

"In the beginning God created the heaven on earth...and God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed, to you. It shall be for meat." Genesis 1:29

"He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and the herb for the service of man." Psalm 204-14"

The ancient Egyptians wrote their findings on papyrus. The Sumerians from Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) used tablets of cuneiform writing. Hippocrates was a famous Greek doctor. The Romans believed Greek doctors were the best. Galen was the doctor to the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Dioscorides was the emperor Nero’s doctor. We learnt about herbs used in ancient India and ancient China through a famous Arabic doctor called Avicenna who had read the writing. Throughout Europe and in the Middle Ages monks in their monasteries, grew and used herbs as medicines. In Germany Hildegard of Bingen who was a abbess and a herbalist treated the sick with herbs. Voyages of discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries resulted in the pilgrims taking to America herbs they used in England. Then, over time, herbs native to America came to Europe and other parts of the world. In Britain, Nicholas Culpeter published a book to help ordinary people make their own herbal remedies instead of paying for expensive ones from doctors.

Herbs have been used for uncounted time for various purposes like healing the sick and infirm. People thought that herbs keep the body in tune with nature as nature intended and maintain proper balance. Many scientific studies still continue with modern research following up the lead of old folklore and herbal uses to help finding new western medicine. Man also been aware of the effect on the body, mind spirit and emotion. For example – flowers were utilized to attract love, food and protection. Fragrant plants were worn to heal the body and give you a sense of well being. The most costly flowers are offered to gods and goddesses and the use of aromatic incense is recorded from ancient times. When herbs are taken, the body starts to get cleansed and purifies itself. Unlike chemically synthesized, highly concentrated drugs that may produce many negative side affects, herbs can effectively realign the body’s defences. Herbs do not produce instant cures, but rather offer a way to put the body in proper tune with nature. Nevertheless you are now in charge of your own body and health! And remember: "For every disease we know Mother Earth provides a herb to health and grow!"

I come to the conclusion of my article by using a quote from Dr. Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, Herbalist Acupuncturist, Nutritionist from her book "Death by Modern Medicine:"

"We must always remember that allopathy is only a medical model born of the industrial age, and to suggest that the oldest and most used healing arts in the world are secondary to allopathy is not only insulting but inaccurate as well. These traditional methods of restoring and maintaining maximum health, by virtue of their track record of safety and success, take second place to no other medical model."

My suggestion is you should try herbs, herbal remedies and homeopathic medicine (derived from botanical plants) so you can judge for yourself. But read all ingredients on the labels and avoid any harmful dangerous, hazardous chemicals. For more information about them, please check these websites:




Earl Mindell, R.Ph., Ph.D., Herb Bible, Simone & Schuster Inc., 2000

Jeanne Rose, Herbs & Things, Last Gasp, 2001

Joe Serrentino, How Natural Remedies Work, Hartley & Marks, 1991

Bernard Jensen, DC, Ph.D., Nutritionist, Herbs: Wonder Healers, Bernard Jensen 1992

Debra St. Claire, MH, Pocket Herbal Reference Guide, The Crossing Press, 1992

James A. Duke, PhD., The Green Pharmacy Herbal Handbook, Rodale Press Inc., 2000

James A. Duke, PhD., The Green Pharmacy, Rodale Press Inc., 1997

Terry Willard, Cl.H., Ph.D., Encyclopedia of Herbs, Key Porter Books Ltd, 2002

David Kessler, M.D., The Doctors Complete Guide to Healing Herbs, Berkley Books, 1996

John Lust, N.D. & Michael Tierra, C.A., O.M.D., The Natural Remedy Bible, Pocket Books, 1990

Peter Tompkins & Christopher Bird, The Secret Life of Plants, Harper Perennial, 1989

John Lust, N.D.,D.B.M., The herb Book, Bantam Books, 1974

Tompkins Peter, Bird Christopher, The Secret Life of Plants, Harper Perennial, 1973

Kilham, Chris, www.medicine-hunter.com