Getting an Herbal Education
Herbal Schools, Clinical Herbalist Training, Herbal Apprenticeships, Self-Study & Other Paths to Herbal Wisdom
MOST OF US get our first taste of herbalism informally—by coming across an interesting herbal book, experiencing a health issue we want to heal naturally, or feeling the pull of a particular plant. For many of us, this initial brush with herbs is just the beginning, and is followed by a yearning to soak up everything we can about herbal medicine! The herbs themselves are just the tip of the iceberg—herbal studies can include botany, medicine making, wild plant identification, foraging and wildcrafting, nutrition, anatomy and physiology, herb cultivation, business ethos, culinary herbalism, wild foods, and more. Getting an herbal education that’s tailored to your interests is often the first big step toward becoming an herbalist, and there are plenty of ways to learn.
Herb School + Herbal Course Work
Once you’ve set your heart on becoming an herbalist, studying with an established herbal school is an exciting milestone. Accordingly, choosing which school to attend is an important decision. There are lots to pick from, and each has its own unique teaching style and flavor. You’ll want to review curriculums, read testimonials and instructor bios, and use your intuition when making a decision. If you’re interested in social activism, health justice, or non-binary studies, you’ll want to personally reach out to schools that pique your curiosity to be sure they align with your ideals. For a directory of herbal resources, including organizations, schools, and practitioners, run by people of color and queer/trans/gender non-conforming herbalists, please go here.
Attending a first-rate online or in-person school will give you a strong herbal foundation and prepare you to take the next steps in starting your herbal business or practice. Many schools teach traditional Western herbalism, blending folk and scientific traditions—but there are lots of variations on this theme. You’ll also find a wide range of program offerings, from introductory to advanced, general to specialized, and in person to online. Be sure that the school’s philosophy and approach to healing are primarily in line with your worldview and aspirations.
Some programs focus on evidence-based botanical medicine, whereas others are more focused on the traditional uses of herbs. When considering cost, look at the number of hours of instruction and the level of the school’s professionalism. What’s included in tuition? Are there required materials (books, supplies, etc.) that you’ll need to purchase to complete your studies? If a school puts little effort into its website and personal communication with prospective students, it’s quite possible it doesn’t run a tight ship. Finally, if your goal is to help people with their health in a one-on-one setting (as a clinical herbalist), you’ll want to spend a few years immersed in your herbal education in a program that covers the topics discussed below.
Clinical Herbalist Training
If your dream is to one day open a clinical practice and see clients, you’ll want to enroll in a clinical herbalism program following your initial studies. You may be able to continue at the same school, or you may find yourself looking for a new program—either way, be discerning about your choice. Look for a program, one either online or in person, that covers the following topics: anatomy and physiology, pathophysiology (disease process), energetics, clinical assessment, formulation, drug-herb contraindications, herbal safety, legalities, and additional materia medica.
Completing case studies and working with clients under supervision are also typically part of a quality program. If you’re a health care practitioner who has already formally studied some of these topics, you may not need further herbal education, but I still recommend finding a system of energetic medicine that you resonate with and learning more about constitutional medicine.
We’ve compiled a list of Clinical Herbalism Programs and Functional Herbal Schools to help you get started. Access these lists when you download our eBook, How to Start Your Herbal Career: The Ultimate Guide for Budding Herbalists.
In lieu of (or in addition to) any formal studies, you can seek out an apprenticeship with an herbal mentor you admire. This is the traditional way to study herbalism, and though it’s not for everyone, it can provide valuable insight into the nuances of running an herbal business, working with clients, making medicine, and building relationships with healing plants. It’s imperative that you know the terms of trade and/or money exchange before embarking on an apprenticeship so everyone knows what is expected. Be extremely clear! For example, find out how many hours a week you’ll work and what you’ll receive in compensation (mentorship, class time, money, goods, etc.). I also recommend a trial work period with the teacher to see whether your styles, personalities, and goals are complementary.
I encourage you to “try on” any work you might be interested in by apprenticing or working in the field. Let’s say you want to start a medicinal plant nursery or an herbal CSA (also called community-supported agriculture). Find a nursery or farm to apprentice with one summer. Not only will you learn the tricks of the trade, but you’ll also discover whether you truly enjoy the work. If you don’t have a whole season to spare, consider volunteering or shadowing someone who works in the field for a week. Additionally, many business owners are willing to offer advice and assistance if you ask. Consider contacting people who work in a similar field but in a different area, who wouldn’t be considered possible “competitors.”
Plenty of brilliant herbalists are self-taught, like the avant-garde and charismatic Juliette de Bairacli Levy, who learned about herbs by living with the Romani and observing how animals healed themselves. She traveled the world with her children and beloved Afghan hounds, eventually writing many wonderful books about her adventures. The idea of such a life is romantic and inspiring—just keep in mind this path requires a different degree of personal devotion and curiosity. Though you surely don’t have to cross the globe, you will need to immerse yourself in the herbal healing arts according to your own passion and calling!
Self-study can be challenging for most people, even those who are extremely disciplined. There’s the issue of finding time to study, and then you’ll need to decide what subjects to study, and in what order. I’ll be candid and say that most people who are completely self-taught have obvious holes in their knowledge base and are missing the confidence that comes from a lineage formed with an actual teacher. That said, self-study is perfect paired with more formal herbal instruction and can help round out your herbal skills and knowledge.
So…How Long Does It Take to Become an Herbalist?
This all depends on the herbal programs you choose and your ultimate career goals. Many online schools list the suggested number of hours it will take to complete their program (and allow you to work at your own pace), whereas in-person schools will have regularly scheduled classes that you’ll attend and complete within a given time frame. There are so many options for herbal study these days that you can likely find one that fits your life perfectly.
But let’s put your course of study into perspective: if you want to learn the basics of herbalism to make remedies for your family and friends, an introductory program of 100 to 300 hours will probably be sufficient. To become a practicing clinical herbalist, on the other hand, the American Herbalists Guild recommends a program with at least 1,600 hours of study at a school of herbal medicine, including a 400-hour clinical requirement. If your goal is a career as an herbalist outside of clinical herbalism, look for a program that spans one to two years, or a minimum of 700 hours. This means, depending on your goals, you’re looking at anywhere from six months to several years of study. And there are many shades of green in between!