On herbal medicine

It has been a naive assumption of mine that when we talk of herbs to heal ourselves on this website, those reading will have some knowledge of what herbalism is and its relevance in health, healing and a closer integration with our natural environment. Thinking about it, this is unrealistic with the voices of pharmaceutical giants resounding loud, and oft drowning the soft whispers that beckon as we pass the humble hedgerow. So here i will attempt to remedy this ommission of ours with an outline of herbal medicine within a modern context,  if thats possible.


St. John's Wort. A great healing herb.

Read on to find out more………

Herbs have been used by animals including humans since their arrival on the planet, to keep themselves healthy, strong and alert. Herbs work as part of a spectrum of natural gifts such as good food, fresh air and water which combine to form a healthy, balanced, whole and integrated animal. The principle of herbal medicine is to work with the whole system of the body, including the more subtle and often invisible parts, to prompt the body into healing itself. Herbs vary in their tasks; some are strong, some subtle, some are for external uses, others internal or both, some take a long cycle to sink into the system, others take effect quickly. For effective use of the herbs, a relationship must be built up with the herb itself as well as with the body and what it needs.

If a herbalist is involved, there is an intriguing triangular relationship between herbalist, herb and patient. The herbalist over time has built up a unique and powerful relationship with the herbs they are drawn towards and how they work for them. In turn they have also learned how to read the needs of the patient and to fit those individual needs with the effect the herb will have. So rather than prescribing the same pill for seemingly the same remedy to thousands of people, herbal medicine recognises that every ailment is slightly different, depending on the constitution, mental, emotional and spiritual state of the patient. This gives herbal medicine a subtlety that if looked at from a strictly logical (western) viewpoint may seem intangible and unbelievable. But let us look at living organisms such as a plant, a human, a tree; these are not simple clear cut defined ‘things’, they are complex formations of biological processes, each situated in its own unique environment and its own growing conditions, temperatures, food supplies….the list goes on. And in the case of humans (for the moment) we have the added variable of all the unconscious psychological processes in our lives, along with our thoughts, emotions, choices….again the list can carry on. All this suggests that to take a blanket medical viewpoint for a whole species seems rather outdated and simplistic. There are of course overall trends in dis-ease and injury, but there is often much more to take into account.


As above, so below, all intertwined

Humans havn’t survived this long without knowing a thing or two about healing themselves, 80% of the world’s population still practice herbal medicine as their primary source of healing. “O yes” they say, “but what about the higher life expectancy we have now?”. If we look at the example of the Evenki tribe of Siberia who are nomadic reindeer herders, we see a people who have adopted none of our modern medical ‘advances’ and have little or no contact with the outside (modern) world. These people practice herbal medicine, making remedies from the plants that are around them, and astoundingly they Never get ill. This is a rare surviving case of how life may have been lived all over the planet (including in our own land) when the knowledge and tribal unity existed that enabled the passing down of healing knowledge uninterrupted by social upheaval or the drive towards ‘progress’.

Western medicine in terms of scientific progression(ie.genetics) and health systems (ie.life support, organ transplant) has made great and worthy investigations and breakthroughs in the science of healing. I was about to say ‘science and art’ of medicine and then realized that art is exactly whats missing. By art of medicine i mean the application of medical principles in a way that is not held strictly in one place by stubborn logic but proceeds in an intuitive and holistic (whole system encompassing) fashion.

Much of modern medication is based upon synthesizing herbs or isolating a particular herbal constituent, as with aspirin that is contained in a number of plants including Meadowsweet and Willow.  Isolating the chemical most effective toward a particular ailment, pharmacologists target the problem area as an isolated entity. In contrast, herbalism uses the plant in its entirety and the herbalist deals with the outlying problems of the body and psyche often before working their way in toward the manifesting dis-ease, making sure that the causes surrounding the problem do not cause the ailment to rise up again.  The modern approach is like washing up the filthy pans before the wine glasses; it is curing the symptom rather than the system, and is a mirror held against modern society at large, with comparisons to gaol rather than rehabilitation, more roads for the growing amount of  cars….et cetera.  As Buckminster-Fuller said “Humanity is acquiring all the right technology for all the wrong reasons”, and the primary reason being….money.


Nipplewort forces its way through cracks in the pavement on an industrial estate

We have a friend who had a degree in physics. Once he’d graduated he went looking for a job. He found that there were two main avenues available to him, one being a physics teacher, the other a drug company representative. He decided to look into what  the latter involved. He talked to other students who had trained as drug company reps and found that much of the job was not disimilar to that of a salesman.  It involved informing the doctors of the newest drugs on the market and persuading them that they really needed it. There were sales quotas, bonuses, prescribed methods of persuasion, and a lot of the doctors, especially the older generation, were fairly innocent to the shark like nature of the drug companies, thinking that the intention of this new drug was actually for the good of their patients. He chose to become a physics teacher and he loves it.

All of this poses difficulties for the re-introduction of herbal medicine on a wider scale than its present rural underground status. We live in an age where in dealing with symptom rather than system, we blind ourselves to the validity of a more encompassing viewpoint. We are persuaded by the assertions of government advisery bodies and health strategists who take their advice in turn from the massive pharmaceutical companies, who, lets be honest, could probably buy the government if they wanted to (and might already have done so;-).


Old and new can work together

To get ourselves back to the refined, elegant, simple knowledge of the Evenki of Siberia, combined with the very best of the technological breakthroughs of our time, used for the good of us all, is really what we’re looking for.  Again Buckminster-Fuller has the right words : “We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims”.

We have strayed from a simple description of what herbal medicine is, but it is whole-istic after all, part of a far greater system of ecology and health and set within a social context which makes it almost impossible to talk of on its own. I found that my relationship with herbs greatly increased once i started identifying the plants in the hedgerows, finding out what people say they do, then testing it for myself. The best times for learning have been when i’ve been ill or got a great big cut or infection and have stubbornly refused to see a doctor (not that i’m encouraging this!) and taken on the responsability of treating my own body. Thats when you really feel what effect this form of medicine can have.

‘He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herbs for the service of man’ Psalm 104:14


Ed disinfecting a cut on his finger with Myrrh tincture

If your interested in learning about the herbs, i suggest that when you take a walk in the countryside or park, you take a little side bag with a couple of identification books with you (see book list below) and pick out one or two plants that catch your attention. Try to identify these plants, take their picture if you have a camera (i find Google Images useful for id purposes if you think you know the name of the plant but aren’t sure). It may take time to start with, but once you practice the identification process a few times you’ll get quicker and quicker. A good couple of herbals would be useful, and while your at it you might as well learn a few bits of what you can eat from the hedgerow. Learning about plants gives added breadth to a walk in the countryside. It adds an element of connection and interaction, what had previously been a mass of green weeds becomes an exciting assortment of nibbles and medicines.

Ed gathers nettles on a burdock leaf

Picking nettles into a burdock leaf for tea and the cookpot

In order for the herbs to work effectively, they must be in the context of a balanced life. We cannot expect miracle cures if we eat junk food all day and drink too much. One thing relies on the other. Responsability needs to be taken for ourselves before we have access to the best medicines!

Further reading:

Identification Books:

Edmund Launert – Edible and Medicinal Plants of Britain and Northern Europe

Roger Phillips – Wild Flowers

– Mushrooms

Dieter Podlech – Herbs and healing plants of Britain and Europe

Herbals :

Juliette de Bairacli-Levy – The Illustrated Herbal Handbook

David Hoffmann – The New Holistic Herbal

Tess Darwin – The Scots Herbal

Glennie Kindred – Herbal Healers

Other interesting herb related books :

Juliette de Bairacli-Levy – Traveler’s Joy

Margaret Baker – The Folklore of Plants

John Pughe – The Physicians of Myddfai

N.b. We are looking this year to grow our plant, tree and fungi databases for use as identification tools and a resource for the use and folklore of plants in the Britsh Isles.  It is our intention to grow this resource steadily over the time of our journeys in Britain.

The identification pictures attempt to represent the plant in all stages of its development, throughout the seasons. We are in a unique position to comprehensively document this as we walk.

We are hoping that people will begin to use this website to help them learn more about the plants in Britain.

4 Responses to “On herbal medicine”

  1. Herbalism is known for a long history of use outside regular medical care. It’s becoming a lot more mainstream as improvements in analysis and quality control in addition to innovations in clinical research show the value of herbal treatments in the treating and preventing disease.

  2. Olivia Cliff says:

    Very nicely said indeed….. brilliantly and beautifully.

    Hurrah for the plants indeed!!!

    • Branching Arts says:

      Cheers livvy
      i had to hold back somewhat from ranting more about the big money side of commercial medicine, that its one of the massive big businesses alongside oil, arms, transport, chemicals(including the stuff in our ‘food’)….we give our faith, time and money to these industries that are effectively ruining our lives…..our monstrous folly will catch up with us unless we act quickly.
      So easily swayed by glamour we all are,
      so set on what we have now

      New ideas i say, new action, new perspectives….lets move forward, evolve together and take some responsability for ourselves and our planet.
      We appear to be in a dark age of sorts, compared to the heights of culture and consciousness that have previously been reached on this planet. The main misconception of our present mind is that we are the pinnacle of evolution and not in a rut. Our escape is just a matter of seeing the runway and heading toward it instead of falling asleep in the airport lounge

    • Edward says:

      It’s not actually that bad, I think i might write some more. Always wanted to produce an illuminated herbal book, maybe sometime, with help.

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