People and Plants: An Interview with an Herbalist
Herbalism practices from Oregon to Costa Rica and practicing cultural appreciation, not appropriation
I met Jess (JC) while planting native flowers together in Oregon at a state park. JC has recently returned to Oregon to study herbalism and I interviewed her to catch some of the knowledge she is soaking up.
AW: What are you studying?
JC: I am studying plants; how they are gifts to us, how they also heal us. I am studying plants magic, and and our relationship to them everyday. I’m by no means an expert yet at all, herbalism takes a lifetime of study. I’m on the path.
AW: What path has led you here?
No, but really. Growing up I was blessed to be surrounded by plants. I had parents who had a nice garden right by my house growing up. But then I was conditioned to think in a certain way and lost touch with nature. While participating in AmeriCorps NCCC I realized how much I love nature. Afterward a health condition came up, and doctors told me they couldn’t help so I decided to take my health into my own hands. I intuitively knew the doctors were bullshit, but I got a lot of inspiration to start on this path from my partner who loves plants. And then last year around this time I just went bat-shit crazy and began researching this herbal knowledge and here I am.
Also the power of tea brought me onto this path. The power of drinking it all the time and how it makes me feel. How tea brought other people together during my time in California. And my friend inspired me because I remember her always questioning everything and looking for other health alternatives, and learning about Tulsi tea with me. Tulsi tea is an adaptogen- it helps you deal with stress.
AW: Who are you learning Herbalism from?
JC: The plants. Also from the people who have dedicated a significant part of their lives to studying plants and their amazing qualities.
AW: What are some of the benefits of herbs?
JC: Oh my gosh. Literally every single condition that you have can be treated with an herb: adrenal, thyroid, immune system, heart, vagina, stress, mental, liver, chronic pain, inflammation, digestive system, bad breath, emotions even! I found many different treatments for what was bothering me that the doctors never acknowledged.
AW: Why doesn’t modern medicine embrace the benefits of herbal remedies more?
JC: I want to look on a positive side and say that most doctors get put into this system through schooling that doesn’t inform them. People in schools don’t question what they’re taught, and cling to the “scientific” truth, though there is science with herbalism too. I think a lot of doctors want to keep people sick because that’s how they are making money. I don’t know doctors intentions, but I’ve questioned doctors and realized they were wrong. It depends on the location of the doctors too, the awareness of herbal remedies in the area. I’m not shitting on modern medicine because it has its benefits and I would totally use it if I needed to. But if I were in the woods I would bring along my first aid kit for survival.
AW: What’s in herbal first aid kit?
JC: We have the usual things- flashlight, gauze pad, band aids etc. But then we also have a few herbs with many uses:
-yarrow is a herb you can chew up and put on wounds to stop the bleeding
-comfrey is an anti-trauma remedy and can be used for joint paint. You can also use the leaf topically for deep wounds and its anti inflammatory properties
-a tincture of St. John’s Wart treats wounds in sensitive areas such as the lips or near a nerve
AW: What are some simple ways people can integrate Herbalism into their lives today?
JC: Learn about the herbs and weeds and plants growing naturally around you. You have to be sure to identify them, there are some that are super poisonous and look similar to nontoxic plants. For example, Queen Anne’s lace looks similar to Poison Hemlock. Find your local herbalists and check them out. Also read books about herbs- Matthew Woods is a good author. Steer clear of the internet unless you’re being guided by someone who is a practiced herbalist. Also, be aware that while a lot of plants are dangerous, they are not all bad. For example, poison oak and poison ivy have their medicinal properties. Also, weeds are great. I’ve been putting them into my dinner every night.
AW: What are some of the dangers of herbs?
JC: There are dangers, but there are no toxic herbs- only toxic doses. That’s why you have to know your shit! For example, St. Johns Wart has so many benefits, but it can interact negatively with other medications you might be on. Also, herbs don’t work for every single person the same way, each person is different. Each herbalist will give you different things they think will work. The key is to be patient, and to keep trying til you find what works for you. Basically- don’t try experimenting with herbs by yourself if you don’t have any knowledge or experience.
AW: How has studying Herbalism changed your life?
JC: They are making me heal. The herbal healer must heal by herself first to better heal others later. People might think herbalists are on this pedestal, but we’re actually just learning to heal ourselves.
In herbalism you treat the person and not the disease. When we go to doctors they have ten minutes with us, but herbalists take the time to know your being and will want to know what your stools look like, your sleeping pattern, etc. They go for the more holistic approach and want to treat the root causes of disease- diet, relationships stress, movement, biological rhythms etc.
AW: Is Herbalism science, or is it magic?
JC: It’s both, other countries just use plants as medicine to this day. It is scientific because you have to be consistently following the regimen of what your holistic doctor or herbalist is telling you.but also magic because you have to believe in it for it to work. It takes awhile, and isn’t instant… Excuse me Annie, can you hold on a second?
(Jess puts the phone down and I hear mumbling between two parties on the other side of the line)
JC:… Sorry about that. While I was talking to you on the phone, this woman sitting next to me in the coffee shop was listening in and I was about to switch seats because she was making me uncomfortable. Then she interrupted me with “Well I work in the medical field and St. john’s Wort is dangerous…” And I was like, hold on girl, I was just getting there! That’s the thing. There are going to be people salty about things because they are not educated on it. It’s not like I’m talking to the fucking New York Times right now, you know? I mean, I know you’re on your way to becoming a journalist for some cool ass thing soon, but man. I’m not saying anything that’s endangering anyone, I’m not directing anyone to try herbalism all by themselves.The front of your blog post should emphasize that I am not a certified herbalist, and people should make sure they know their shit. Herbalists, simliar to doctors and pharmacists, have an immense responsibility on their shoulders to get it right. Herbalists have to know their shit, and i don’t know my shit 100% yet, I’m just dipping my toes in.
But back to your original question about magic and science. I think it’s cool to realize that every breathe we take is a relationship with plants and vice versa. That’s why I think this field is so special. That’s also why I like the farmwork. Some people, including me, talk to the plants before harvest. They are beings as well, and they are giving up their lives for the betterment of ours when we harvest them. I also do yoga breath work with them, other people offer tobacco (sprinkling it or smoking it) while some offer pieces of hair.
You should always give an offering, you don’t just viciously chop shit down. You don’t have to believe in prayer, you just have to believe in reciprocity and respect.
AW: Lets just jump right into white privilege within the herbalism community, which draws from indigenous culture. How do you appreciate without appropriating?
JC: Oh yeah girl. There is good intention behind the herbalist program I’m doing now, but it isn’t very diverse and you have to be privileged to find it. I understand the director’s point of view in wanting only people who are serious about herbs to find the farm, but there might be serious people who just happen to be poor or have never come across the idea of herbalism. How do we make the field more accessible to the general population… I don’t know girl. One of my goals to make herbalism accessible to the general population
While learning about herbs, we learn about the land we are on and how it was stolen from the Native peoples who first lived here and found uses for these herbs. Yesterday we were learning about Ayurveda in my herbalism class, which is one of the oldest Indian medicine traditions. My teacher is not Indian, he is an America white man, but I appreciate how he incorporates the historical and cultural aspects of what we’re learning into our practice. He said learned from Indian teachers, who had mixed opinions about his desire to learn. Some of his teachers thought he probably shouldn’t be learning all of this as an America, but some of his teachers thought that this was a way to preserve the culture since India was becoming so Westernized already.
It’s up to you how you’re going to try and appreciate culture without appropriating it. There’s understandably a lot of backlash because the world doesn’t want white people stealing everything like always.
It’s a struggle for me, but there is also something inside of me telling me this is my path. I’m not in it for the money, I’m in it to learn how to continually heal myself, and then help others. And speaking along those lines, probably half of my clothing right now is culturally appropriated. It’s that balance of ethics we’re all trying to find. It’s not easy.
AW: You also studied herbalism in Costa Rica, right?
JC: “Yeah, and cultural appropriation has been a main topic ever since being back from Costa Rica. The herbal school in Costa Rica was founded by an American woman who met a few native Costa Rican women in the town on Manzanillo and learned herbal medicine from them. The Costa Rican woman had no traditional education, herbs was just their lifestyle. The American woman formed a school I went to, which holds workshops. I attended the month long Tropical Apprenticeship of Herbal Medicine. I was there the second year it was formed, so it was fairly new.
The herbal school was helping these Costa Rican women and economy, but also these women cooked and cleaned for us and I don’t know… I just wondered how much of what I had paid to attend the school was going toward them, because I wish all of it went toward them as the main reason I did it was to support that community. There were many other teachers there who had relocated to Costa Rica who received the money as well, though.
AW: Were you worried that maybe the school was making money off the culture, without being in complete solidarity with the locals?
JC: No, because it was supporting the economy there, but what I have learned is with herbal medicine I can only make medicine with the ingredients around me. I need to learn what herbs are growing in the US unless I want to move to Costa Rica. However, by learning about other cultures ways of healing I was super inspired to see the herbs my family used to travel to the US. I realized I can learn from my own family our traditions as well as appreciating the traditions of the world. Localized herbalism is best, but I wish everyone could have the experience I did to travel.
AW: What was your biggest take away from Costa Rican culture?
JC: In Costa Rica I was so grateful everyday and it was a healing process for me with the rustic living. I was living like the locals and I felt connected to the culture as well as to the medicinal herbs. Manzanillo is on the Caribbean side of the country, between the ocean and the jungle, so the local people’s first language was English. There was great food, and the people were very laid back and chill with a minimalistic lifestyle. There was no air conditioning or any of the other things we’re accustomed to. I had a fan in my room, and even lucky to have that. Learning herbalism there we had to find ways deal with all resources we didn’t have. Studying herbalism in the US we have more privilege, but we have less resourcefulness. In Manzanillo it was beautiful to hear the animals at night and see the butterflies and hummingbirds in the daytime.
I’d like to share a few quotes from teachers of mine, and I’m sure teachers of my teachers:
“The biggest spiritual sickness is our separation from nature”
“Within the poison is the medicine, within the wound is the gift”
Special thanks to Jess for this informative interview. Good luck in continuing your herbalism journey!
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