Starting out on any learning journey can feel daunting, especially when it comes to niche fields like herbalism. I’ve come up with a monthly learning plan for beginner herbalists to use based on the American Herbalists Guild’s guidelines for becoming a registered herbalist (which isn’t a certification or license, but we’ll get to that soon). By following this plan and documenting your hours of study, you can work towards applying to the AHG to become a registered herbalist. If that’s not something you are interested in, it’s still an awesome way to learn about herbalism one step at a time! Feel free to rearrange this learning pathway to suit your needs and interests. And please, let me know how it goes for you! By the end of this learning plan, you will have a self-made Materia Medica (herbal book of remedies and references), a good understanding of how herbs are used to make medicine, and the tools you need to succeed. You’ll also have a good understanding of the human body and how each of its systems works! This is where you can start; a short pathway to a lifetime of learning! I hope it inspires you to get started!
For each month, there are four weeks of questions, recommended resources, journal prompts, and vocabulary. You can document your hours using a sheet like this one that I created on google docs, or you can make your own. I suggest writing down study sessions as you complete them to keep track of everything. That’s something I regret not doing in the beginning! Make use of notebooks, highlighters, binders, and online tools to take notes in a way that works best for you.
You can download this plan as a pdf with clickable hyperlinks, or make use of this post! Download below.
Just a quick note: I have included affiliate links in this post! If I am recommending a specific book, item, or brand in this post, it’s because I have used it and think it’s worth checking out! You by no means need to use this link if you’d rather not, just know that if you do make a purchase using a link below, I may earn a commission at no extra cost to you.
You can complete this plan as listed or take as much time as you need to get through it. To follow along, complete one journal entry each day (5 days of the week) and research the topics provided over the course of the week. You can pick and choose whatever you like, but I really recommend dwelling on each point before moving on. Every month will also have a body system to research and related health concerns. Using this approach, you’ll be able to study the human body and make sense of how herbs work alongside it.
This learning plan is designed to push you to teach yourself! I give you topics, and it’s up to you to research them and decide what’s the most important information to document. By doing this, you will gain a valuable skill in researching! This skill is incredibly important when it comes to herbalism. By documenting your hours, you’ll begin to understand just how much you’re learning, and how quickly, too! Keep links, articles, and citations for later use, and remember to go slow enough that you don’t burn yourself out. If it takes longer than a month for you to complete each section, that is okay! Spend time on areas where you find yourself confused or unsure. You can do this! I’m so proud of you for taking a step into this new journey!
I always recommend reading current studies and medical literature to get a feel for herbal medicine applied to science and objective data. At first, you may have a hard time reading and understanding the articles on PubMed and similar sources, which is completely understandable. I suggest finding an article by a lay-person or someone who writes in easy-to-digest terminology, and following their sources to a study. Do your best to read through at least some of the article, and then return to the article by the lay-person. Apply what you read to what they have to say, and be sure to document any terms you’re not familiar with. While tedious and time consuming, this method has worked well for me! If it doesn’t work for you, no worries; there are many amazing podcasters, youtubers, and writers who translate these studies into easy-to-read formats.
For more tips and tricks on studying alone, check out my article where I put all of my favourite resources in one spot. It will be updated periodically to ensure the best and most relevant info is available to you!
Keep in mind that I’m studying alongside you! In this way, I can make sure I’m not missing things I think would be useful to share, and I get to document my hours just like you! If you have any questions or want help researching, please let me know! I’m more than happy to share my notes and resources as we go along on this journey together. If you feel that I have left out something important, let me know! I’ve been learning for a year, but there’s always something new to pick up. I follow more western herbalism teachings than other options, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine. While I am studying as many paths as I can, please note that this particular guide will probably be best for those of you studying western herbalism, simply because that’s what I am most familiar with. If you have resources for another tradition, feel free to comment and link them below! Sharing knowledge is the best way for everyone to learn!
Month one; how exciting! As your journey into herbalism begins, take this time to acquire a few notebooks, and consider stopping by your local library to find answers to the questions I have outlined for you. Online resources are wonderful as well, and I’ll have a few listed at the end of this post, but by exploring text options, you may find a book or practice that you feel very drawn to! Either way, don’t spend any money on herbs, books, or tools just yet. Let this first month be about browsing and being inspired! For study sites, recommendations on books, and more helpful tips, check out my post “Beginner Herbalist: Resources for Self-led Learning”.
Recommended Tools for this Month:
- Notebook, binder, paper, or online documents
- Pens, pencils, highlighters
- Library card, access to online libraries, etc
- Biology textbook, biology textbook specific to bones and muscles (online or hard copy)
- Flashcards, quizlet
- Internet access
Body System of the Month: Musculoskeletal system
Topics to Research:
- Find out what the most common concerns for this system are. Ex: bone fractures, osteoporosis, muscle fatigue, muscle pain, tight muscles, muscle strains and sprains, tendonitis, arthritis, muscular dystrophy
- Record all new medical terminology. (Ex: fracture, osteoporosis, arthritis, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, myalgia, tendonitis, atrophy, dystrophy (as you read about this system, you will encounter many other terms! Add them to your list along with their definitions as you progress. I recommend separating them by system where applicable. EX: bone related terms separated from muscle related terms…diagnoses separated from examination terms etc, etc.)
- Print or draw a diagram of the skeletal system and muscular system(s). Label the different bones, muscles, tendons, etc. and keep in your journal or notes.
- Research the most common concerns associated with the musculoskeletal system and the commonly prescribed therapies, medications, and herbal options for each. Make sure to list contraindications where relevant (you can use a site such as drugs.com to check for interactions between specific medications and herbs!) What causes each of these conditions? Who is at risk for these issues?
- Research other holistic approaches to musculoskeletal health, such as acupuncture, massage therapy, and chiropractic medicine. How might these therapies be combined with herbal medicine?
- Look into current studies being done with herbal medicine that relate to the musculoskeletal system. Here’s one study to get you started. What kinds of objective data did they collect? Do other studies support their findings? What anecdotal evidence led them to conduct this study?
Questions to Ask Yourself:
- What are a few root causes for some of the common health concerns of the musculoskeletal system? In Traditional Chinese Medicine, you may look inwards towards the kidneys for an answer. How does this view differ from Western herbalism? What common phytocomponents or characteristics are shared by both traditions when treating these disorders?
- What kinds of herbs can be kept on hand to support the musculoskeletal system? What preventative treatments may be used by the general public? What about at-risk groups such as post-menopausal people and the elderly?
- Are you or anyone in your household considered at risk for these issues? How can you monitor your health and the health of your household to prevent these issues or to catch them early on?
Recommended Resources for Musculoskeletal System:
- Bones – Better Health Channel
- Bones, Muscles, and Joints – Better Health Channel
- The Complete Human Body by Dr. Alice Roberts (ebook, hardcover, or paperback option available) (or another up-to-date anatomy textbook)
- The Modern Herbal Dispensatory by Thomas Easley and Steven Horne (use the index to look for herbs specifically related to bone, joint, and musculoskeletal health)
- The Complete Herbal Sourcebook by David Hoffman (use the index to look for herbs specifically related to bone, joint, and musculoskeletal health)
- “Bones: Structure and Types” by Professor Dave Explains (video)
- “The Skeletal System” by Crash Course (video)
- “Joints” by Crash Course (video)
- “Muscles Part One” by Crash Course (video)
- “Muscles Part Two” by Crash Course (video)
Week One: What is Herbalism?
Journal entry prompts for the week:
- Why do you feel called to explore herbalism?
- What was your first experience with herbalism?
- What type of herbalism are you most interested in (Western Herbalism, Ayurvedic Medicine, Chinese Traditional Medicine, etc.)?
- Have you ever used herbs as medicine, or in the kitchen? What would you like to accomplish with herbs?
- What is your note taking style? How do you learn best?
Topics to Research:
- What is herbalism? How is herbalism practiced around the world? Research Traditional Chinese Medicine, American Folk Herbalism, European Herbalism, Indigenous American herbalism (there are many regions to explore), Ayurvedic Medicine, and any other herbal traditions you feel interested in.
- How is herbalism practiced today versus in the past?
- Where is herbalism a prevalent form of medicine?
- What are the legal implications associated with herbalism? What can you do without being a licensed medical professional, and what can you do as one? What are some of the options available to someone interested in pursuing a career in holistic health?
- Begin making a page dedicated to herbal vocabulary. Add any terms you are not familiar with to it. Leave ample room for many more terms as you continue learning.
Resources for Topics:
- Free Introduction to Herbalism Course by The Herbal Academy (not always available, but I highly suggest it for beginners when it is open for enrollment. It covers the basics of what herbalism is, and some important points of legality)
- “Herbalism: A History” by The Herbal Academy (article)
- “A Brief History of Chinese Medicine” by Tess Lugos (video)
- “Basic Concepts of Traditional Chinese Medicine“ by Professor Hung-Rong Yen (video)
- “Matthew Wood on the History and Fate of Herbalism” by Matthew Wood on For the Wild (podcast, western herbalism)
- “Plant Medicine in Ancient Egypt” by Watchers Talk (video)
- “Herbal History: Roots of Western Herbalism” by The Herbal Academy (article)
- “Herbal Medicine Fundamentals” by The American Herbalists Guild (article)
- “Legal and Regulatory FAQs” by The American Herbalists Guild (article)
- “The First Twenty: Skills Learned From 20 Years of Herbal Practice & Teaching“ by Bevin Clare (video)
Week Two: What are Herbal Energetics and Categories?
Journal entry prompts for the week:
- How do you feel herbs impact the body? How do you think they work?
- Think of a time you chewed on something spicy, like cinnamon or cayenne. The warming affect of the spice comes from the phytoconstituents within it. What do you think the herbs are doing? What are some other examples of this kind of reaction?
- “Energetics” is a term used by several herbal traditions, and applies to the action of a herb. Research your tradition’s view of energetics or classifications and explain what it means. Do you agree with this system? Why or why not?
- When the body is out of balance, we experience symptoms such as fever, chills, excessive sweating, and redness. How are these symptoms treated without herbs? How might herbal remedies be similar?
- When have you made use of energetics, with or without herbs? Have you ever consumed a warm drink to balance out the chill of a winter night?
Topics to Research:
- Herbal energetics vary slightly from tradition to tradition. Research how energetics, or another form of classification, are applied in the tradition you are interested in. Look into the concepts of warming, cooling, drying, etc., and how they apply to the concept of the six tissue states.
- Besides energetics, how are herbs categorized by their actions? (Ex: as anti-emetics or stimulants)?
- After you have familiarized yourself with the energetics system of your tradition, research the systems of other traditions. Compare and contrast them. What kinds of remedies are recommended in each category? Do they overlap? Are they focused on the same or different aspects of the body?
- Identify herbs from each energetics category of your tradition and how they are used. What kinds of warnings or contraindications come with these herbs?
- What phytoconstituents are responsible for the action of different herbs? Using a research database such as PubMed or NBCI, identify the different compounds of a few herbs and how they contribute to the herb’s medicinal qualities. Do this for each category of herbs. (Ex: ginger and onion for pungent herbs, marshmallow root and mullein for demulcent herbs, etc).
- Add any new terms of interest to your herbal vocabulary page(s).
Resources for Topics:
- The Modern Herbal Dispensatory by Thomas Easley and Steven Horne, particularly chapter one (for energetics).
- The Herbal Apothecary by Dr. JJ Pursell, particularly the “Human Anatomy” chapter (for energetics) and the “Getting to Know the Plants” chapter (for phytoconstituents). These chapters also have wonderful explanations of basic herbal vocabulary.
- The Complete Herbal Sourcebook by David Hoffman, particularly the chapters “The Actions of Herbs” (for energetics and classification of herbs) and “The Chemistry of Herbs” (for phytoconstituents).
- PubMed, NBCI for researching specific phytoconstituents and herbal studies.
Weeks Three and Four: Types of Preparations
Journal entry prompts for weeks 3 and 4:
- What forms of medicine have you used in the past, herbal or not?
- What kinds of herbal preparations are you familiar with?
- How do you think herbs could be prepared? What kinds of menstruum (solvents) do you think could be used to extract herbal compounds?
- When might someone opt for a glycerite over an alcohol tincture? What are some other things one might replace one type of extraction for another for?
- After making an oil infusion, you’re left with an exhausted marc (leftover plant material). How might this be used further?
- What kinds of illnesses or imbalances are common in your household? What do you think you could prepare ahead of time to prevent or support body systems associated with these issues?
- How can you determine the safety of a given preparation for these people and conditions: pregnant or breastfeeding people, elderly people, small children, infants, immunocompromised people, and weak or emaciated people? What can you do to ensure you are aware of herbal contraindications?
- If you had to make an herbal preparation for the first time, which would you choose? Which seem the most beginner friendly? Advanced?
- Using what you have learned so far, what preparations interest you the most? What herbs would you like to use in a preparation in the future?
- Do you have any tools in your kitchen that you could use to make extracts and other preparations? What can you use for your herbal journey that you already own?
Topics to Research:
- Learn about the different types of herbal extractions, including infusions, decoctions, tinctures, acetum, oxymels, hydrosols, and glycerites. How are these prepared? What are the pros and cons of each menstruum? Take time during this research process to document methods, warnings, and other important information. Feel free to include alternative methods and extra information about each preparation as you find it.
- What are the differences in preparation methods for various traditions? What is the folk method versus the ratio method in terms of measuring herbs? What are some of the alternative ways some extractions are prepared? What are the pros and cons of each preparation method?
- What solvents work best for each energetics’ category of herb? (Ex: what is typically the best menstruum for pungent herbs? What about sweet herbs?) Make a chart for each category.
- What are capsules? How are they made? What are the pros and cons of using them instead of an extraction?
- What are tablets? What are their pros and cons?
- What are distilled essential oils? How are these volatile oils extracted? What cautions come with using these oils (dilution, consumption warnings, toxicity to animals, etc.)? What are the pros and cons of these oils?
- How are herbal steams used? How are they made? What are the pros and cons of using steams?
- How have herbal smoking blends been used historically and in modern times? What are the pros and cons of this preparation? What are the warnings associated with them?
- How are herbs best stored in their various states of extraction? What about when they are dried?
- How are herbs treated before extraction? How are they harvested, washed, and dried? What are some different methods of drying them?
- How are topical salves created using infusions? What is needed to add water-based ingredients into a formulation (emulsifiers, preservatives, etc.)? What other topical preparations can be made using herbal extractions?
- How do you decide which parts of a plant to use?
- Add new terms to your vocabulary page(s) as you research herbal preparations.
Resources for Topics:
- The Modern Herbal Dispensatory by Thomas Easley and Steven Horne, particularly chapters 2-11 (for a variety of preparation tutorials, their pros and cons, and how to harvest, dry, and store herbs; see pages 31 and 63 for charts on dosages and menstruum effectiveness). This book is indispensable for learning about formulations!
- Steven Horne’s article on Sealed Simmer Glycerites (one of my favourite articles on making strong glycerites using the sealed simmer method)
- The Herbal Apothecary by Dr. JJ Pursell, particularly the chapter “An Herbalist’s Laboratory”
- “Everything you Need to Know About Natural Emulsifiers” by Formula Botanica (for researching the importance of emulsifiers in oil and water topical formulations)
- “Emulsion Stability” by making Skincare (more info on emulsions and stabilizing formulas)
- Mountain Rose Herb’s Blog: search for formulation tutorials, herbal spotlights, and more here! In conjunction with books, I find blogs like this are easy to read and understand. They are great for starting out and researching without books on hand. You can also try searching their YouTube Channel for similar tutorials on video!
- “Understanding Herbal Formulations” by Thomas Easley and Steven Horne (video)
- “Tutorial: How to Make Herbal Glycerites” by Green Wisdom Herbal Studies (live video feed recording)
- “How do you choose which parts of a plant to extract?” by Herb-Pharm