Herbalism is trending upward right now.
In the last few years, thanks to social media, interest in the wonderfully democratic world of plant healing seems to have grown exponentially.
This is a good thing. This is what many of us have been working toward- a world in which herbal healing is not considered scary or fringe or other, but the normal part of human life that it's been for hundreds of thousands of years.
The fact that the practice of herbalism isn't regulated in the U.S. means that it's a field open to everyone, despite location, income, or other available resources. This makes the playing field pretty level, especially now that there are so many great ways to learn online.
But this sudden popularity has a downside, because this lack of regulation, coupled with the prevalence of shady information-sharing on social media, means that someone with minimal to zero training can call themselves an herbalist, gather an audience (sometimes in the opposite order), and start selling questionable products or dispensing dangerous advice to unwitting followers.
To put it simply: herbalism has become hipster, and when something becomes hipster, posers abound.
(I know that hipster is a nebulous word and that it definitely doesn't apply to you- or me!- but you know what I mean, and we're gonna leave it at that.)
Unlike in other areas of life, where egregiously overconfident and dangerously underskilled people front like they know what they're talking about on social media just to gain some clout or make some money, engaging in this behavior when it relates to herbalism can have serious and perilous consequences.
Even the gentlest plants contain active chemicals, powerful alkaloids, and overall complex medicinal constituents. The medicinal preparation and ingestion of these substances is something that should be undertaken with thoughtful and careful preparation. And each person's physiology is different; something trained herbalists know and are skilled in detecting and working with.
Before social media and the explosion of information available on the internet, anyone interested in herbalism had to seek out a teacher and spend months or years immersed in the direct study of plant medicine.
There were no shortcuts, and there was no way for a novice to begin widely dispensing advice, products, and teachings even if they wanted to.
Today a 19-year-old in a Free People dress with a woven basket and 100k Instagram followers can read a few Facebook memes from David Wolfe or The Medical Medium, repackage the info, and call herself an herbalist.
Anyone who knows more about herbalism than she does may spot misinformation or a lack of true knowledge in her post/s, but the countless people who know less will start looking to her as an authority and lapping up every word she shares because they, too, want to know more about herbalism and natural medicine.
When it comes to herbal healing, we have come to a place where millions of unsuspecting seekers are at risk of confusing impressive follower counts with genuine knowledge and unshakable authority.
It's all understandable human behavior, and I think very few people have bad intentions. They just seem to know not what they do.
In order to bring some hope of clarity into the game, here are a few simple guidelines for those new to herbalism and active on social media. Whether you tend to be an enthusiastic sharer or a contemplative observer of the #plantwitch trend online (or both), you can use these guidelines to help you both share and consume information & products from a more grounded place.
To be clear, there are many plant-related trendy hashtags that I see used/use myself, #plantwitch being only one of them. Many of the people who use these hashtags are experienced herbalists sharing great information, and others aren't. I ain't hating on #plantwitch, just using it as an example.
Guidelines for Budding Herbalists Using Social Media
If you have not undertaken any sort of formal training (whether in person or online) from an experienced herbalist, OR spent at least three years deeply immersed in self-study, herbal experimentation in your kitchen, and plenty of book learning, please:
- Wait a few years to start selling herbal products. Make them for yourself. Give them to friends. Experiment and learn along the way. But don't sell them yet. I can always tell the difference between someone who understands the complexities of plant medicine and someone who was just anxious to be a "maker." Formulation is a science and an art; buying some essential oils and some flower essences and mixing them together in a liquid medium with a tiny crystal dropped into the bottom does not an herbal remedy make.
- Don't dispense advice online. Share your experiences and discoveries, but make it clear that you are on a learning path and are not an expert. At least once a week I reply to a question thrown my way online with the words, "I am not qualified to answer that, but here are some resources that might help." If you are a beginner, please cultivate the humility to do the same.
- Find more creative ways to share than just repackaging someone else's information. There is nothing more boring that a droning list of a certain plant's properties. "X plant helps with this, that, and that." And this kind of surface-level information gives the false impression that herbs works in predictable ways and work the same for everyone. It undercuts the vast possibilities for healing that medicinal plants are capable of, depending on how they were grown and prepared, who consumes them, and so much more. Share your own unique stories and experiences that add something new to the collective wisdom; don't just copy & paste from a list online.
And please, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD AND HOLY IN THIS WORLD, if you are a distributor for an essential oil network marketing company such as Young Living or doTerra, DO NOT consider yourself an herbalist, a healer, a #plantwitch, a medicine woman, or anything of the sort. These companies and those who represent them are the most egregious sharers of dangerous information on social media. Buying some bottles of distilled plant matter does not make one an expert in the vast, endlessly complex world of herbal medicine. Most of these distributors have no relationship in the real world with the plants whose medicinal wonders they are touting online, and only get their information from resources provided by the company hoping to make money off of their sales numbers. This is not true knowledge and has contributed to much injury and harm on the part of those who unwittingly consume the false information. Be aware of info shared to teach and enlighten versus that shared purely to make money in the hyper-competitive world of network marketing.
This is what scientists and hardcore aromatherapists study. It would be wonderful if every person repping an essential oil network marketing company cultivated a basic understanding of the chemical potency of essential oils before making an internet meme telling people to drop chamomile oil into their colicy baby's mouth or put lavender oil onto their eyelashes to make them grow (both things I've seen reps of the above companies do).
Peace out, posers!
I support everyone who wants to learn more about plant healing.
Herbalism is truly the people's medicine. Your ancestors knew how to use the plants around them for food and for healing, and this knowledge is your birth right as a human being. It is not hard to learn, but it does take time and practice. By all means, pursue the path of the #plantwitch.
But please, follow the lead of the plants by remaining close to the earth- grounded and humble- when you share your journey with others, and be wary of losing your way in the ethereal realms of internet culture.
(Postscript: There have been some amazingly insightful thoughts shared- many of which I seriously wish I could copy & paste into the body of the blog post and pretend they were my words- here, if you'd like to dive deeper into this topic)