“Western herbs represent a treasure-trove of effective traditional medicines and the collected and refined experience of practitioners for over 2,500 years.”
Jeremy Ross, author of Combining Western Herbs and Chinese Medicine
I want to say a few words about what I am referring to as the Western Herbal Tradition, for clarity’s sake, as I so often read misperceptions about what that term actually means..
In general, there is much confusion in the press about Western herbalism – one site I looked at stated that “Western herbs are just simple things like peppermint used in weak teas and so on, while Chinese medicine is powerful and strong, to be used for real health issues.” Another article, in a well-known dog magazine, stated with great authority (although the author is a journalist, not a herbalist) that “only simples are used in Western Herbalism” (simples= single herbs, so her statement was that we don’t use formulations at all). As an herbalist focused on bioregional and European/North American herbalism, this kind of misinformation is rather hard to swallow.
Even in more sophisticated circles, I hear that Eastern herbal traditions are more powerful because they are based on an energetic system, which we in the West don’t have (at least this acknowledges the power of herbs such as goldenseal, pulsatilla, poke, lobelia and more, and doesn’t classify all Western herbs as ‘weak’). But it is still incorrect. The truth is that our Western tradition does indeed possess a powerful system of energetics, potent medicinal plants and actually has some advantages over the use of Chinese and Ayurvedic herbs. I hope that reading through this article, you will come to appreciate this more than perhaps you do now.
To start – all herbal systems are built on some foundational knowledge. You learn these things whether you are studying TCM, Ayurveda, or the WHT. These cornerstones are:
- Constituents (Biochemistry)
- Botany /Plant ID
- Body systems (Anatomy and Physiology)
- Medicine Making
And these are topics you will study the rest of your life. Most of my students start off with a look at Actions and Energetics, as well as an overview of Constituents – and then continue up with a look at the dog – why we need a specialized course for canines, how to start looking at their constitution. The next step is to get going on your herbal home apothecary, and really zeroing in on how to build your Materia Medica, starting with a few herbs you know you will use the most right now. You will know how to look at herbs in a much deeper way than simply their usefulness for a condition… all of that and much more is covered in my course.
Western Herbal Tradition
But here, I want to take some time here to cover the idea of the Western Herbal Tradition, because most of you will be familiar with at least a bit of Chinese herbalism and probably many of you know a little Ayurveda too. I want to make very clear that I have a world of respect for those traditions, and use herbs from both on a regular basis – but, these are herbs from another part of the world used within a Wester Herbalist framework. Most of you have actually already done this – anyone who has used turmeric, for example but just added it to the food, perhaps with a fat such as olive or coconut oil, and perhaps with some ground black pepper to facilitate absorption – is using an Ayurvedic herb in a Western way. Anyone who has actually considered the energetics of the herb, and added another one, a moistening herb like chickweed to offset the dryness of turmeric, is practising holistic herbalism, and starting to understand formulation. In the West we have a system of energetics that pivots on/sprang from the original Galenic Humoral system and indeed takes the temperature, moisture and other properties of a given herb into consideration as well as the actions of its biochemical constituents.
To start, I want to review some misconceptions about the Western Herbalist Tradition, that seem to have become rampant on the Internet, of late. These are as follows:
- Western herbs are not as strong as Eastern
- Western herbs are not used in formulas, but in single preparations or “simples”
- Western herbalism lacks a system of energetics
- Western herbs are fine for mild conditions but can’t be used for more serious issues such as liver disease or cancer
Well, I am here to tell you that ALL of the above is untrue.
It is not my agenda to place the Western Herbalist tradition above any other, but it’s also important to me to stress why I use bioregional herbs and a constitutional model that dates back to ancient Greece, instead of following TCM as so many in the animal world do. I also want to be clear that I use, and study, and deeply respect both TCM and Ayurveda.But there is a huge difference between using insights from other traditions and claiming one is a practitioner. TCM, and Ayurveda – just like Western herbalism – require many years of dedicated study, and I have applied those years to studying my own regional herbs and heritage. Let me first address the ideas above.
1. “Western herbs are not as strong as Eastern”
In fact, we have many, many very potent herbs which are used in small(drop) dosage or in formulation with others. Wild plants in North America vary from food-level (plantain, burdock ) to very strong (Poke, Celandine, Convallaria, Lobelia just to name a few) and so many in between. Convallaria (lily-of-the-valley) can be very dangerous in excessive dose, as can the others mentioned here, and so are not commonly described in the popular press. But we have many amazing and potent herbs – Goldenseal,Osha, Echinacea, Baptisia, Uva Ursi and so many that are not low-dose (strong) but are amazingly effective nonetheless.
Strength is NOT the hallmark of a healing plant or formula, but we do have plants in our Materia Medica that need to be prepared and dosed very carefully.
2. “Western herbs are not used in formulas, but in single preparations or “simples”
Again – simply incorrect. The classics texts left to us by the Physiomedicalists, such as King’s Dispensatory; the complex formulations of Christopher Hobbs – the ongoing work of myriad clinical herbalists in North America and Europe – this s a rich tradition with roots in the deep past and many modern practitioners who are engaged in both expanding and classifying the formulations of our tradition. Western herbs, in combination, will modify – catalyze, enhance, steer and even nullify the effects of each other – just as Ayurvedic or Chinese herbs do. Formulation is a foundational element of the Western Herbalist Tradition.
3. “Western herbalism lacks a system of energetics”
This can be more problematic because there are a couple of takes on the topic and it is definitely evolving! That said, Western Herbalism takes as it’s foundational model, the humoral theory of ancient Greece and develops it into a sophisticated modern framework. At the vanguard of this evolution we see Matthew Wood and Jim McDonald expanding on the Six Tissue States, developing Western energetics with modern insights and deep nuance. I have touched on energetics in a separate section here, and it IS a whole separate course of study, but it’s important to note that when you hear people say “only TCM uses constitutional theory and energetics” or similar – please know that is just plain incorrect.
4. “Western herbs are fine for mild conditions but can’t be used for more serious issues such as liver disease or cancer”
Speaking as a clinical herbalist working with dogs, I have handled thousands of cases of cancer and other serious illness using about 80%Western herbs. And an entirely Western energetic framework. Whenever I work with Asian herbs such as Astragalus or Devil’s Claw or Turmeric, which I utilize all the time, I apply them within a Western framework. I’ve been greatly influenced by the work of John Boik, Phd in my research and work with cancer – his important book Natural Compounds in Cancer Therapy examines many North American/European herbs ( Echinacea, burdock, red clover, stillingia, selfheal, feverfew, St.John’s wort, milk thistle, butcher’s broom and many more) and should be on every holistic veterinarian’s shelf. Research on dandelion alone has been compelling – herbs cannot “cure cancer” but can address specific aspects of cancer processes, not to mention ease symptoms and side effects from veterinary drugs. I would say that I use herbal formulations MORE in clinical work with illness, than I do proactively, with healthy dogs, if for no other reason than the owners of sick dogs who come to me for dietary adjustments are more open to herbal medicine.
For me, and my many colleagues in this work, Western herbalism offers many benefits and advantages, not to say “over” Asian systems, but as a central, foundational focus for those of us in North America and Europe. So if it is false that we lack a system of energetics, false that our plants are all somehow “weak” and ineffective, false that we lack sophisticated formulation – what are the special aspects, the pluses, that we can also consider in Western Herbalism? For me these would include:
- Immediate access, or at least good accessibility (can be grown or wildcrafted, or purchased locally). Jeremy Ross has said (about the use of bioregional herbs)
“This means that the plants can be studied at first hand: the way they grow; their preferred habitat; and the effect of climate on their therapeutic effectiveness. All can be observed through the changes of the seasons, often in the wild within a few miles of where one lives. They can be gathered in the wild or grown in the garden. All this helps to deepen one’s understanding of the nature and action of a herb.”
And this for me is a critically important aspect for the herbalist, to be able to learn, observe, formulate herbs that grow outside our doors, in our forests and fields, by our lakes and in our gardens. Learning to grow, prepare, identify the vast wealth of local plants is an integral part of the herbalist’s path…this can’t be overstated in my opinion.
- Safety/quality of product – if you grow your own herbs or purchase form a local organic grower, you know much more about the herb quality and safety, than if you are using little pills in a plastic bottle from half a world away
- Some of the most amazing medicinal plants in any repertoire are Western.
Even if your current interest is mainly Chinese or Indian, the incorporation of Western herbs can only enhance and expand your efficacy as a herbalist. I hope this section has helped to outline why this is my Tradition of choice; there are multiple resources (books) on the topic, but here are a few of my own favorites.
- The Western Herbal Tradition – 2000 Years of Medicinal Plant Knowledge by Graeme Tobin – https://www.amazon.ca/Western-Herbal-Tradition-Medicinal-Knowledge/dp/1848193068
- Green Pharmacy: The History and Evolution of Western Herbal Medicine, by Barbara Griggs – https://www.amazon.com/Green-Pharmacy-History-Evolution-Medicine/dp/0892817275
- The Practise of Traditional Western Herbalism, by Matthew Wood (ALL of Matt’s books are required reading for the Western practitioner) – https://www.amazon.ca/Practice-Traditional-Western-Herbalism-Classification/dp/1556435037
Many books on herbalism are not specifically billed as Western, but that is in fact what they are. Some of my favorites for those starting out include:
- Anything by David Hoffman – this one is a classic I return to over and over, many years later. – https://www.amazon.ca/Medical-Herbalism-Science-Practice-Medicine/dp/0892817496
- Anything by Rosemary Gladstar – great for beginners, and she has some lovely introductory courses, too – https://scienceandartofherbalism.com/shop/
- Books on Bioregional Herbalism and Foraging, which teach about wild edible and medicinal plants of North America – in other words, Western herbalism. Sam Thayer’s books are great. – https://www.amazon.com/Samuel-Thayer/e/B001K8XAIU%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share
- THE go-to book on animal herbalism is essentially Western, written by one of the true greats in this field, Greg Tilford, and co-authored by his former wife, Mary Wulff-Tilford. This is the book I recommend to all my students and cut my own teeth on when I was starting out. Absolutely essential! – https://www.amazon.ca/Herbs-Pets-Natural-Enhance-Your/dp/1933958782/ref=asc_df_1933958782/?tag=googleshopc0c-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=309622281255&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=578299826964748315&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9105232&hvtargid=pla-450313825848&psc=1
There are myriad more texts, as well as online sites and courses, all offering training, articles, knowledge regarding our own Western Herbal Tradition. I am compiling a comprehensive list for my Facebook Group as well as for students in my courses. Interested in learning more? My practitioner’s foundation course Practical Herbalism for Common Canine Conditions (Part One) is still available at half price.