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India, as a long-standing plural society, has operated with plural medical systems (Leslie 1976, Nichter 2002) for centuries. With the current economic hardships, there’s been a revived interest in all sorts of folk arts as well as an upsurge in enthusiasm for the do-it-yourself mentality.
In the context of herbalism, however, it seems that the term “folk” is still frequently accompanied by disdainful sentiments, and for the more open minded, a sense of the quaint and cute and old fashioned. Technically, the term folk in this context applies strictly to non-professional or lay people using local or handed down knowledge to treat illness. I personally see the term folk as an underlying commonality for all grassroots practitioners, all those herbalists who get out in the forests and meadows and gardens and harvest their own medicines and who can recognize their favorite remedies while still growing in the ground and not just from a label on a fancy bottle.
The more popular term “traditional herbalism” encompasses folk herbalism as well as a great deal more, including the more highly systemized herbal practices around the world, such as Ayurveda, Unani Tibb and Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Many, if not all, forms of the more systemized herbal traditions include within them many elements of folk herbalism.
In the small mountain village where I practice, much of the population still utilizes plant based medicine to some degree. I grew up in both urban and rural areas in the Southeast and Midwest where I heard frequent mention of using plants for healing purposes. Studying with those who have more experience and insight than we have, is an excellent and effective way of learning for most of humankind.
Not everyone can be or needs to be an herbalist, but everyone can benefit from the empowerment and usefulness of foundational plant-based self-care.
Those herb-gathering maidens frolicking across the canvases of idyllic Pre-Raphaelite art, can lead to a romanticized vision of the folk herbalist’s work.
Rather than simple emulation or attempted reconstruction of past roles, it makes more sense for us to thoroughly study the traditions of our forbearers to garner what works in the current context and adapting other parts to better application. It makes good sense to adapt and evolve archetypes to our situations and environs based on what is currently needed, applicable and relevant. Present circumstance calls for a great deal of ingenuity and courage on all fronts, including botanical medicine. Folk herbalism certainly includes kitchen herbalism and backyard herbalism, but can also encompass many forms of professionalized herbalism as well. Unfortunately, even from within the herbal community, there seems to be the tendency to create hierarchal divisions of professional, community, kitchen and other types of herbalists. It is understandably easy for some newcomers to see folk herbalism as an easy route, and a way to bypass a steep learning curve while still accruing the title and much craved credit, but that’s also the quickest road to being called quack as well as potentially harming those we aim to help.  But folk herbalism isn’t necessarily any easier or quicker to learn than biomedical information. I don’t see the necessity for only one type of healthcare and healing, even within herbalism.  I hear many arguments from all different camps each insisting that their method is the best, the most natural or the only effective way.
Those of us residing in Western Civilization are a mostly mongrel people and our herbal traditions reflect our varied heritage.
To deny our diversity for the sake of homogeny and a more respectable appearance is to give up some of the incredible dynamism of Western herbalism, and perhaps especially American herbalism. We’re still the “folk”, including herbalist doctors and curanderas, plant-loving nurses and squat-dwelling herb students.
What we all have in common is the knowledge that healthcare and healing are not only the terrain of the expert and the elite.
After all, there’s a certain, irreplaceable power and beauty to knowing your medicines so well that you know them by the shape of their stark winter stems, by one whiff of their just sliced roots, by the particular pattern of their seeds within its fruit.
Folk music, folk dance, folklore… it can be easy to forget that healing is an art as well as a science, and that the lines between the two are less certain and distinct than is generally acknowledged.
In the hospital where I work as a physical therapist weaving with the invisible gossamer threads and roots as a healer with people. Knowing there are women out there like you re-stokes my hope and faith in healing…it is so important for those who have answered that deep, intrinsic call to dearly hold onto that vision you just expressed so beautifully in words.
For her, the life force itself is the treasure beyond any other and she is deeply puzzled by humanity and their distractions from the blessing.
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The state currently recognises seven different medical systems (Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha, Homeopathy, Naturopathy and Biomedicine), all of which are incorporated into the national health care system. And rightly so, as our culture finally awakens to the need for increased sustainability and self-sufficiency.
More realistically, folk herbalism is simply whatever herbal practitioners (professional or not) and practices not currently recognized as valid, acceptable or popular by conventional medicine and mainstream culture. All folk herbalism is a form of traditional herbalism, but not all traditional herbalism is folk herbalism, especially as some traditional medicine becomes ever more formalized and merges with conventional medicine. For many of these people, especially those under fifty, this knowledge is limited to a few important local plants and usually only with a very limited of context of knowing this plant is “good for an ulcer” or this plant will “cure cancer if you drink it until your pee turns green”. My mother taught me to forage for wild foods in city and woods alike and we had a garden wherever we lived, and I was ever drawn to references to plants used for healing in my parents’ gardening books and on the tags of kitchen herbs brought home from local nurseries, yet I had no idea that there were people in the Western world still using it as their primary form of healthcare. Whether observing a father or grandmother, or apprenticing to the teacher we feel most aligned with, this is the type of education that most of us are best suited to.
Education is an enormous gift at any time, but especially in the modern age when regimented and industrialized society – and a scarily precarious economy makes sustainable, accessible ways of caring for ourselves, our family and our communities more essential than ever.
Likewise, appealing images of the old time herbwife, 19th century root doctor or tribal medicine woman are easily inflated into an idealized stereotype that at first glance has little basis in the reality of an inner city practice or urban backyard.
And if we look deeper, at the impulses and skills common to people throughout time and history, it clearly becomes possible to remember and honor these archetypes in an honest and practical way without abandoning them completely.


As the dominant system increasingly does a tail spin and we face greater ecological degradation and financial stress, we look more toward finding our foods and medicines close to home, building close knit communities and developing stronger relationships with the land where we live.
I am inspired by the mingling of Physiomedicalist philosophy with Anishinaabe materia medica, Victorian influenced botany with the newest DNA based plant taxonomy in the herbal community. It’s likely that the greatest majority of folk herbalists primarily treat their families or close friends, although many will eventually look to help their larger community, especially when word gets out and people come knocking on the front door, looking for diaper rash salve and something to quiet an old cough. I certainly see that these descriptions can be useful in helping potential clients and students choose who they’d benefit most from working with. In fact, it can take far longer and be more difficult to understand and integrate passed on or experiential knowledge when not accompanied by the well-financed and widely disseminated resources that abound in mainstream medicine. Personally, when it comes to human health and well-being, I think we can use as many options as are viable, sustainable and relevant.
Remnants of Greek humoral theory merge with Cherokee materia medica only to further blend with Hispanic energetics concepts and German phytotherapy.
Instead, we have ever growing reasons for a celebration of the kaleidoscope of our colors and tones. We need education and healthcare everywhere, in both clinics and on the streets, in urban centers as well as the backwoods.
We know that human has the right to facilitate healing in themselves and their family through food, lifestyle, herbs and more.
As herbal medicine becomes more and more regulated and tightly defined internationally, those at the grassroots hold firm to the work they’ve always done.
Whether feral sidewalk weeds, carefully tended garden flowers or wild mountain roots, the work of the herbalist is grounded in place. Folk herbalism doesn’t just mean rustic or undeveloped, but rather, points to a long history of traditional knowledge passed down and refined over time. However, biomedicine constitutes the biggest sector in the institutionalised health care arena, thereby taking a hegemonial position.
Once relegated to the impoverished or for decorative purposes only, gardening has seen an incredible upsurge as we once again take an interest in where and how our food is grown.
Usually the common people, the non-elite who need sustainable, cheap remedies that actually work without worrying about academic theories or even government endorsement. By it’s very nature, folk herbalism tends to be unstructured, unruly and constantly adapting to the needs of the current place and people.
What’s probably most important to recognize about folk herbalism is its wild and wooly nature that generally defies being fit inside any construct and tends to vary radical depending on locale, culture and era. The older folks, particularly Hispanic, Apache or Navajos, eighty or older, tend to have a much broader and deeper sense of herbal medicine.
Thanks to herbal pioneers like Rosemary Gladstar and Michael Moore, we once again have access to an enormous amount of knowledge that would have otherwise been potentially lost. The more that we learn and teach, the greater the reclamation of our natural human heritage, the vital threads tying us to place, plants, and the healing of ourselves and our world. But anyone who’s ever spent an afternoon sweating in the glaring high elevation sun of the Southwest mountains trying to unearth a bit of Redroot knows better, just as does any mother who’s spent the night awake and keeping watch over her son’s fever while persistently spooning mouthfuls of diaphoretic tea into his mouth. Regardless of where live, we still gather wild greens and medicine-rich roots from the fertile ground. And to do this most effectively, we do need to look to historical role models for inspiration and insight. Tribal and punk sensibilities showing up integrative clinics while traditional Appalachian herbalists discuss the phytochemistry of key remedies.
And some will go on to make teaching and practicing the mainstay of their livelihood, passing on their knowledge to an even wider range of those interested in plant medicine. Finding a good teacher in our bioregion and sorting through subjective experience is often time consuming and frustrating, especially without peer support and social approval of our pursuits.
We need the grandmother in her kitchen serving Chamomile tea to a teething toddler just as much as we need the professional herbalist working in a clinic or the rural rancher who treats a bull-gored horse with Indian Root. Our very strength is often in our differences and the way we come together to work from so many angles and perspectives.
We’re a wild and weedy bunch, with a penchant for sidewalk-cracking garden escapees and feral flowers.
Just as in folk music, our traditions and practices build one off the other, incorporating new harmonies into time-honored melodies, mixing modern instrumentation into century old songs.
Herbalists, by their very nature, tend to be boundary walkers, traveling between different worlds and communities in order to provide care and help to those who need it most.
This is an imperative element in sustainability, self-sufficiency and personal responsibility. With or without approval by governing officials, their commitment is to the people they care for and to the plants themselves. And also in community – whether seeing folks on their own back porches or in integrative clinics, we are inextricably interwoven with the people we care for and offer knowledge to.
Even where our traditions have fractured or been partially forgotten, new knowledge and experiences are forever sprouting up with each new generation, the persistent call and craft of plant-based medicine consistently regrowing even when cut down. Likewise, many folk arts, from artisan breads to hand woven fibers have become increasingly popular and valued in recent years. Yeah, sure, some of us have managed to fit in a little better, but among plant-loving people there’s still likely to be sage leaves clinging to our lab coats and chokecherry twigs tangled in our hair no matter how many hospitals or integrated clinics we’ve worked in.
Implied by the term is a lack of exclusivity, embracing rather than shunning and encouraging a sense of sharing what we know without hoarding or copywriting our experiences.


Standardized extracts aren’t likely to be of much use to these people, as they almost always prefer making their own herbal preparations and are more likely to trust a remedy made from the whole plant than isolated constituents for isolated health diagnoses. There are certainly underlying commonalities though, especially a dependence on weeds, locally abundant wild plants and easily grown garden herbs as well as the independent nature of its practitioners and their deep connection with plants, people and place. Many of them are shy and loathe to speak to those outside of their family or clan about the plants, but those who trust me enough to tell me their stories and pass on their wisdom often mourn the disinterest of their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren in traditional healing arts. And just as in the wild mountains here in New Mexico, there are folk herbalists in every bioregion, some actively in the role of teaching and others not, but certainly many with the desire to teach what they know and to prevent the loss of hard earned knowledge. The reality of herbs and healing is a gritty but beautiful blend of oozing wounds and gorgeous flowers,  mind-numbing work and ecstatic moments. We see a cultural shift in this direction in literary and art movements such as “Steampunk”, where participants are focused on returning to the Victorian-era practice of creating and maintaining beautiful, long-lived useful objects rather than mindlessly buying disposable poor quality items. These blendings, while not always initially harmonious, are a clear indication of a vital, dynamic community effectively adapting to pressing issues with panache and evolving skill. None of these choices are more valid than another, they are all vital elements of a thriving culture and people. It’s time to break down these needless divisions, these private clubs of who’s important and who’s not. A roots resurgence in folk wisdom is not only about healthcare but is one part of a return to direct connection with the natural world and our own bodies.
The powers that be may well continue to attempt to progressively increase their control over what an herbalist is, what an herbalist does, what plants an herbalist works with and how herbalists make their medicines but those dedicated to the prolific power of plant medicine know that herbalism is an innately wild craft that will persist regardless of rules and regulations. Every folk herbalist is an integral part of this vibrant resurgence, insistently emerging from our shared roots. As I near my dotage, I hope to pass on my garden herbals to local youngsters; this knowledge seems of great interest to the younger generations- rays of hope! Handmade has become something to value rather than scorn in favor of their store boughten counterparts. At its root, folk arts of any kind tend to be unpretentious while still beautiful and useful, a testament to the efficiency and aesthetics of an earlier era with increasing relevance for our current challenging times. Experience, empiricism and even thoughtful anecdote are also essential elements of this ubiquitous breed of botanical medicine.
They seem patently amazed that a 30 year old woman has such an abiding fascination in what many of them have given up as lost knowledge.
So much has changed, and yet so much remains the same in the practice of this timeless art.
Even such seemingly small steps regarding aesthetics and technology can help trigger and fuel the larger changes that many of us are hoping to see. In a grassroots vocation, there’s no reason or room for harmful divisiveness that could well alienate many talented and skilled members of our craft. We weave and reweave while bringing in the multicolored fibers from a hundred different sources.
The honoring of folk medicine, of the herbal knowledge of the common people steeped in the day to day work with the plants is in itself a sort of revolution. The last decades have seen a modernisation of the Indian traditional medical systems, one that is characterised by procedures of standardisation, institutionalisation, commodisation and the increasing production of branded medicines (Bode 2006).
Locally crafted goods are esteemed over exotic imports as being not only more economical, but also more meaningful and desirable as they connect us to our own bioregions and facilitate an intimacy with place. Like the weeds themselves, we adapt and grow in new environs and situations, and in this way thrive. We’re eclectic but still somehow cohesive, even as we struggle for clarity and coherence in our approach and practice. Medical systems operate within and in dialogue with other ideological and religious systems, and besides their healing properties they are linked to, for example, ethnic or religious qualities, from which they gain their power and knowledge. Medical systems therefore mirror already existing diversities, but they also create a platform where diverse ideologies are represented. You do this beautifully in your work and I secure these ideals in my own work as much as I can. The current data suggest that the ideas and (self)–images different groups hold about themselves and each other are articulated and influenced by the field of medical knowledge and practice.
Ideas surrounding the traditional, natural, side effect free indigenous Indian folk medicine are contrasted with those surrounding biomedicine, which is generally termed English medicine and considered to be effective but harmful because of its side effects, as well as considered modern, but unnatural, and coming from the outside.
The diversity within the plural medical landscape interacts with the ideas and representations of different levels of diversity within the society: class, age, caste, religion, etc.
The folk healers use these ideas about the traditional and indigenous qualities of their medicine in order to negotiate their identity and status within the wider society.
At the same time, these representations shape the discourse within the Indian nation-state, where the labels of ethnicity and caste are strongly conditioned by affirmative action. The relationship and interaction between the different fields of encounters (community-state, healer-patient) and the respective representations that are employed in these encounters have so far not been studied and will form the major part of this ethnography.



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