Suggestions For Getting Started With Herbs?

David Trammel's picture

Recently in a comment to Andy Dwelly's guest blog post "An Experiment With Herbalism", new Green wizard Retrotopian asked:

"Is this something one can just jump into trying out or does one need some serious herbalism training beforehand with? I know zip about herbs, herbalism, tinctures (what?) and other terms, but I can cook, and I used to be pretty decent in chemistry class, so I *think* it's within my realm of possibility, but it seems like there's an immense body of knowledge that one should acquire before trying any of this. How does one effectively get started without going off half-cocked?"

Great question! And one we should begin to answer.

Considering that as the Collapse continues, access to industrial medicine for your daily need will get harder and harder to have, and more expensive if you can get it, how do you get started in using herbal medicine in your Life?

(Use this thread for your suggestions.)

David Trammel's picture

My suggestion for getting started would be, keep an eye out for old books on herbs and herbal medicine at estate sales. Those of us in our older years bought books, and many bought books on herbal medicine. You can often find well known, and many not so well known, books on this subject. Collect a few and read.

My second suggestions is pick up a blank book and begin a journal of what you do. Herbal medicine is a detailed subject, one that varies according to many factors. Having a place to go back to, and see what you did, how you changed the process and the results is extremely helpful.

I'm no herbalism expert by any means, but I asked earlier this year on Violet Cabra's blog about getting started with herbalism, and she recommended a few books:

So I bought Matthew Wood's Earthwise Herbal (Volume 1 and 2), and they are great. In my area, there is a herbalist who also teaches herbalism courses, it might be worth looking in one's area to see if there is anyone doing this, too.

David Trammel's picture

Yes, read Violet Cabra's Dreamwidth blog. She's knowledgeable about Hoodoo magic practices as well as being a prolific writer on a variety of subjects.

kma's picture


I am also no expert but have been picking up bits and pieces of knowledge for years. I find that my specialty is growing herbs and making teas and I know how to get around the literature enough to buy other's people's tinctures and formulas. I personally got a lot better at herbs when I realized I would never have enough knowledge to do everything but that I could do a lot in my kitchen and garden.

I very much second Buhner's books.

I find that I am still using my beginner book and I have not yet pushed it to it's limits. I use this (I also like illustrated books for learning processes)

I also have found a lot of herbalists and supplies on etsy. When I failed at making my own St. John's Wort tincture, I bought one there so even without buying you can learn a lot about what people are selling, which may be a proxy way of saying what works.

Just a few weeks ago I stumbled across She seemed very knowledgeable so I signed up for her weekly newsletter but don't have much to report yet.

Also, it's very likely you're already an herbalist! If you're cooking with herbs, garlic, ginger, spices, you've already stumbled across an important piece of herbalism - using plants for preventative health.

I don't do much with herbs but I did a lot of sewing for inside the family and outside it. I kept records of sizes, projects, tastes, etc. because you can't remember them.

My suggestion: do the same with herbs and herbal medicines. Use a standard notebook that holds loose-leaf paper (every thrift shop has them if you don't have any left from your kids' school daze). Use one page or more per person. Name, date of birth, sex, pertinent physical details, medical state, and then what the herbal treatment did and didn't do. Cross-reference with your herb books and your own real-world experience because herbs might do different things depending on their growing conditions.

Over time, you'll develop a valuable resource of what works and what doesn't for your immediate social group. You'll also have a record for your successor.

It takes time, of course, and it's far easier to do as you go along rather than backtrack.

Thanks David for moving this to a new thread.


Thanks for the book advice to all three of you. I'll check out those recommendations and Buhner's books too. One of the main aspects to my question is: do the Buhner books teach you what a tincture is and how to make one safely? Is there any list of medicinal herbs in order of usefulness (e.g. so if I can only grow, say, 5 or 8 or whatever in my tiny window, I can pick the 5 or 8 most useful and broadly important ones - or ones that are most important to be fresh, or whatever metric is used to choose a "top 5")?

I'll look for herbalism courses, but I don't have a car and getting to where they're held usually requires one. Sometimes there's someone you can carpool with, but its rare.

kma - thanks for the encouragement, yes herbs are something I do work with frequently, but not intentionally or with understanding, and I haven't started growing my own yet, though I'm considering it seriously now! :)

David Trammel's picture

You are quite welcome Retrotopian. We needed this stickie anyway. Its one of the more major subjects that I expect interest in as the collapse seems to have hit one of those "stair steps downward" that Greer likes to talk about being an unfortunate feature of the Long Descent. The Pandemic has decimated the healthcare industry and its workers. I read (and hear from a few friends who are nurses) that many of the older ones are leaving the industry. Between just retiring, or looking for other jobs, getting low cost healthcare is going to be much harder. Many of us will be facing no health care beside what we can come up with ourselves.

Now for suggestions, I'd say don't over look ethnic communities in your neighborhood. The Chinese herbal industry has a long history of treating illness but other cultures also have rich histories, just overlooked. If you have a ethnic grocery store near, you might begin to visit it and buy some things. Once you become a regular, start asking about recipes and how to cook food you don't recognize. This will give you the opening to ask about whether there is a herbal practitioner in the area too. Might take you a little time but its a good resource to cultivate.

As for books, I have perhaps 2 dozen on my shelf I haven't yet cracked open. The one that I'm going to start on first is C. Norman Shealy's "The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Healing Remedies". Got it at Barnes & Noble on sale at $15. Its overfilled with pictures and has a sizable How To section too.

mountainmoma's picture

The short answer is yes, ( buhners books) but not all of them cover everything about making tinctures so he doesnt have to repeat. Look at the descriptions of the books.

Making a tincture is dead simple, he is more exacting realy, he will tell you the optimal for various herbs whereas most of us just use a standard vodka and "fill the jar twice" ie., put in the plant matter, put a rubberband or your hand at the level of the plant matter, cover with vodka to that line. That is "my " way.

He has more exact ways and why. SO, if you are being more exact, you would buy everclear, so a pure or almost pure alcohol and then mix with water to the proper ratio of alcohol water for what you are tincturing.

The most useful have to have it herb in the garden to me is calendula. And that is the one I do "fresh" using the fill the jar twice method. sometimes I do make it stronger than that. I take off just the petals, and not the whole flower head which is likely why I can get away with that. Calendula is so good for external would treatment, then you can also take it internally, as it is antiviral etc...

mountainmoma's picture

I have had a coule of her books before I heard of Buhner. They have different styles. He is more of a throw everything at it, and will tell you about he more exotic herbs to use. She will tell you the story f everything a particular more common herb can be used to treat. Both very useful. I love using my herbal allies I could find in my yrad for oh so many things ( Susan Weed ) but for treating something very hard to get rid of, my lyme disease, I needed the many imported and bought herbs in Buhners book. My self treating for years by listening to what was inmy area did likely keep me from being bed bound, but it could not effect the full treament I needed

A local herbalist in the Salt Lake area from whom I took a class in plant identification, use the work of Michael Moore as one of her guides. He is an herbalist associated with the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine and has published several books. At least one of them, Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, has been revised and expanded.

He is a good writer and has tried most of the herbs he writes about. His books concentrate on the plants that are in my area, but I also know he wrote a book on the plants of the Pacific Norhtwest. While I haven't read any of Buhner's books, I have visited his web site and I think both of the authors could be a useful addition to any herbalist bookshelf.