Blog # 7 The experiential nature of Western Herbalism

Here I sit in Freiburg,

south-west Germany, after meeting my dear friend yesterday who resides here.

In my first hours of arrival he took me walking along the Dreisam River and to my utmost delight and excitement I found myself identifying a myriad of medicinal plants along the river’s trail.

elderberries sambucus nigra medicinal plants european history naturopathy herbalists
Easily ignored weedy looking elderberries (Sambucus nigra) along the Dreisam.  In the herbalists world these are renowned for their immune boosting properties and ability to support fever (berries, flower & leaf).

On we walked and on we found, more and more edible and medicinal weeds which most folk would consider irrelevant to identify and more to the point, unusable and unsupportive for their life or body in any way.

Two things struck me – one, after my hard years of exceptional effort and sacrifice through my study resulting in a high degree of understanding the scientific workings of the body, food, plants and their interrelationships in regard to health – I left with the intellectual property of 86 herbs and could identify only a handful.  It was purely my own interest in plants and the occasional inspiring herbal medicine lecturer who would deem it important enough to connect their students with the experience of these plants off paper which fleetingly gave us a little more depth.  With a study load of 7 subjects per semester, mostly science based, all evidence-based, in the middle of Melbourne city in a beige box with not a plant in sight (a few in the front office) – where was the time to indulge in a personal connection with herbs?

So in the 4 years since my degree I have spent countless hours discovering who these plants were in the real world, mostly feeling like a herbal fraud.  How could I call myself a herbalist when I’d never touched St John’s wort, when I could walk past a potential rainforest of plants that I know inside out within my brain and not recognise who they were in their natural environment?

So I walked, identified, touched, grew, weeded, harvested, loved, killed, got scratched, itchy, hives, burned, learned to buy and use gardening gloves, understood why you don’t use Arnica internally if my dermal reaction to the unprepared flowers was anything to go by and so began a long and beautiful journey into communing with plants.

nettle urtica dioica medicinal plants naturopathy herbal medicine european traditions
The infamously prickly Nettle (Urtica dioica) along the Dreisam which old Mediterranean folk used to slap against their bare arthritic knees; utilising it’s rubifacient qualities (painfully stimulating blood flow to the area to support the joints!)  Nowadays I make herbal creams with Nettle for a slightly less painful application.  There are many uses for the leaf and root.   

It was here along the river in Freiburg that I realized how far I’d come, that I need not call myself a herbal fraud anymore.  I’d said to friends in Tasmania over the last years that I become so frustrated because when I walk I find it hard not to look at every plant and see if I can identify and bring its medicinal uses to mind.  Walking started to become a head-case rather than a mindless (mindful) experience.  But it’s paid off.

Here we were walking beside elderberries, dandelion, wild lettuce, yarrow, nettle, mallow, plantain, and on the list went.  The humans they would best be suited to were popping into my mind, which ones not to touch (gardening gloves plus extra padding for nettles – lesson learned), the organs they have an affinity for, how they might be prepared, which ones I’d use in a pie or in a wild salad, how I might use the leaf of dandelion for the kidneys, yet the root for the liver.  This is all basic herbal knowledge, what is expected as a bare minimum for our 86 intellectually-bound herbs.  But here I realized I now had context.  There was life surrounding these herbs.  I was seeing them in their natural environment, unknown to most of the locals passing by also I discovered, but Western Herbal Medicine was now more than a title and an experience in my brain.

edible medicinal weeds herbal medicine culture europe naturopathy
Wild edible greens which I believe to be Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) (none were flowering for ideal identification).  Definitely not noticed by the masses!  The leaf has an affiliation for the kidneys, the root for the liver.  These looked so vital, I wanted to pick them along with many others for a wild salad (but there were a few too many dog poos around).  

Direct connection was occurring which is something I imagine the majority of herbal medicine or naturopathy students struggle with. My herbal lineage was coming to life. A part of me so invested in these incredible living beings felt at home. And somehow it made me feel understood in return (that’s a whole other blog).

The second thing that struck me was that this disconnect between herbalist and herbs, between reality and intellect is the very same disconnect I believe much of the world is experiencing on many levels.  The basis of a Naturopath’s training is testament to this.  Incredible knowledge, an important and impressive scientific underpinning, vital to be able to communicate in the medical climate of our times.  But somehow missing the entire point.  The drop-out rate for Naturopathy in the first 2 years is enormous because most people are attracted to a vision of supporting the health and wellbeing of others through the use of natural means.  Seems logical right?  But with the first two years similar to that of a medical degree, a bombardment of chemistry, pathophysiology and bioscience and the distinct lack of plant matter and soul…one begins to wonder if they got it all wrong. People not so inclined can’t get through to third year subjects because they can’t manage to get a high enough score in chemistry semester after semester…this is a typical scenario in a budding Naturopath’s journey (lucky for me my brain loves a good bit of chemistry).  My heart went out to those who I don’t believe should be held back from a life of supporting others just because hydrogen and carbon molecules on little sticks with dots don’t make sense in their head.

So my point is this.  I, like so many people attracted to herbalism, had to take myself on a journey to reconnect.  I spent a solid year spending as much time in nature as possible, alongside working as a walking guide with people asking me why I wasn’t practicing naturopathy, was I diverting my life to a different path?  My response was always that this was the closest I’d ever been to Naturopathy.  That this time immersed in wild places was the moment in time where everything in my brain began making sense.  It became an experiential understanding of herbalism.  Only from this point did I understand for myself what it all really meant.

This is only talking about a journey for a herbalist.  But I believe this journey can apply to so many platforms of knowledge and experience.  The resounding echo for me is to love and be grateful for the incredible access to information we have, that it’s important in these times to be able to communicate across multiple platforms of understanding, but perhaps people aren’t coming to us solely because of what we hold in our brain.  For some at least, the ones who truly understand the value of what we offer, we hold a connection to plants and healing that cannot be googled and cannot be bought from Chemist Warehouse.  We are a bridge into another world which is a life’s work and an art form.  We understand something which is seen and experienced only through a commitment to giving it the energy and time it deserves.

The slow burn of herbalists life…I simply cannot imagine what incredible gifts the natural environment has in store for me through the coming years of my life and I simply cannot contain the honour and excitement of what it means to be able to share some part of it with those humans who wish to seek this particular depth of healing.

Amalia Patourakis Naturopath naturelab42 herbal medicine in tasmania
Me at home in Tasmania on the farm in the garden that Granny spent a lifetime tending to and is still tended within the family.  Picking some of the bitter Feverfew, amazing for tension headaches and states of inflammation, stemming from a tradition of Western Herbalism.  

Nb: Any budding herbalists or naturopaths (or other natural therapists) who relate to this disconnection and would like some potential tools to bridge the gap, please freely be in touch.    Contact

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