Favorite Herbalism Books for Beginners

by Missy Rohs of the Arctos School of Herbal and Botanical Studies

I’m an herbalist, mushroom lover, gardener, and wildcrafter, and my shelves are piled with books about plants and the outdoors.  I run an herbalism school in Portland, Oregon – the Arctos School of Herbal and Botanical Studies (http://arctosschool.org).  As you may imagine, I’ve fielded the question “What’s your favorite herbal for someone who’s just learning?” more than once.  There’s no one answer to that question that is right for everyone, but plant medicine enthusiasts are lucky these days to have a bevy of books to choose from.

My favorite herbalism books are engaging, practical, and never lose their pertinence to my practice.  While the books below are useful to beginners, they stand the test of time.  I often pick them up off my shelf to find information and inspiration.

Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health

Rosemary Gladstar

This book is amazing.  Gladstar writes about herbs accessibly, but without oversimplifying, making this a perfect go-to book for the beginning and intermediate herbalist.  She relies primarily on easily-grown or easy-to-find classics of Western herbalism:  Calendula, yarrow, lemon balm, and peppermint all get their day in the sun.  Not a purist, Gladstar also includes some not-to-be-missed herbs from afar, like damiana and ginseng.

But the genius of Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health hides right under your nose:  It’s the recipes!  Recipes for radiant beauty, like Queen of Hungary’s water or Make-it-Yourself Herbal Shampoo; recipes for kids, like Bottoms-Up Salve or Ear Infection Tincture; recipes for sensuality, like Good-Life Wine or Energy Balls; recipes, recipes, recipes!  Even the most experienced herbalist can find inspiration in her simple and fun style.  If you want to get your hands dirty in the kitchen, start here!  You’ll find that you can concoct remedies for menstrual cramps, cold sores, and headaches right in your own kitchen.

A note to the savvy:  This book was formerly published as Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal, and the contents are the same.  If you find it used, snag it!

The Herbal Home Remedy Book

Joyce Wardell

I never knew how much I loved this understated book until I lived without it for a few years.  I re-discovered it recently and brought home a used copy.  Perusing it after our time apart, I was struck by Wardell’s desire to empower people to care for their own health.  Equally important is her respect for plants and “start with what you know” approach.  On top of that, the book is sprinkled with entertaining and educational medicine stories influenced by her Native American background.  The combination is enjoyable and magical.

Wardell covers the basics of herbal preparations: teas, tinctures, salves, and more.  But her d.i.y. ethic shows through when she includes a chapter on how to brew your own herbal wines and vinegars.  That’s right, I said brew, not infuse.  If you want to show your kombucha-brewing neighbor how much more self-sufficient you are, pick this book up and get started.  Wardell covers twenty-five herbs that you should know, most of which are probably growing on your block.

Backyard Medicine

Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal

The astute reader will start to notice that there’s a theme here, and it belies my motivation as an herbalist:  Call it self-care, personal empowerment, sustainability, using what grows near you, d.i.y.... all of those are right on.  (Well, I prefer “do-it-ourselves” over “do-it-yourself” as an ethic, but that’s as slightly different topic.)  Anyway, whatever words you want to put to it, Backyard Medicine is a great example of it.  Bruton-Seal, with the help of her writer husband, makes a compelling case for using weeds and other abundant plants as medicine.  Even though the authors are British, an astounding number of weedy friends grow on both sides of the Atlantic, and in Oregon, I find that most of the plants covered are familiar.  Mallow?  We got it.  Chickweed?  Check.  Nettles?  You betcha.  Dandelion?  Oh, boy.

Backyard Medicine covers medicinal uses for each of the covered plants, notes when and what you should harvest, and gives many intriguing recipes for you to play with.  Three ways to use horse chestnut for varicose veins!  Delicious preparations for heart-healthy hawthorn!  Make your own oak twig toothbrush!  You get the idea.  It’s rad.

In, I assume, an effort to keep the book affordable, the typeface of Backyard Medicine is minute at best.  If you’re in denial about the fact that you need reading glasses, you may want to avoid this book.  But, then again, you may just want to get those glasses, since you’re clearly avoiding romantically-lit restaurants and any dictionary that’s worth a damn, too.

Healing Wise

Susun Weed

This book never gets old.  Weed gives a useful introduction to the nourishing, female-centered herbalism that she has dubbed the Wise Woman tradition.  The practice is centered on healing with nourishing, mineral-rich herbs and working with those plants as allies.  When she has laid the groundwork for her approach, Weed dives into seven – yes, only seven – weedy and wonderful plants that heal.

Each chapter is a treasure trove of information.  Starting with the plant “speaking” for itself – which may grate on some, may entertain others – Weed covers medicinal uses of various plant parts as well as nutritional content, harvesting tips, and ample recipes for soups, stir-frys, lotions, compost teas, and homebrews.  While the content of the book is useful, perhaps the best lesson to take from it is that each of us has so much that we can learn about just one plant.  Does it blow your mind that she spends 34 pages on dandelion’s healing powers?

From Earth to Herbalist

Gregory Tilford

While I think that weeds and easily-cultivated plants should comprise the core of the beginning herbalist’s repertoire, I greatly appreciate the sense of place and the expanded materia medica that comes with gathering plants from the wild.  Wildcrafting, as this practice is called, involves not only careful attention to plant identification, but also familiarity with a plant’s ecosystem and rigorous ethical practices.  Tilford does an outstanding job of cuing the reader into some of the basics:  where a plant is found, when and how to ethically harvest it (with minimal impact on the health of the stand of plants, the other species that rely on that plant, and the ecosystem as a whole), and how to best process the herb for medicinal use.

The fantastic thing about this guide is that Tilford goes to great lengths to help the herbalist minimize her/his/their impact, with headings under each plant on how to “tread lightly,” from growing your own to substituting more readily-available herbs.  He discusses plant-animal interdependence, so you’ll take into account whether your plant is an attractor of pollinators or critical forage for wild mammals.  He’s also marked plants that are on the United Plant Savers’ watch list.  All in all, this is one of the best (published) how-to guides to wildcrafting that I’ve found.

Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West

Michael Moore

If only there were a book like this for every single bioregion on the planet!  I don’t really consider MPPW a beginner’s book per se, but it’s impossible to talk about herbalism – especially wildcrafting – in the West without including Michael Moore’s work.  His other well-known books – Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West and Medicinal Plants of the Desert West – are also exceptional, whether you live in the regions covered or not.  (Okay, I’ll expand that statement: Pretty much anything that Michael wrote on the topic of plant medicine is worthwhile, perhaps even genius.)

MPPW focuses on wild plants, both native and naturalized, with unusual attention to obscure medicinals and an in-depth discussion of harvesting and preparation.  Michael was one of my teachers, and he was a true pioneer of using local plants in a sustainable fashion.  His passion for the plants and his astute observations about humans come shining through in his vivid, chatty writing style.  What other herbal gives a loving description of “sleazy” fats and the people that crave them?  MPPW is a must-have for the bookshelf of every intermediate and advanced Pacific Northwest herbalist; beginning students or those in other bioregions may also fall in love with it, too.

Missy Rohs is a community herbalist and dandelion lover, a feminist and a rabble-rouser. Her practice and her teaching focus on sustainable herbal remedies: those that grow easily in populated habitats, and those that can be harvested in the wild with minimal impact. She loves to foster the connections between people and plants, people and their bodies, and people and each other. You can learn more about her at http://arctosschool.org.