Back to School; Finding Your Herbal Path

Looking for a career in the burgeoning and rewarding field of herbs? Start by finding the right educational program to suit your individual needs and goals.

By some estimates, 70 percent of Americans are not fully satisfied with their current jobs, and this lack of contentment impacts not only the workplace but also our personal lives and families. Even if we’re fortunate to have opportunities and resources, we may still struggle with finding a meaningful profession. For many of us, working with healing, medicinal plants provide a sense of fulfillment and purpose, and we may dream of turning this passion into a full-time vocation – one that offers both an income and a feeling of career satisfaction. If you’re considering a future career in herbal healing, you’re undoubtedly looking at your educational options. Choosing the best program for you can make all the difference.

From Fantasy to Reality

How people find their way to an herbal career often involves a personal journey, but most herbalists agree that herbalism is a calling – a mission that’s rooted in deep respect and admiration of plants and their abilities to nourish and heal us. And the data shows that demand for herbal medicine is strong. In 2016, the American Botanical Council reported that the U.S. sales of herbal dietary supplements topped $7 billion. As millions of Americans seek less invasive and more affordable alternatives to modern medicine, the herbal industry has experienced explosive growth over the last four decades as a result. Times have changed, and more people who wish to switch career paths are considering developing a career in botanical medicine.

While a variety of paths exist within the industry of herbalism, many people don’t fully understand what an herbalist does – but recognizing the different opportunities available can help inform the trajectory of an herbal career that works best for you.

Choosing any job should involve ample research and begins with examing your own personal goals and interests, your current lifestyle, and your access to education and training. Of course, a thorough understanding of the industry you’d like to enter and the particulars of its operation is also key. Your research might begin with reading descriptions about various herbal careers, but to really get a clearer picture of all aspects of the job, speak directly with working professionals. One academic advisor revealed that many people base their decisions more on an ideal understanding of a profession rather than the details of what it actually entails.

Identify Your Motivation: To start, you’ll need to pinpoint your personal interests and professional goals. Begin with the most basic question of why you wish to become an herbalist – this will highlight what you do and don’t know about the profession. Broad generalized statements like “I love herbs” or “I want to help people” can provide a basis for motivation but are unlikely to sustain an educational investment, much less a career.

Assess Your Time: People often forget to factor in their lifestyles when considering a commitment to learning. How much uninterrupted time do you have each week to read, research, study, and write? Learning experts recommend devoting two hours of study time for each hour of instruction. Most herbal programs require fieldwork – time spent in a garden or in the wild identifying plants, harvesting, and then processing them. Do you have the time – and transportation – to complete fieldwork? Many adult learners already have a full plate of commitments – jobs, families, and household management – and adding a full-time educational program may not fit with your current lifestyle.

Gauge Your Access: Selecting an herbal program that aligns with your goals and commitments is key to success, but access is equally important. Before the internet, enrolling in an herbal school often required relocating or traveling long distances for classes. Thankfully, access to herbal education has improved considerably. Most states have at least one herbal school, and the number of online programs is increasing.

Embrace Your Inner Entrepreneur: The reality is that herbal professionals are entrepreneurs – whether they like it or not. Organizing and operating a small business requires a different set of skills and knowledge. Marketing your services or products, building clientele, creating a web presence, troubleshooting problems, managing inventories, maintaining detailed accounting records – these can easily become primary tasks of your profession, and they have little to do with working with plants and people. While some company-employed opportunities for those trained in botanical medicine exist, it’s primarily a field of entrepreneurs.

Which Herbalist Are You?

Staying current in any field has become an expected part of professional growth. As a career in the health and wellness field, herbalism requires a professional commitment to learning; reading relevant journals, attending herbal conferences, networking with other health professionals, subscribing to newsletters, and more. One of the many advantages this constant growth provides is the opportunity to shift into different kinds of herbal entrepreneurship. Using the plants she has grown herself, an herb grower can become an herbal products maker, a commercial herb farmer, or a professional wildcrafter. A community herbalist might consider a position as an herbal educator, empowering individuals to become home herbalists. A clinically trained herbalist could work in an integrative medical clinic or teach at herbal or medical schools. For most people, this long and varied path usually starts on a personal level – right at home.

Herbalism Courses for all levels

Home Herbalists: Family healers use their knowledge of herbs to keep their loved ones healthy. An elder in the family may have mentored them, they might be self-taught, or they may have taken an introductory course or workshop. They use their knowledge to treat common illnesses like colds, digestive complaints, and skin problems using medicinal plants, but they also respect the limits of their knowledge. They make a variety of herbal remedies such as teas, tinctures, and salves from herbs they may have grown or wildcrafted themselves, and they understand the basics of anatomy and physiology, recognizing the symptoms of viral and bacterial infections. Our families and communities would benefit greatly if every family had a home herbalist.

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Community Herbalist: Historically known as village healers, community herbalists serve the immediate communities in which they live. They offer the same healing advice and assistance that a home herbalist does but for a larger group of people, and therefore require a broader range of knowledge about wellness and illness. Most community herbalists have several years of training, fieldwork, and mentoring. They are practicing herbalists, meeting with patients and offer advice and herbal medicine. They may choose to educate the public, teaching classes and workshops, and they likely charge a fee.

Quite a few community herbalists have taken on the challenging work of tending to underserved populations, including the homeless and people who struggle with mental health issues. Community herbalists might also provide first aid at public gatherings such as a music festival.

Clinical Herbalists: This herb practitioner has extensive education and training in botanical medicine as well as human sciences. In some parts of the world, a governing agency regulates and licenses clinical herbalists, but the U.S. does not have a supervisory department such as this. During the 1990s, a group of herbalists formed the American Herbalist Guild, a professional organization for practicing herbalists, and developed a set of criteria for awarding the professional designation of registered herbalist {RHG}. Applicants must present documented evidence of the following to qualify:

  • A minimum of two years of comprehensive academic training in botanical medicine.
  • A minimum of 400 hours of clinical experience, with at least 300 hours working directly with clients performing the formal procedures of health history intake, assessment, and follow-up care.
  • A materia medica – working knowledge of a minimum of 150 plants used by clinical herbalists.
  • Experience and knowledge of herbal protocols.
  • Knowledge in relevant sciences; anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology, and plant chemistry.
  • Understanding of management and ethics in a clinical setting.

Herb Growers: If you prefer working more directly with plants, other paths exist, including herb farming and professional wildcrafting, which focus on sustainably growing and harvesting quality medicinal plans. Most of the medicinal herbs purchased in the U.S. are imported from other countries, and many of our wild native medicinal plants face a variety of threats that put them at risk of extinction. For both of these reasons, there’s an increasing demand for cultivated varieties of medicinal plants grown stateside. Herb growers do not have to be educated in the medicinal applications of herbs; rather, their expertise lies in horticulture and organic production.

Herbal Product Makers: A brief stroll through a farmers’ market or a bit of research online reveals a large number of herbal products made by individual herbalists. Products range widely and can include culinary items like herb-infused vinegars and seasoning blends, medicinal remedies like salves and teas, and cosmetic products like lotions and body butters. Well-developed marketing skills are a primary requirement for success.

Herbal Educators and Writers: As the interest in botanical medicine grows, so does the need for educators who not only instruct but can nurture and mentor budding herbalists. Teaching can take many forms; thorough course content in traditional and digital classrooms; intimate one-on-one mentoring or apprenticeships; short workshops and classes for community members; and even herbal educational travel expeditions! Educating the public through writing articles, blog posts, and books offer another way to connect with and teach those who seek to understand more about herbalism.

All of the Above: As mentioned earlier, it’s not unusual to discover herbalists who have developed a professional path that includes all of these careers. Some herbalists transition fully into new opportunities at different times in their lives, or they might maintain a part-time clinical practice while they teach workshops, grow herbs and make their own medicine, publish an occasional article, or write a book. While rooted in the field of herbalism, such a diverse path requires years of formal and self-taught education, practical hands-on experience, and continual skill development.

Assessing your current knowledge level and researching the necessary coursework will help to narrow your choices, but you’ll also want to select a system of medicine to focus on -Ayurvedic, Traditional Chinese Medicine, or Western herbalism. Though many herbalists have studied the history, philosophy, and primary concepts of all three, a new student will likely settle on one system to start with.

Online or In Person

When interest in botanical medicine resurged back in the 1960s, there was limited access to herbal education. Today, hundreds of education programs, thousands of books, and countless websites and blogs offer a wealth of information.

Do you have a preferred way of learning? Understanding your preferred educational method can help determine whether you want to attend classes in person or participate in either a distance learning or online program. Both options have advantages and disadvantages.

On-Site Pros: If it’s available in your area, an in-person class offers a formal structure for learning, provides opportunities to develop supportive relationships with instructors and other students, and can highlight bioregional plants. Many learners also prefer the accountability of an on-site class structure, which helps them remain on task and meet homework deadlines.

Con: Finding the time in a busy schedule to attend on-site classes can prove challenging for adult learners.

Online Pros: In the last few years, several online herbal programs have become available. The benefits of online learning include access and flexibility {you can study the materials when you want}.

Con: Because of these advantages, online programs have become popular but statistically have a dismal rate of completion. Learners must be highly self-motivated and commit to a schedule of studying regularly.

Enroll in the FREE Becoming an Herbalist Mini Course and discover your herbal path

Online programs are replacing traditional distance education programs – receiving and sending course lessons through the mail – but a few distance programs still remain, offering the same flexibility as an online course.

Sizing Up a School

When considering any herbal education program, look for the following:

  • Clear and detailed syllabi with learning objectives.
  • Thorough descriptions of content, assignments, and assessment.
  • Prerequisites and course requirements for completion.
  • Support services like student discussion groups, faculty mentors, and technical and customer service contacts.
  • Detailed bios about the instructors, including their educational and training backgrounds as well as the number of years they’ve served as a practicing herbalist.

Don’t forget to ask about student and faculty time: Will you have access to an instructor to ask for help and feedback? How is your work assessed and your progress evaluated? Research the full costs of the program – tuition, books, and supplies – and inquire about refund policies. Many schools will offer an introductory lesson or sample of their content. Positive testimonials from current and past students can be influential but should not serve as the basis for program selection.
Enroll now in the Materia Medica Course!

Certificates, Degrees, Licenses, and Accreditation

In the U.S., herbalists are not regulated or licensed, so terms like “certified” and “master” herbalist have no set standard behind it. {Many programs issue certificates, which indicate that you have completed their program.} Some schools refer to their programs as a “master herbalist program,” but that title is only recognized by the school that bestows it, so the content and quality of the coursework prove much more important than the certificate or title awarded once completed.

Herbal Academy Teachers

Accreditation, however, is a criteria-based approval granted to vocational schools and universities who have met certain requirements. Several accredited colleges offer degrees in botanical medicine, and your career may have more opportunities with an accredited degree.

Paying for Your Herbal Education

This can be one of the biggest challenges. The price of programs can range from several hundred dollars to several thousand. Some schools have payment plans, but many require total costs upfront. Financial aid like Pell Grants and student loans are only available to accredited schools. Inquiring early on about costs can save time and disappointment.


If you feel the calling to work with plants and people, then a career in herbalism can enable you to share your passion. Develop your herbal path with a program that allows you to blossom.

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