The Commodification of Herbal Medicine in Developed World using blog

The Commodification of Herbal Medicine: What 21st Century Herbalists Need to Know

The following piece was written by my 24-year-old self in 2013.  I was about to graduate my naturopathic training and was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to do a research project under the supervision of two of my favourite teachers and mentors, Dr Sue Evans and Dr Cathy Avila.  This research created a turning in my entire path as a naturopath.  What we uncovered unnerved me and I wasn’t willing to be the messenger so early in my fledgling career.  But alas here I am 5 years on, and it feels the time to share this and own being the messenger (if that’s what’s needed).  I’ve also created a wiki that I’ll endeavour to keep updated with the commercial infrastructure of the natural medicine industry, which you can access here.

What follows is a history of the commercialisation of herbal medicine, the accounts of herbalists who are going back to grassroots and why.  I then finish with what we can do about it.  This may be interesting for consumers of natural medicine, however, it is written for practitioners, so please forgive any jargon in advance!

Original Preface

For the past five years, I have been a student of naturopathy.  One of the of most defining elements of my experience throughout this time was having herbal medicine take a hold of me in a way I never anticipated a subject could.  The science heavy degree appealed to my studious nature, yet it was the anecdotal richness, pervading mystery and beauty of herbalism that captured a deeper part of myself.  I consider finding a passion as a twenty something as good fortune in a world filled with choices, yet has been juxtaposed by the increasing awareness that herbalism in the developed world is riddled with the same issues facing the contemporary healthcare industry at large.  As I transition into the professional world these issues will no longer confined to tutorial discussions, they are soon to become a reality.

This research project has been prompted by five years worth of a nagging feeling that certain elements in this profession simply do not feel right.  The final push of motivation to take a deeper look at that “feeling” came from an experience that occurred at a professional development seminar earlier in the year.  The seminar was on “The Energetics of Western Herbal Medicine” held at a hotel on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland.  This was my first experience of a continuing professional education event and I was struck by the ultra professionalism of the entire affair.  I thought it was rather amusing that a glossy beachside hotel  was the backdrop for the slightly esoteric subject.

At the beginning of the seminar the presenter was putting finishing touches to the room.  In the centre of the table I was sitting at, she placed a small vase containing a sprig each of rosemary, thyme and lemon balm, and an umbel of elderflowers, all from her garden.  A naturopath at the table exclaims “oh no, you’re not going to test us on which plants they are are you?”.  The presenter looks mildly alarmed at this, but assured her they were just for decoration.  Later on in the seminar, a picture of withania is displayed on the projector, “Who can tell me what this plant is?”.  Silence.  There were plenty of comments from the group throughout the presentation so far, but surprisingly not now.  This is a room filled with over twenty five qualified naturopaths in a time where withania, a panacea for many modern ills,  is one of the most commonly prescribed herbs…and silence.    “Us naturopaths and herbalists really need to know our plants!” the presenter exclaims.  Something feels very wrong about all of this.  The presenter comments that naturopaths of today are turning into the “brown bottle brigade” and a clear cord is struck.  Before I go out into this profession I need to explore what is lying beneath that nagging feeling.


Modern Australian herbalism is its own breed of paradox and with unique complexities.  It is young, with no tradition to call its own, yet is zealous to define itself as an efficacious form of healthcare.  The majority of the literature narrating its evolution and voicing its concerns is academic.  Surprisingly this is quite unique, as there is very little comparable academic literature from the rest of the English speaking developed world.  In contrast there is an outstanding deficit of grey-literature[1] being produced from the Australian herbal community compared to the abundance coming from the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada.  Whilst it’s difficult at this point in time to speculate the reasons for this, it does represent an interesting dichotomy.

What follows is a deeper exploration of suggested solutions to the issues western herbal medicine is currently facing through the analysis of written narrative of herbalists in the form of blogs.  Blogs are a web based form of grey literature that are an avenue of information sharing and exchange, written from personal perspective and are entirely uncensored, making them a rich source of research material.  It is important to note that due to the fact their is very little grey literature pertaining to the issues arising from commodification by Australian herbalists, I have used material from other countries as my exploratory data.  I understand that this could be seen as a research inconsistency, yet given the common history of western herbal medicine in the developed world, coupled with similar modern cultural influences, I contend that their content and conclusions are relevant to the Australian experience.

The overall aim of this study has been to explore the response, concern, communication and proposed solutions of a subset of herbalists using blogs as a platform to raise awareness of issues surrounding the commodification of herbal medicine. I wanted to find the common issues that were motivating them to document their experiences, and how they were practically responding.  From here I planned to analyse the proposed solutions and relate them to the current Australian context.

The Commodification of Herbal Medicine in the Developed World

Western herbal medicine (WHM) has not had the smoothest course throughout the years of history.  Its knowledge base and practice have belonged to both the folk healers and the learned, with lines of tension always having existed between the two in some capacity.  As a result, herbal medicine’s reputation and popularity have been in constant flux, giving rise to an interesting and rich history that continues to oscillate to this day.   A generation of herbalists, naturopaths, pharmacists, researchers, academics and manufacturers have carefully ushered WHM into the mainstream.  WHM’s path into the mainstream has evolved through steep technological advances, the shift towards the evidence based medical (EBM) paradigm, the emerging force of herbal manufacturers, global trade and knowledge appropriation, tertiary level education and the ever expanding power of capitalism at large.  This paper explores this evolution and how its byproducts have created a myriad of issues.

The Mainstreaming of Western Herbal Medicine

The back to the earth, self-help movement of the 60s and 70s sparked a renaissance in alternative medicines in the western world, and since then public demand has steadily increased (Wiese and Oster 2010).  This renaissance has primarily occurred in the marketplace “evidenced by overflowing aisles of herbal and nutritional products in health food stores, pharmacies and supermarkets” (Dougherty, 2005, p5).  In Australia, people are spending double the amount  of money on complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) than they do on pharmaceuticals and it is estimated that CAM practitioner consultations may account for half of all health consultations and half of all out of pocket healthcare costs (Collyer 2004, Wardle, Adams et al. 2013).  Furthermore, specifically to herbal medicine, 90% of herbal product sales come from the retail sector, with the remaining 10% coming directly from practitioners (Casey, Adams et al. 2006).  There is no doubt that modern WHM has become “big business” (Collyer 2004). Not only do these trends reflect the acceptance of CAM and herbal medicines into mainstream consciousness, but also presents as significant competition to biomedical products in the marketplace, which has lead to many pharmaceutical companies taking an economic interest in the production and sale of herbal medicines (Collyer 2004, Singer and Fisher 2007).

As WHM products have become increasingly commodified, biomedical healthcare providers can seamlessly provide their patients with a smorgasbord of product options; from the “natural” and “safe” herbal or nutritional products to the harder hitting pharmaceuticals.  The past two decades have seen WHM’s knowledge base transposed to the EBM paradigm of understanding and the medicines themselves are no longer dissimilar to their pharmaceutical counterparts.  These two factors have allowed orthodox healthcare professionals to comfortably include these products in their treatment recommendations (Singer and Fisher 2007, Conway 2011).   Although it is widely recognized within the herbal profession that both traditional knowledge and science informs their understanding of the plants and diagnosis, the ‘scientisation’ of understanding is rapidly growing and herbalists’ understanding of illness is now congruent with biomedicines’ (Evans 2008, Evans 2009, Braun, Spitzer et al. 2013, Wardle, Adams et al. 2013).  This evolution of knowledge base into the mainstream is explained by Evans:

“When the new wave of public support for herbal medicine first became evident in the late 1970s and 1980s, herbal leaders…were clear that in order for public acceptance to occur, herbal medicine needed to be redefined as scientific herbal medicine and distanced from folk medicine and witchcraft…from this perspective, the appropriate modernisation of the knowledge base, the way to ‘bring herbal medicine into the 21st century’ (Mills and Bone, 2000) involve[d] employing the discourse of science to explain the medicinal action of plants.”

(2008, p3)

It is agreed upon in the majority of the literature that herbal medicine has indeed become mainstream, and in that process it has shifted, evolved, adopted and placed itself within the broader paradigm of the modern healthcare system (Collyer 2004, Casey, Adams et al. 2006, Evans 2008, Wiese and Oster 2010, Conway 2011, Mills and Bone 2012, Braun, Spitzer et al. 2013, Wardle, Adams et al. 2013).

The Rise and Rise of Phytomedicine

This new breed of commercialised, mainstream herbal medicine is referred to as “phytomedicine”, with the very term redefining herbal medicine as  being rational and supported by scientific evidence (Evans 2008, Conway 2011).  The development of phytotherapy began during the Nazi regime (1933-1945), as Adolf Hitler’s “enthusiasm for all things Aryan raised folk traditions to near religious status” (Griggs, 1997, p264).  Germany’s already advanced and lucrative pharmaceutical industry was set to the task of researching and using pharmaceutical techniques of extraction and compounding to develop sophisticated herbal products.  New chairs in pharmacognosy were created in German universities and the reinvented folk medicine became increasingly respectable.

The late 20th century saw huge advancements in technology and scientific understanding which conferred advancements in research, analysis and extraction techniques in the phytopharmaceutical industry.  Phytomedicines could now be standardised which meant they could be quantitatively analysed in clinical trials, and understanding of how plants worked on a physiological level began to emerge (Griggs 1997). From these beginnings to the present day there has been an explosion of new information in the field of phytotherapy (Mills and Bone 2012).  These new medicines gained both public and industry popularity as they performed well in trials, had fewer clinical side-effects and were much cheaper to produce (Griggs 1997).

As traditional herbal preparations transformed into phytomedicines, so did their informing knowledge base.  Today herbalists have two sources of information  to draw upon: traditional evidence and evidence based medicine (EBM) (Singer and Fisher 2007, Evans 2008).  EBM has assumed a prominent status as a model for best practice in biomedicine, and has inevitably influenced the model for best practice in herbal medicine (Conway 2011).  In order for evidence of efficacy to be determined in a short time span (clinical trials rarely go for longer than three months) standardised and concentrated preparations are used in specific doses.  For practitioners to prescribe based on EBM evidence, the same preparations and dosages must be used, which has provided further cause to move towards phytomedicines (Casey, Adams et al. 2006, Evans 2008).  The dual emergence of EBM and phytomedicines changed the nature of WHM practice and prescribing.  As a result, governments in the western world started implementing legislative infrastructure to regulate and control the production and sale of these new medicines, as a means to protect the public (Griggs 1997, Evans 2009, Nissen and Evans 2012).

In the early 1960s, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was created in response to the thalidomide disaster.  Regulatory bodies swung into action after the realisation that the wonder bullets of the pharmaceutical industry could have devastating side-effects. Stringent measures regarding research and safety became a national priority in the western world and by 1968 the UK parliament established the Medicines Act, which not only applied to pharmaceutical medicines, but now also included some on these new phytomedicines.  Not only was this a recognition that phytomedicines were therapeutically efficacious, but it also encouraged further emphasis for the need for scientific credibility within the phytotherapy sector.  Practitioners, manufacturers and researchers realized that in order for herbal medicine to earn mainstream recognition and to gain public favour it needed to redefine itself within the scientific paradigm (Griggs 1997).

The 1968 Medicine’s Act had a ripple effect in Europe as they too began to see the need for control.  By the mid to late 70s, the UK and Europe had began to establish authoritative, systemised and scientifically grounded phytotherapy reference texts.  The British Herbal Pharmacopeia (BHP) was published as three volumes between 1976 and 1979 and the Commission E (a German initiative) in 1978. Both publications are composed of herbal monographs with detailed information on the botany, actions, scientifically proven uses, dosage guides and safety of a selection of medicinal plants.  Their emergence symbolised the entry of WHM into a new level of scientific credibility that remains relevant today and has become the prototype for modern phytotherapy texts (Griggs 1997).

By 1989, the European Scientific Cooperative for Phytotherapy (ESCOP) was created with representatives from Holland, Germany, France, Belgium, Switzerland and the UK joining forces to continue fostering the development of phytotherapy.  In response to the growing popularity of herbal medicine, the Australian government created the the Therapeutic Goods Act (TGA) in 1990.  The American FDA and Australian TGA both created codes of Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), which are schedules of guidelines concerning hygiene and production standards that herbal manufacturers must comply with in order for their products to be listed or registered and thereby be sold commercially  There was a diverse range of herbal manufacturers providing herbal products prior to the introduction if the GMP, from family run small businesses using low-tech methods to the larger commercial operations.  In order for these businesses to meet the GMP requirements, they were required to invest a considerable amount of funds in the upgrade of their equipment, which was not economically viable for many smaller businesses.  The few companies who were able to upgrade their facilities therefore secured themselves a much larger share of the marketplace, and a monopoly was created (Griggs 1997, Jagtenberg and Evans 2003, Dougherty 2005, Evans 2009).

In the tertiary education sector across the western world, university and private colleges began offering naturopathy and WHM degree programs from the late 70s (Griggs 1997).  In order to prepare new practitioners for the science based healthcare paradigm, modern syllabuses are typically grounded in  biomedical sciences and pharmacognosy with students predominately being trained to think in a scientific and reductionist way about herbal practice  (Singer and Fisher 2007, Wiese and Oster 2010) often with a “lack of serious depth of philosophical inquiry” (Evans, 2009, p179).  This shift towards the biomedical paradigm in herbal training programs is sculpting new generations of practitioner’s approach to diagnosis and prescribing.   Nissen and Evans’ review found that 95% of study participants accepted the importance of a biomedical diagnosis in influencing their treatment, and between 38-56% used diagnostic testing or referral for laboratory testing as a means of making treatment decisions (2012).  In terms of prescribing, modern Australian herbal practice is characterised by individually formulated liquid herbal medicines in the form of highly concentrated herbal extracts (1:1 or 1:2 herb to solvent) and pre-formulated commercial capsules.  Dosages are predominantly determined by documented pharmacologically active doses (Casey, Adams et al. 2006).  These trends in diagnosis and prescribing are reflective of a moving away from vitalistic models to the more pharmacognosy based schools of thought.  This is reflective of the general lack of diversity of prescribing habits amongst trained Australian herbalists and provides a context as to why phytomedicines have become commonplace in Australia.

The Power and Influence of Herbal Medicine Manufacturers

Whilst the mainstreaming of herbal medicine and the emergence of sophisticated phytomedicines has helped herbal medicine gain recognition and respect with the general public and other healthcare professions, its largest sphere of influence is seen in the marketplace.  As stated previously, after the introduction of the GMP, the marketplace was dramatically de-diversified, leaving only a handful of companies behind to provide herbal products.  Manufacturers have taken a center stage position of influence, power and ultimately responsibility of the commodification of herbal practice across the western world (Griggs 1997, Dougherty 2005, Evans 2009).

A commonly held assumption (or hopeful ideology) of the public and practitioners is that because herbal manufactures are producing products conceived from a holistic healing tradition, they therefore operate above capitalist business tactics of gain and are motivated by altruistic intentions.  Unfortunately, the herbal manufacturing industry is  not unlike any other high-profit driven industry.  They too are governed by the price of shares, on clever takeovers and mergers, strategic joint ventures, international trade partnerships, cost-cutting and corporate marketing campaigns.  The profitability of individual companies depends on product innovation, effective merchandising and competitive pricing.  It has very little to do with the core tenants of the holistic healing model of recognising the health of the individual is inseparable to the health of the environment and trusting the healing power of nature in its whole form.   To further colour the scene, herbal and CAM manufacturers are no longer a distinct market sector and there are very few private companies remain in the hands of founders trained in herbal medicine (Collyer 2004).

The most current peer-reviewed literature on the Australian herbal industry dates back to 2004, at which time only three of the nine listed manufacturing companies on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) exclusively produced CAM products, with the others producing both CAM and pharmaceuticals (Collyer 2004).  This trend of pharmaceutical companies acquiring phytomedicine manufacturers has steadily continued.  Appendices 1 and 2 provides a basic up-to-date outline of the corporate infrastructure of the Australian herbal industry.   These companies have an invested hand in all avenues leading to the mainstreaming of WHM.  Whilst on one side this may be perceived as bringing  the industry as a whole into much desired repute, yet on the other side the mainstreaming process is “fundamentally a marketing strategy…[that is] clearly about profit”(Collyer, 2004, p96) with much integrity and heart being lost to the marketplace.

Despite the rise of interest in phytotherapy research, the current political and economic climate in the western world has resulted in a reluctance to provide government funding for research in general.  As a result, the onus has fallen to the manufacturers to provide research grants.  Naturally these manufacturers have vested interests in research outcomes, which therefore influences the type and form of research performed in a number of ways.  Firstly, manufactures are likely to be biased in their choice of research to fund, limiting the types of studies performed to those that will have commercially significant potential.  Secondly, evidence from research is a very powerful advertising tool thus marketing strategy (Evans 2008) .

Manufacturers also influence the development of knowledge of herbs through their domination of continuing professional education (CPE) seminars.  The naturopathic and herbal communities have expressed their concern over these manufacturer sponsored seminars that are characterized by in-house research, therapeutic protocols and product promotion (Dougherty 2005, Evans 2009, Wiese and Oster 2010, Wardle, Adams et al. 2013).  A consequence of this is that herbal and naturopathic practitioners are experiencing increasing pressure to push products instead of treating patients in a truly holistic manner.  Wardel et al.’s study outlined the conundrum faced by modern day practitioners; that whilst there is great concern of implications of the commercial nature of herbal medicine, in order to make a living a business like attitude is required and selling  product has become an important source of income (2013).

At the time of writing this paper, the TGA has released a new proposal that limits what advertising material manufacturers can supply to the general public (which due to their unregulated status, includes naturopaths and herbalists) as well as banning manufacturer supplied diagnostic devices such as bio-impedance and live blood analysis.  This proposal is being met with varied responses by the naturopathic and herbal community.  In light of the literature, this is a revealing time to gauge the extent of manufactures’ influence on practitioners’ sense of professional identity and how they have redefined what is considered essential “tools of the trade” (NHAA, 2013).

Arising Issues as a Byproduct of Commodification

All the above discussed factors influencing the commodification of herbal medicine are creating a widening void  between herbalist and plant.  It is these layers of distance that have allowed herbal medicine to gain mainstream acceptance, yet at the expense of  many elements of the beauty and uniqueness of herbal practice.  Most practitioners stock their dispensaries with products purchased from distributors in the form of brown bottles and phytomedicines, meaning that a modern-day western herbalist may have no contact with the plants themselves whatsoever (Dougherty, 2005, p8, Casey et al., 2006).

Towards the end of the 20th century and into the 21st century, global trade has become economic commonplace.  As a consequence of the commodification of WHM, the demand for raw material has exponentially increased and herbal manufacturers have engaged in the lucrative import trade of wild-crafted and cultivated herbs.  Since the modern herbalist’s repertoire has expanded to include herbs from foreign healing traditions that cannot be cultivated locally (i.e. traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicinal plants) importing in many instances is perceived as a necessity.  This equates to larger profit margins as raw material bought from developing nations with weak economies is incomparably cheaper than locally grown material.  The ramifications of globalisation’s impact on herbalism expands far beyond this review, yet it is important to acknowledge its implications to modern WHM as well as its contribution to these layers of distance (Jagtenberg and Evans 2003).

Further to this idea Conway believes that herbalists who allow commercial influences to shape their practice are “potentially playing a naive and dangerous game that risks loss of the heart and soul of herbal medicine as its traditions and deeper meaning are gradually [being compromised] out of existence” (2011, p29).  Conway also asserts that these herbalists “stand accused as collaborators in the colonisation of herbal medicine by biomedicine” (2011, p29).  These statements highlight the presence of inconsistencies within the very foundation of this newly appropriated WHM that has exchanged many of its core philosophies with longed for legitimation by biomedicine (Singer and Fisher 2007).  Whilst the enormity of industry power and influence is near impossible to avoid, the literature clearly reveals that some WHM practitioners are aware of a certain number of these issues and are actively trying to preserve what they can where they can (Dougherty 2005, Evans 2009, Wiese and Oster 2010, Wardle, Adams et al. 2013).

This review has mainly concentrated its focus on industry influence on clinical practice, yet could not be complete without acknowledgment of the wider environmental consequences of commodification.  As has been established, the driving force behind WHM into the mainstream is largely a profit driven system that has a short term environmental outlook (Dougherty 2005).  The danger of favouring  the energy intensive phytomedicines that have high volume raw material requirements over simple herbal products is that the industry is contributing to the advancement of a myriad of ecological challenges on a global scale (Jagtenberg and Evans 2003).

These issues have attracted varying levels of concern within the profession, yet the extent and complexities of the issues do no appear to be common knowledge amongst many of the groups of Australian practitioners (Evans 2009, Wiese and Oster 2010, Wardle, Adams et al. 2013) which contrasts to the awareness amongst American grassroots practitioners who are increasingly voicing their concerns and outlining the issues (Dougherty, 2005; United Plant Savers, 2013).  Although international trade agreements such as CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) are in place to safeguard extinction of certain plant species, international trade is lacking in many quality parameters.

With the exception of organic (that way they can be traced) or fairtrade organisations.

Although manufacturers pride themselves on high-tech identification and purity assays of purchased raw material to ensure authenticity and quality, there are next to no parameters to safeguard against social and environmental exploitation.  In other words, the manufacturing industries are obtaining their wealth from the earth and are doing very little to protect it and practitioners and retailers (who are the interface between industry and consumers), know very little about these issues.

Despite varying levels of awareness and understanding of industry issues in the literature, it is apparent that herbal medicine has become a highly commercialised industry and practitioners are becoming concerned by some of these implications  To probe deeper into corporate infrastructure and dominance, raw material global supply chains and the degree of enforcement of environmental and human rights laws in these developing nations would undoubtedly provide some rich and important findings.

Blogs as Relevant Choice for Qualitative Analysis

Definition of Blog

Blogs are a form of user generated website that was initially called a ‘web-log’ (i.e an online journal) which has since been shortened to ‘blog’ and have become a significant feature of present day online culture.  They are typically created by a collective or single author who generates documents, such as diaries or commentary, at regular intervals.  Usually the author allows readers to post comments about the content, or engage in some form of online discussion thus serving as a venue to sustain close-knit virtual communities (Runte 2008).

Why Blogs are a Useful Medium for Research

In an age where the internet has become ubiquitous and having an internet identity a norm, new forms of information exchange and social connectivity are arising.  Blogs have been conceptualised as a new medium for facilitating knowledge production and due to their ease of accessibility, have been credited with having a “socially transformative capacity” (Hookway, 2008, p94) making them a new and exciting frontier for social research.  Blogs provide an abundance of formerly unavailable source material that is publicly accessible, freely retrieved and instantaneously compiled.  Given the structured nature of blogs, all material comes pre-typed, formatted, date stamped, archived and indexed, thus greatly facilitating ease of data collection (Hookway 2008, Runte 2008).  Blog content itself provides a significant amount of personal data, as the very nature of ‘blogging’ typically promotes a high degree of self-disclosure and an insight into private worlds, even when authors are not withholding their identity (Gaiser and Schreiner 2009).

Research Findings: Bloggers

Blogger[2] demographic information indicated that they were a highly educated group, with seven[3] out of the nine having a bachelor degree or higher; two of these were at postgraduate level with one of them having a doctoral degree. Another significant feature of the bloggers was that all nine were in a partnership and at least seven have children.  The majority of bloggers (six in total) were in the age bracket of 30s-40s, with one blogger in her 20s and two bloggers in their 50-60s.  Six of the bloggers were American, one Canadian and two English.  Interestingly, there were no equivalent Australian bloggers.  The four main themes found in the blogger’s personal statements were: ‘community based herbalism’, ‘medicine making’, ‘materia medica’  and ‘blog as platform to discuss issues herbal community are facing’.

Research Findings: Blog Content

As evidenced by appendices 3 and 4, a considerable number of themes and concepts were uncovered, which unfortunately could not all be explored within this project.  The most common themes that will be discussed are ‘paradigm shift’, ‘decentralisation’, and ‘importance of connection with nature and tradition’.

To offer some context to the findings, the type of herbalism these bloggers practice is paradigmatically different to the type of herbalism that has gained mainstream status.  This mainstream herbalism that was described in the literature review will be referred to as ‘modern western herbalism’.  The type of herbalism that these bloggers base their professional work in is referred to as ‘traditional’, ‘grassroots’, ‘community’ or ‘folk herbalism’.  Although the bloggers use both traditional and scientific knowledge bases, their overall approach is based on a different framework.  David Crow from Numen provides a definition that clearly encapsulates the type of herbalism that will be discussed herein.

I define grassroots healthcare as plant-based, locally available, nontoxic, cost-effective healthcare. It is synonymous with the terms “folk medicine,” “kitchen medicine,” and “home herbal pharmacy.” “Grassroots” means that it is a return to community-centered medicine, which in the case of herbs means locally grown and available through local apothecaries, which then implies local economies and sustainable organic agriculture. “Grassroots” also means that it is based on individual, family and community empowerment, where people relearn the traditions of self care and preventive medicine, thereby freeing themselves from being overly dependent on allopathic medicines and the associated costs, economically and health-wise.

Herbal Tradition as Tool for Paradigm Shift

In all the blogs, discussion of herbal medicine was framed within a broader discussion of socio-political and environmental issues.  General social concerns included the power and influence of pharmaceutical companies over mainstream healthcare, a perceived medical trend of over-prescribing and the consequent damage to both human and ecological health.

In relation to herbal medicine, bloggers expressed concern that the consumption of herbal medicine in the West is becoming increasingly limited to people in higher socio-economic groups and the bloggers understand this to be at odds with one of the core tenets of herbal tradition, that is, being the medicine of the people.

The most commonly mentioned ecological concerns were climate change, peak oil, unethical wildcrafting practices and the ensuing increase in endangered medicinal plant species.  Further, social concerns revolved around lack of  fair-trade agreements  in developing countries for raw material and lack of intellectual property protection leading to social and environmental exploitation.

Many of the bloggers believed that herbal medicine in its traditional form provides practical solutions to remedy these issues. A theme of Renee Davis’ Gold Root and Thread blog is herbalism as a tool for ecological and social change.

Through herbal practice and education we can cultivate human and ecosystem health, all in one shot. It’s so simple and sensical. Through education, community empowerment, and sustainable healthcare practices we can remedy our systemic social and ecological ills.

In this way she appears to be interpreting herbalism as not only an alternative healthcare choice, but also having wider implications.  Renee further explains its immediate relevance for these times.

Herbalists—as those who stand at the nexus of humans and nature, and weave together traditions of the past, applications for the present and innovations for the future—have not only a unique viewpoint but a responsibility to consider and respond to these issues. We carry a big part of humanity’s legacy. Herbalism is also a dying art. Much knowledge has been lost over the last few centuries. And it’s currently pigeonholed into quaint cutesiness, with knowledge dissemination largely left for marketers. I think there’s a great deal of unrealized potential with herbal medicine. And that’s why I’ve pursued these areas of knowledge. They reframe some of our most pressing issues and point a new way forward.

Many of the bloggers referred to the need of modern herbalism to re-infuse itself with traditional ethos, and that this was important to harness in terms of a paradigm shift.  Ann Armbrecht, Renee Davis, Guido Mase and Melanie Pulla all blog about this “paradigm shift”, which promotes self care and ecological sustainability.  Larken Bunce of Numen is a herbal instructor at the Vermont Centre for Integrative Herbalism and describes promoting this paradigm shift as a core component of the school’s teaching and what they deem as an appropriate set of skills for their graduates.

We’re also committed to educating highly skilled professional herbalists who can contribute to the paradigm shift we’re talking about and bridge self-care and medical care. But, at the foundation of our mission is to enhance people’s capacity to tend to themselves and their families and neighbors.

Kiva Rose in her practice draws upon the same principle, nurturing her client’s autonomy and ability to self-sustain outside the healthcare system.

In order to prevent a client from becoming dependent on purchasing my medicines for their health maintenance, I try to teach each person how to gather and make their own medicines (yet another reason to use common, local plants), if they show even the slightest hint of interest.

Both Larken Bunce and Kiva Rose’s views can be related to the naturopathic tenet “docere” (doctor as teacher) which is based on the philosophy that encouragement of education and promotion of self-care ultimately serves to empower the patient and decreases dependence on the practitioner.  This very principle in itself contrasts to the present day healthcare model that often renders patients reliant on specialised advice, treatment and medications.  Ann Armbrecht, primary writer of Numen, envisions the promotion of self-sufficiency as the defining characteristic of this movement.

Through Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs)  local food co-ops, herb schools and more, herbalists and farmers offer classes and share medicines and resources. These become skills everyone learns to keep themselves and their family well, as important to the sustainability and viability of their communities as growing their own food and producing their own energy, as important to the education of our children as learning to read and do math.

The characterising elements of these proposed alternative structures for herbal medicine described by the bloggers reflect other social and environmental movements, such as the local food movement and Transition Towns. These movements are regularly referred to in Numen, The Herbarium, Herb Geek, Gold Root and Threads and Lancaster Farmacy.  Stephen Church of The Herbarium explains his reasoning to align his philosophy with these environmental and social networks.

With the same ethos as the Transition Town movement, traditional herbalists are aware that energy descent and climate change will demand great adaptations of human social and economic organisation – so there is wisdom in rehearsing skills in advance of need. They are busy adapting to producing their own medicines from locally sourced plant material, to generally operate in as environmentally friendly fashion as possible, and to exit from their professional bubbles and re-engage with their local communities. Herbs need to be restored as part of the everyday way of life.

He further expresses why traditional herbal medicine deserves a central role in this transition.

Herbal Medicine’s enduring strength is that it remains an effective therapy employing the most basic of technologies with little call on external resources or agencies. In anticipation of the effects of climate change, we are determined to keep this aspect of our knowledge alive for ourselves and future generations as an integral element of a healing planet.

Whilst Renee Davis does not explicitly express her alliance to any particular movement, her post-graduate study in Whole Systems Design has lead her to believe that the “work being done with resilience science and ecological theory [is] really important [for her] as a developing herbalist”.  She believes that systems of healthcare that are based on resilience science, such as traditional herbalism, offer promising paths for sustainable health care development.

These ideas–that human health is connected with plant, animal, and ecosystem health; that diversity is required for resilience; and of the cycles of adaptation–are very old ones. But articulated in a new way, one that’s applicable to the social and institutional issues we face now, they’ve become innovative. I keep coming back to the paradoxical nature of this work. So ancient, yet so innovative. I love it. And that’s good, when something’s paradoxical like that. You’re onto something.

Many of the bloggers referred to this paradigm shift as a herbal movement that they were actively supporting.  None of them referred to wanting to revert back to an old tradition, but rather to preserve the basic principles of tradition and re-appropriate them to the modern healthcare system.

Many believed that the traditional principles are what defines herbal medicine as a healing system for both human and ecological health and that modern herbal medicine was unconsciously sacrificing these principles to earn mainstream acceptance.


Many bloggers proposed that the problems modern day herbalism now faces in global, local and personal capacities is a result of centralised control by corporations and governments.  A somewhat covert rebellion against these forms of control and organisation are the nexus of what unites and drives many of these bloggers.  Proposed solutions revolve around decentralisation of corporate power and government regulation and localising plant sources.

For Didi Perhouse of Numen, the centralised climate of America’s healthcare system has prompted her to reframe the way she views the future of healthcare at large.  She believes that in order to build health services that will withstand oscillating economic and environmental climates, it is important that not all the influence remains in the hands of corporations.

Our health care system, like all of modern society, is hard on the environment and unsustainable economically and socially as well. Hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, ambulances, even doctors—these days they are mostly owned by corporations, which exist not only to provide healthcare but also to make money. To expect corporations to continue to take care of people in an economic crisis when they are losing money is naïve and dangerous. When it gets too expensive to provide care most of them will simply close up shop and go elsewhere to make money. It’s already happening in many places. So we need to start planning now on how we will look out for each other’s health and well-being as that starts happening more and more.

Melanie Pulla shares the same opinion as Didi, yet highlights that many elements of herbalism have now been absorbed into this modern centralised system.  She writes that

What was once a grassroots and perhaps anti-establishment movement has now caught the attention of allopathic practitioners, pharmaceutical companies, and large corporations. Herbal medicine is operating in a completely different climate than it was even a decade ago.  The tragedy here is the assumption that in order to ‘reach more people’ we must sell our dreams to corporate giants.

The bid to reach more people through corporate avenues is also contributing momentum to scientific research and development.  Stephen Church discusses that some may view this as a positive sign of professional advancement, yet is essentially at odds with vitalistic principles that are inherent to WHM philosophy and practice.

One argument says that this is Herbal Medicine at last growing up, engaging with modernity, adapting to a form of medicine that is acceptable to the science/medical communities, and able to offer predictable outcomes to defined therapeutic strategies. The opposing argument is that these “phytopharmaceuticals” are anathema to vitalistic principles, are not herbal medicines at all but weak drugs employing crude plant material as a starting point, are environmentally unacceptable and have a great deal to do with the ascendancy of over-the-counter herbal medicines over the work of the practitioner. Many herbalists fear it is only one step away from scientifically validated herbal medicines being produced entirely by Big Pharma as the sole province of pharmacists and doctors, herbalists finding themselves redundant, despite the extraordinary but largely unsung potential of holistic practice.

Many of the bloggers express a distaste at the ways in which  this trend of commodification and commercialisation are affecting practical elements of modern herbal medicine practice.  The ramifications of this process has resulted in modern herbal practice being defined largely by manufactured products made from imported raw material coupled with the tendency of modern materia medicas to reach far and wide at the expense of depth.  Kiva Rose recognises this, and believes that a return to the local holds many answers.

Wherever we are, modern humans have a tendency to most highly value what is hard to come by, that which is rare, exotic and comes at a great price.  It seems to me that if we’re going to place value judgments on plants as medicine and food, it makes a hell of a lot more sense to greatly value what we have access to, what is sustainable and what we are able to cultivate intimacy with.

Ann Armbrecht, The Herbarium, Melanie Pulla, Lancaster Farmacy and Juliet Blankespoor all share this belief and detail their approaches to bioregional herbalism; from seed cultivation to wildcrafting to preparation of medicines.  Whilst Kiva Rose, Juliet Blankespoor, Herb Geek and Lancaster Farmacy write their blogs to share their experiences as bioregional herbalists, Numen and The Herbarium provide specific guiding information and resources for herbalists, so that they are able to incorporate the principles into their clinical practices.  The Herbarium explains why they have felt compelled to share this knowledge.

We need to return to making our own medicines for ourselves with low-energy processes based on organic, locally grown herbs….We need to turn aside from the exotic imports so familiar on our dispensing shelves, and revitalise our understanding and use of indigenous herbs.

Beyond decentralising their materia medicas and plant sources, many of the bloggers write about the broader implications of decentralisation within their local communities.  The terms “folk” and “community” herbalism are often used interchangeably, alluding to the bloggers’ sense of place and the grassroots level of the work they do.  Furthermore, beyond the ideals that they are communicating, it is clearly expressed by many that their work is very much influenced by the needs of their community.  Renee Davis explains why she feels this is important.

Current regulatory trends are pushing herbalists and apothecaries to go either big or underground. There is this cleaving force, so to speak. In order to adapt, we need a new model of community herbal practice, one that’s based in identifying the health care needs of the community, and meeting them with safe, locally abundant, easy to harvest medicinal plants.

Many of the bloggers have felt compelled to document in detail their journey of localising elements of their practice so that others can adopt their frameworks and apply them to their own communities.  In this sense, these bloggers are altruistically motivated to communicate their message and vision for the simple reason that they feel it is important to share.  William Siff from Numen exemplifies this notion in the work he does.

My intention has always been to create a mandala of grassroots herbalism in this community. With the apothecary, farm, CSA, and education all firmly rooted at this stage, the new intention is to export aspects of the model for others to learn about and potentially replicate in some form or another according to their specific circumstances and needs. The intention is to plant the seeds for a grassroots herbal healthcare revolution in this country, community by community.

This sense of sharing a message and vision forms the cornerstone of The Herbarium.  Whilst the bloggers of The Herbarium cover all of the above territory of localising medicinal plant sources and preserving tradition, they write extensively on professional autonomy and the importance of maintaining a decentralised framework of professional organisation.  UK Herbalists have been on the brink of statutory regulation for some years, making this particular element of decentralisation a common theme.  The Herbarium’s stance on this issue is stated as:

We wish to take our place in a radically reorganised community of herbalists. The Network of Independent/Transition Herbalists is a grand vision. It is, after all, a perfectly normal way for human beings to organise themselves that in our current society is nonetheless all but forgotten – so it calls for a shift in attitude – away from centralised control, bureaucratic box-ticking and standardisation, towards self-empowerment, community-building and the celebration of diversity.

The type of network The Herbarium is referring to is one that is characterised by small, localised, autonomous groups that operate as co-operatives.   The blog writes extensively on the reasoning for this vision and provides ideas and lists for other herbalists to form similar groups in their communities

Importance of Connection with Nature & Tradition

Whilst much importance is placed on corporate power being responsible for the devaluation of herbal tradition, attention is also directed at the herbalists’ themselves.  All the blogs, in varying capacities, contain the theme of reclaiming tradition by connecting with nature and that an innate facet of being a herbalist is to be a custodian of preserving this connection. The elder members of this blog community, namely the bloggers of The Herbarium, write of the importance of maintaining this connection and the reasons for its importance.    Stephen Church writes

More than any other medical modality, [herbalists] are concerned with nature, at the heart of our work is the matching of the nature of plants to the nature of humans.

Gail Faith Edwards, also a member of The Herbarium , elaborates further

The cultivation of a deep sense of place is invaluable for an herbalist. We all emerge out of an eco system, a bioregion, we are all connected elementally, as well as ethereally, to our surroundings, to our place. Understanding this sense of place and how it relates to plants and people is an important part of the herbalist’s path.

In contrast, many of the younger bloggers are craving this connection and are searching for the sacred elements of herbal practice, many expressing how they felt this was a missing link in their education. As a result much of their blogging revolves around their actual experiences of going out into nature and establishing relationships with the plants.  Paul Bergner from The Herbarium explains why he believes this generational difference has emerged.

Another cause is the abandonment by herbalists of their own traditions in the later 20th century in favor of “scientific” herbalism, as the trend by herbalists to become defensive and “prove that herbs work” came to dominate the psychology of the herbal faculties. Herbal practice has become dominated by The Book rather than by Direct Clinical Observation, or even by Tasting. A scientific trial of an herb is like a serial killer.  Because of the scientific trial, and the devaluation of traditional experience and hands on experience, the student is for practical purposes disabled for clinical practice.

This general loss of connection is but another factor contributing to herbalism’s weakening immunity against commercial infiltration.  The blogs however suggest that there is a groundswell of reclaiming this connection, as evidence by the bulging archives of all their herbal experiences and experiments, encouraging their readers to go out and do the same.  Renee Davis explains what inspires her herbal practice.

It’s touching the dirt, digging roots, preparing and sipping beautiful garden tea blends, smelling the flowers, having my apothecary full of jars containing gorgeous, whole-leaf herbs…Authentic botanical practice is a lifestyle that honors the sanctity of life and the ecological patterns around us.

Lucinda Warner, another young herbalist, writes extensively on her blog about her connection with nature and how it infuses through her life and identifies her as a herbalist.

I can’t separate my relationship with plants and nature from my idea of myself as a herbalist. I respect that some people are wonderful clinicians and effective practitioners without having a personal relationship to the herbs they use but it is a very different approach to my own.  One of the things I wanted for my website was that it be very accessible in terms of the recipes I make and plants that I use. In many ways it’s more about being someone who appreciates the natural world than it is about being a herbalist, at least in the clinical sense.

Lucinda Warner, Juliet Blankespoor and Kiva Rose’s blogs are equally defined by their plant photography in addition to their written content, very much taking readers on their journey through the natural world.  Juliet Blankespoor and Kiva Rose’s blogs are particularly instructional on how to cultivate and ethically wildcraft medicinal plants. They provide information on the best ways to germinate seeds, seasonal considerations, how to improve soil quality, provide basic botany information to properly identify plants, introduce readers to plant conservation principles as well as explaining the best methods of collecting and preparing plants.  Essentially they are providing a body of knowledge that fills in the gaps many modern herbal courses leave behind.  Kiva Rose explains how keeping this knowledge alive in her practice is what defines her as a folk herbalist.

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.

There was a wide range of positions written by the bloggers about their connection with nature and tradition, some emphasising the need for connection to the past and their ancestors, others it was evident that becoming a herbalist was a natural progression from having an inherent love for plants and in others’ cases growing and wildcrafting their herbs was their own form of defiance and activism.


Adaptations of Tradition

Traditions systems of medicine are intrinsically dynamic and highly adaptable, continually evolving with their surrounding environment in order to remain culturally relevant. Our post-industrial era is hallmarked by a separation of sociocultural advancement from the natural world.  Herbal medicine’s tradition is faced with a new world of opportunities and challenges, and is adapting accordingly.  However this unfolding story is far from linear.  Being a nature based tradition, it is faced with the momentous number of ecological issues that have far reaching social ramifications.  Yet it is also a folk tradition, meaning medicine that is most freely accessed and understood by common people, which today loosely translates to what can be found in the supermarket, pharmacy or health-food store.  These two factors are at odds with one another spurring a bifurcation of the adaptive process.  As a result two broad categories of herbal medicine are forming.  One is motivated by achieving congruency with scientific understanding thus remaining relevant for modern day culture.  The other is motivated by a holistic worldview that does not separate human imbalances from global imbalances, therefore has further-ranging relevancy.

The process by which mainstreamed herbal medicine is gaining a position in the Australian healthcare setting is by situating itself close to the power of biomedical thought and the commodifying forces of capitalism.   It has been theorised in social science literature that traditions which place themselves close to power gain credibility and legitimacy, allowing for a fuller participation in society, yet have difficulty maintaining their integrity and character (Evans 2009).  This mainstreamed trajectory has gained momentum in the past decade, and within the Australian context has established itself as a prominent form of  herbal medicine (Wiese and Oster 2010, Wardle, Adams et al. 2013).  Singer and Fisher suggest that in response to this mainstream absorption, this second group of herbalists are becoming more clearly defined.  This group are resisting appropriation into the mainstream by “reasserting the distinctive value of traditional knowledge in contemporary herbal practice…not only to preserve and deepen their own connection with the plant world, but in overt rebellion to the commodification of their medicines” (2007 p24).  This aptly explains the rising presence of grassroots herbal medicine, the focus of this research.

Grassroots herbal medicine recognises that the commodifying and mainstreaming process is negatively contributing to globalisation, fragile ecosystems and social injustices.  A defining feature of this adaptation is that its epistemology, practice and philosophy are being restructured to address greater global imbalances through maintaining its traditional philosophy of vitalism and holism. Furthermore, it concerns itself with community level care, advocates bioregionalism, direct connection with the herbs and making traditional style medicines.  This group exercises awareness in forming and supporting local economies, sustainable agriculture and ethically structured businesses. The following discussion explores how these adaptations are highly relevant for the Australian context.

Relevancy to Australian Herbalism

The bifurcation of herbal practice is most apparent in the United Kingdom and the United States, yet still remains somewhat un-cleaved in Australia despite being one of the largest capitalist economies in the developed world.   There are many potential reasons for this, the most obvious being our much smaller population size and our younger culture.  This research proposes that an Australian herbal grassroots movement is very much in its infancy and can gain much insight from its UK and USA counterparts due to their common cultural, political and economic influences.

Australian herbalism is made up of its own unique set of complexities.  It is the youngest Western capitalist democracy, yet sits on the remains of one of the most ancient human cultures.  Its tradition is Anglo-based, with overlays of Thompsonianism, eclecticism, Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, biomedicine and pharmacognosy.  Next to no local flora is used medicinally meaning Australian herbalists have very little connection with their native environment.  The rapid incorporation of herbs from China, India, Africa, North and South America and beyond into the modern materia medica means that Australian herbal practice is based largely on imports due to the absence of an established local herb growing industry able to supply to the market at competitive prices.  Supply chains are growing longer.  Fair-trade registering of herbs is almost negligible.  Manufacturing processes are ever becoming more sophisticated to produce more concentrated herbal products.  The manufactures themselves are slowing being acquired by larger, more powerful companies, some of which are multinational pharmaceutical conglomerates.  Possibly for the first time in history, next to no knowledge of how to identify the herbs as they grow in nature is required to be able to call oneself a herbalist or naturopath.  Australian herbalism has firmly entered the age of the brown bottle brigade where several layers of distance to the herbs is the norm.  With no strong sense of connection to plant, land or tradition to ground it, Australia is in a particularly vulnerable position of being swept up by commodification and in its ignorance, contributing to larger scale problems.

A question that continually arose throughout this research was ‘why are these issues not commonly discussed in the Australian herbal community?’.  From the Australian based literature, it could be ascertained that there is a baseline awareness and concern amongst herbalists on commodifying factors and its impact on the future of herbal medicine (Evans 2009, Wiese and Oster 2010, Wardle, Adams et al. 2013) yet there is very little action or further discussion evident.  There are a number of speculated reasons why this may be the case.

First of all, acting upon these issues may simply not be a priority for Australian herbalists.  It is acknowledged that making a living from herbal practice alone is challenging (Evans 2009, Nissen and Evans 2012), therefore higher priorities for practitioners may revolve around maintaining their business, clinical work with patients, other income earning ventures and keeping their skills up to date.  The most common demographic of Australian herbalists are women (76%) in their mid-forties (Nissen and Evans 2012), therefore those with partners and children may have family related responsibilities and concerns.

A second reason these issues may go unnoticed is that the process of mainstreaming and commodification has provided practitioners with a degree of professionalism, legitimisation and protection that is otherwise absent due to the professions’ lack of statutory regulation or full integration into the current healthcare system.  Manufacturers currently hold a large sphere of influence over practitioners; from providing them with their tools of the trade, treatment protocols, keeping them up to date with emerging research and ongoing education.  Modern day merchandising and marketing of CAM products in general aims to instill a sense of confidence in their therapeutic worth by mimicking a biomedical aesthetic. Until practitioners feel they do not need to rely on the manufactures for this protection, it is unlikely they are going to challenge them.

The final contributing factor to this lack of knowledge could simply be due to the assumption that the herbal medicine industry is ecologically literate and ethically principled.  Practitioners may feel that because manufacturers are the link in the chain between raw material and product, the onus falls on them to uphold a high moral standard.  Not only is information on environmental and social factors difficult to obtain from manufactures (as they themselves may be unaware of exactly where their raw material comes from), it would be potentially inconvenient to accept if there are not other viable alternatives available.

Towards a Resilient Australian Herbal Tradition

Although these times are fraught with ecological and social challenges, this may just be the turning point Australian herbalism needs to progress past the mainstream, send its roots deeper, find its cultural core, grow in diversity and mature into its identity.   As was uncovered in the analysis of the bloggers’ content, the new branch of grassroots herbalism is subtly emerging with its tradition intact.  The proposed adjustments to practice and prescribing are neither extreme nor radical.  Rather, as in accordance with the dynamic nature of tradition, they are simply adapting to the concerns of its custodians to remain relevant for our times.

Given these overarching issues are not unique to herbal medicine, but to the entire global community, there already exists well established social and environmental movements that have built broad response strategies and frameworks of adaption.  The most commonly mentioned movements in the blogs were the local food movement, transition towns and the consumer power movement.   Many of the bloggers aimed to marry herbal medicine’s hard-earned mainstream recognition with maintaining the core tenets of its tradition by utilising these frameworks to build appropriate, culturally sanctioned alternatives.  The local food movement and the consumer power movement have both gained much support in Australia, therefore I propose that their structures could easily be adopted to the herbal industry and profession.

The first stage of building this resiliency is to stimulate discussion and knowledge of the issues surrounding commodification.  To aptly navigate the modern commodified landscape the studies of ecology, environmental sustainability and basic corporate responsibility should be included as part of tertiary training syllabuses and  continuing professional education.  Unbiased, up-to-date resources on these issues should be available for practitioners to access, much of which could be collaborated with other established social or environmental groups.

Boycotting the entire herbal manufacturing industry or completely eliminating international import trade are not realistic solutions as they are firmly embedded in our societal structure.  However by bringing discernment into which herbs and products herbalists decide to stock their dispensaries with can positively influence corporate behavior.  Herbal practitioners must remember they are powerful and influential members of the herbal industry’s interest consumer group, therefore it is of great importance that they are informed.  The benefits of purchasing ethically are potentially far-reaching. It encourages innovative products and companies while discouraging others that ignore the social and environmental consequences of their actions.

Based on ethical consumption principles, ways herbalists are to exert their power include:

  • Favoring herbal products that are organic or bio-dynamically grown. Choosing locally grown herbs over imports, and if purchasing imported material from developing countries, purchasing from suppliers that source from small-scale certified organic producers that are fair-trade registered.
  • Avoiding products that contain endangered plants, conventionally grown plants or when there is no accountability of where the raw material is sourced from.
  • Company-based purchasing involves assessing businesses as a whole, meaning ethical screening of not just the brand, but also its parent company’s corporate values.

Another approach that can be employed is being a herbal ‘locavore’.  The local food movement is flourishing around Australia’s urban and regional centers.  It is about decreasing carbon emissions and oil dependency, whilst strengthening local economies by shortening the distance between producer and consumer.   Despite the increasing popularity of herbal medicines, local Australian herb farmers struggle due to very little support from the local industry as manufacturers favor imports from countries with weaker economies due their invariably cheaper prices.  Adopting the ‘local herb’ philosophy would dissolve many layers of distance between herbalists and their dispensaries and provide much needed support for Australian local growers and start diverting funds to building a stronger, decentralised herb industry.

The soundest of all approaches to herbal medicine production is for herbalists to grow or wildcraft their own herbs and making their own medicines.  Whilst the bloggers recognised that it is not possible to build an entire dispensary in this fashion, especially those in urban areas, it is certainly achievable to grow even a small selection.  For those with limited space or time, Juliet Blankespoor recommends growing perennial plants that use aerial parts as the medicinal portion that yield the most medicine for the allotted space[4](Blankespoor 2013).  Those with larger spaces could plant medicinal trees[5] which will provide years of high yield.  Given that much of the Australian materia medica is made of agricultural weeds[6], approaching farmers in organic growing regions and offering to do a spot weeding for them may be well welcomed.   The benefits of this approach are manifold; it deepens a herbalist’s connection with their bioregion and community, develops a close working relationship with the plants which enormously enhances an understanding of them (therefore improving effectiveness in prescribing) and cultivates an appreciation of herbal medicines as living plants, not just products.

Using raw material that has been grown in the backyard, community garden plot, wildcrafted or sourced from a local herb grower can then easily be made into herbal preparations, that if made with care, exceed the quality of manufactured equivalents.  Stephen Church of The Herbarium believes that “herbal medicine’s great strength is that it remains an effective and viable medicinal therapy using the most basic technologies, with minimal demand for energy or external supplies and resources. We need to synthesise the best of the ‘old ways’ with the best of modern knowledge and skills”(Church, Church et al. 2013) .  At present 90% of Australian practitioners primarily use highly concentrated fluid extracts in their practices  with only 4.3% using teas and 1.1% using traditional strength tinctures (Casey, Adams et al. 2006).  A revival of traditional herbal preparations that can easily be made, such as infusions, decoctions, macerations and syrups, would not only re-infuse an artisanal element to the profession but be the most useful form of activism against commodification.

Conclusion: Careful Reinterpretation of Tradition

The brown bottles that hallmark the typical Australian dispensary are not only symbols of herbalism’s story of commodification, but reflects the bigger story of humanity’s disintegrating relationship with nature. Australian herbalism is presently in a fragile position of losing core tenets of its imported traditional philosophy and practice in the face these commodifying forces.  If herbalists stand blind to this process, the jurisdiction of the corporate world will dictate the outcomes.  An adapted tradition is far too relevant for our times to simply settle for a destiny of commodified mediocrity.

By providing a different perception to health and disease, coupled with utilising therapeutic tools that rely on a symbiotic relationship between humans and plants, traditional herbalism has an important contribution to make to human and ecological health.  Herbalists are keepers of this rich tradition and should realise they are playing a central role in its process of reinterpretation.  Foresight  and wisdom need to be drawn upon to protect what needs to be preserved, and allow creativity to reinvent what needs to be changed.  The bloggers analysed in this research are not only herbalists ahead of their time, but also creative free thinkers that have many insights and strategies that could greatly inform Australian herbalism’s reinterpretation to help create a future of sustainability, social justice and holistic healthcare.  It is with hope that this preliminary research incites discussion, debate and further development amongst the Australian herbal community.


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[1] Grey literature is a body of materials that cannot be found easily through conventional channels such as publishers.

[2]A person who writes a blog.

[3]This figure is based on the primary blogger’s qualification. Some of the blogs are collectives that have a number of contributors yet there is always a primary blogger who controls the domain.

[4] Blankespoor recommends members mint family (lemon balm, motherwort, peppermint, lavender, hyssop, tulsi, sage and rosemary) mullein, gotu kola and yarrow as good choices for small gardens.

[5] These could include elder, willow, oak, poplar and hawthorn.

[6] St John’s wort, plantain, nettle, dandelion, chickweed, burdock and yellow dock.

Clara Bailey Naturopath and Herbalist

Healing Wise

August 5, 2018

  1. Rachel says:

    I’ve never met you but I couldn’t love you more right now (for speaking up about these things)

  2. Psychologia says:

    Great wordpress blog here.. Its hard to find quality writing like yours these days. I really appreciate people like you! take care and see you soon

    • Lara says:

      I am thinking the exact same right now. I feel so seen whilst reading this article. I’m only half-way through, but wow… it feels as though everything I haven’t found words for, has been written right here.
      Claire, I don’t really have words just yet, to do justice to how I’m feeling as I read through this article. Mostly, I want you to know that this is very important to me. And I am eternally grateful for you in doing this work. I’m looking forward to finishing this article, and checking out the other things on your website. I hope we can collaborate, one day… I am 9 months in to my Naturopathy studies and see so much of myself in the first few paragraphs of this post. I would love to be in touch with you. Do you have an Instagram account where I could keep up to date with what you’re doing? 🙂
      With love,
      Lara x

      • Lara says:

        Sorry, Clara *

      • Clara Bailey says:

        Hi Lara,
        Thank you for your kind words – and I’m so glad that this article found you. So big questions come up through a naturopathic degree and it’s so wonderful to dig deeper on the industry itself. I don’t currently have an Instagram account at the moment, but the best way to keep in touch/hear what’s going on is to be on my email list (if you sign up for any of the free resources on here you’ll be on it 😉).
        Wishing you all the best in your studies 🌿
        Clara x

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