"In Western civilization, our elders are books." -Gary Snyder
In this world where many of us are cut-off from multigenerational living and learning, from the Land, from seasonal practices, natural rhythms, even from our own right to understand and tend to our own bodies, books can be our guides, teachers, food, medicine, and bridges to lands unknown.
Whether it's our love of fiction, or our hunger for learning, books are an iteration of an ancient tradition - passing knowledge onto others through storytelling, by connecting filaments of ideas and intellect into meaningful patterns.
When folks ask me how to get started in plant medicine, my first advice is always "Go outside.' but the second is "Get a good bio-regional field guide.". You can get pretty far with those two, but I suppose that the third might be "Get a copy of Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Grow something. Look in your tea and spice drawers and find out whom you already have relations with."
Another question I get a lot is "What are your favorite herbal books?"
Asia Suler answered the question recently, listing, not necessarily the most practical tomes, but the ones that were the most impactful in setting her on her path. Braiding Sweetgrass was on her list as well, and I can't stress this enough: you should read it. It is the single most moving, elegant, hopeful and meaningful book about plant-human-relations. It is also one of the few widely available, English-language books not written by white-presenting folx with mainly European ancestry.
As someone who's traditional, ancestral medicine is outside of the mainstream of Western Herbalism here in US (I have a lot of issues with how it is framed here in the US, but also a lot of gratitude for everything I've been able to learn and rediscover here, but that's a whole book in itself.) I'm very aware of how these and most other readily available resources only highlight a very specific segment of the herbal world.
"Traditional" Western Herbalism is a very specific, very white and often very male lens, and it's important that as we seek the knowledge it can offer, we also look at it's offerings critically. It cannot be under-estimated how much of it is appropriated and outright stolen without acknowledgement from Indigenous Turtle Island medicine, and from African medicine, as well as many other cultural traditions the world-over. Decolonizing our medicine is a long process, and we as a community have barely started out on that journey collectively.
As someone seeking my own ancestral medicine outside of my own old "European" (I'm not gonna bore you with the intricacies of "European" geo-politics right now, but let's just say that Europe is not the monolith Americans seem to believe it is. I will say that speaking of "Europe" as one "herbal tradition", or one "spiritual system", or one anything, is reducing a lot of different cultures, heritages and traditions, history, geo-politics, colonization, into an idea as artificial and amorphous as what we currently call "America". That's the short of it, the long of it is another post.) tradition, I've discovered more and more both the erasure, co-opting, white-washing and appropriation of those medicines, and also their incredible richness and vitality. It is a pity that any of us have to "discover", or "rediscover" our birthright, and ancestral herbal knowledge definitely should not be a monopoly of dominant society and it's oppressive structures.
All that said (and there is much much more) even the access to herbal resources in any form, is a tremendous richness and a beginning point from which we can set out on many paths, including improving those resources and acknowledging where they are problematic. Personally, I also wanna invite y'all to inform me and each other of any herbal knowledge resources outside of mainstream Western Herbalism that you know of and are accessible. It is my hope that as we move forward these lists will grown and shift lenses, and become what they really need to be, but I'm not gonna pretend that we're there yet.
A part of my people's subarctic medicine is the medicine of making-do - getting by and being shrewd and smart with what you have on hand, so that's what I think of these resources as being.
With all that in mind I've divided my choices of books most folks can access via libraries and book stores up into three categories:
Necessities & Basics / Study Buddies / Odds & Ends
Necessities & Basics
These books are my stalwarts when I'm looking for advice, or reminding myself of how to do something, or what actions I might be looking for. This is a pretty limited selection, but they are the books I pull out the most often. There are herbal books on my shelves I've literally only cracked open a few times, but these ones are stained with Elderberry and spices and pencil marks, and their spines cracked and wrinkled. Often at the Apothecary, I recommend folks with kids buy one of Rosemary's recipe books, because they're really easy to follow, and have lots of simple recipes.
I've found the The Herbal Medicine Maker's Handbook indispensable. It is thorough and methodical, but not in the slightest intimidating, and I often pop into it for quick refresher, when I'm creating something new. I also love the quick reference & revision reminder that Feather Jones's booklet is.
"The Herbalist's Way" is a balanced guide to all aspects of Western Herbalism, with plant lists, tips for harvesting & growing inspiring interviews, lore, and practical tips. Most importantly, though, it espouses a pretty balanced over-arching philosophy of how to be a plant-medicine person.
Books I get into for specific answers, or to stretch my mind, or for a more clinical study. I have to admit it: I'm both intimidated and intrigued by the constituent- , chemistry- & body-systems-heavy learning. Which is exactly why the practical books of Stephen Harrod Buhner, who bridges the worlds of intuition and intellect so easily, were important to me when I first found them. Some of these heavier treatises still read a bit like mystery novels where you just want to figure out the solutions yourself and are forever finding clues, and staying on the edge of your seat.
My anatomy books are not the newest, or best, but they are handy reference. Honestly, I'll take recommendations in this realm, but I will say do find yourself an secondhand anatomy book, just to have on hand if you didn't take Bio in high school or college (I went to art school and all I got was a meddling understanding of the human body ;)
As for The German Commission E Monographs, well, let's just say that they're a fascinating lens to look through. I also have a few translations of Soviet Russian clinical studies, which I find fascinating. They're part folk healing, part science, and often very different from Western herbal tradition.
I would also say that this section should also have my books on Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Herbalism, Acupuncture & other healing modalities, but honestly I don't have any idea whether the books I have are the best ones. All I can say is that I heartily recommend dipping into complete systems, even if you're not planning to practice in those systems, or modalities, because there's so much fertile crossover, & cross-pollination.
Odd & Ends
These are books from which I've learned a lot from in a more non-linear, and inspired way.
I also have a cook book by Jeanne Rose, that's pretty good. I love her surprisingly modern (the books are from the 70s/80s) take on "self-care" and beauty, and taking care of our bodies with plants and home remedies.
Amber of Aquarian Dawn turned me onto this magical little book by Judith Berger a long time ago, but since it was kind of rare, I had to bide my time, and boy am I glad I did! It's a tome that never fails to inspire, no matter what season, or what place I am with my medicine making and self care. I believe it will be soon available in PDF form as it's currently out print and quite expensive.
These books are obviously just a small sampling of my personal favorites, because, let's be honest: there is no end to the herbal books I love, because there is no end to the learning that we do in this realm. One of my all-time favorites is The Secret Life of Plants which I first read as a young person, who's intuition and ancestral knowing that book affirmed in a deep way.
I also didn't include any books that are in Finnish, or are more in the realm of Witchcraft, or other ancestral medicine, even though those books also have informed my plant medicine, and continue to help me grow and learn. (That's a whole other post, obviously.) I'm also a huge fan of affordable herbal zines, which are a whole other post in and of themselves.
But wait, there's more!
What's interesting to me, is that while we fuss a lot about the death of reading in our digital culture (and not without good reason), in addition to books and zines, many of my favorite written resources exist online. And what's more, the internet also offers a return to the more traditional spoken teaching.
Gothenburg's printing press was revolutionary only because it made the spreading of information further and wider possible; the invention of the internet in it's current form does much of same. Online study and referencing makes being a solitary practitioner, or hedgewitch a lot more connected, and the community the internet offers can be a life-saver for many starting out on this path. Don't get me wrong, the internet is super powerful medicine, with extremely adverse side-effects, but if used correctly, it is an amazing resource.
As I've noticed my own concentration vain, thanks in great part to the constant flow of information and interaction, I've also discovered for myself how vital it is to continue reading for long, focused periods at a time. I read both books and online resources, and strive to go for at least hour and a half at a time, if I'm really studying. Just as social media and the inflow of information has reprogrammed our habits in media consumption, we too can reprogram ourselves for a slower pace and deeper learning. Reading pieces from start to finish, fact checking, and note-taking are all good study habits from high school we can still practice in this brave new world.
Practicing good concentration in our flitting, scrolling, blue-lit world can yield mighty benefits for herbalists, wild-crafters, and witches. I've said this before, but one of my favorite things about the online herbal community is how generous the people in it are. From lessons, to podcasts, to videos, to short written pieces like the one you're reading right now, most folks who sell products, courses, books, & classes online, also create amazing free resources alongside them. Whether they're short posts on social media, links, or in-depth articles, these resources can help us refocus, catch our interest, and uplift our spirits.
Here's a few folx who offer free resources for us all to become more well-rounded, grounded, conscious and conscientious pant people. It is in the nature of healers to wanna help, regardless of their own needs for time and dollars, so it is important that we call contribute to the paid work of folx we resonate with, but one of the most powerful things about this community that I've found is also people's willingness to offer resources for without charging. It is a delicate balance and I hope that we can all honor it in reciprocity, whether it's in money, or gratitude, or serving the plants these herbalists love and care for:
Asia Suler's youtube & blog & classes. The medicine of plants outside constituent value is something that has really spoken to me as a radical, sharable, non-extractive and ancient medicine in this "new age" and Asia has a lot of resources she offers for that.
Layla K. Feghali's Swana Medicine Hub of the kind of offering the herbal community can and does give each other. If your ancestry is in the SWANA region, like mine, or if you're just interested in shifting your medicine perspective, I recommend you check out this collection of medicine and support Layla's work! (I hope to make something like this someday for Finnish folk magic, but also Scandinavian medicine and Slavic & Ugric medicine ways.)
Herbal Highways Podcast! Radical, powerful, informative, affirming, kind and great at reframing herbalism! I've had my heart and mind opened, schooled, and soothed by this podcast by great herbal teachers many-a-time and can't recommend it enough.
Rae Swersey of Take Care Herbals has written some pieces totally seminal to my own continued education in competency, chronic pain, and empathy for physical experience different from my own. I first discovered their work via this article that rocked my WORLD. And as a chronic pain sufferer I found Rae's presentation on it at The Good Medicine Confluence deeply meaningful and super empowering to me personally. I don't actually know how to thank them enough. While I've had the honor and privilege of taking Rae's classes in person, YOU TOO can learn from them no matter where you physically are in this world via their powerful written pieces AND medicine!
Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine in addition to their classes they have a mighty blog chock-full of information about common magical medicinal garden botanicals.
United Plant Savers is an important resource and we can be an important resource to them! If you want to join plant folk, become a member.
Much more awesome linkage to lovely witches, herbalists, small-holding food folk & cool folks in my reads section (which, by the way, used to be a feature on every blog that I rarely see anywhere these days. Share your links and uplift your friends, y'all, information is power!).
Now it's your turn: What are some of your favorite herbal books & resources?!?!?