I learned herbalism through the American folk tradition, sitting at the feet of those herbalists, like Rosemary Gladstar, who raised herbalism back from the dead. They had few books, no internet, and a strong calling and passion for something that most Americans thought was crazy. Intuition, or the art of herbalism, was strong. This American tradition is beautiful. Pulled from tidbits of the European tradition that survived in the United States, broken and battered by the Inquisition, the scientific revolution, and the American Medical Association. Pulled from Native American culture, broken and battered by Europeans. Pulled from the magic and mysticism that comes from working closely with plants.
Today it is very popular to believe that this folksy way of using herbalism, without that energetic context, is a lesser way. Herbalists who practice this way are lesser. I have seen many herbalists say that it is dangerous to use herbs according to their actions, in a “this for that” manner.
But I think that this is a dangerous notion. Plants work. They do. They work if you simmer leaves or if you infuse them for 8 hours with a lid on. They work if you use organic herbs or if you have to resort to Celestial Seasonings Chamomile tea. They work if you write their name down on a piece of paper and keep it in your pocket, if you carry them on you, if you rub them on your body, if you ingest them, if you call on the plant spirit and think of them, if you tincture them. Plants work because we evolved with them. Every aspect of our being is interwoven with them. Their phytochemicals need to wash our cells regularly for our bodies to function properly. We have to see them for our immune systems to function properly. We have to smell them for our cardiovascular systems to function optimally. We must be in close connection with them for our spirits to feel comfortable on this earth.
And because ingesting and using and living among plants is so intrinsic to our nature and our existence on this planet, they are generally very safe. Statistically safer than eating, driving, or taking pharmaceuticals. This does not mean that you can use them without understanding the basics of herb safety, but it does mean that if you are a folk herbalist and you know what you are doing, you will not be hurting anyone in any significant way, if at all. Maybe someone will feel like the herb you recommended is making them too dry or maybe the first herb you give them won't be their ally, but the next one will. If you are an intuitive folk herbalist, you may in fact be recommending the same herbs one would choose if examining herbal energetics in addition to herbal actions.
All that being said, I do incorporate herbal energetics into my beginner herb classes because I think it is an important and useful tool and it is easier to integrate into your practice if you learn it right from the beginning. It is also a more legal way of practicing herbalism. Technically, it is illegal for me to treat your indigestion or high blood pressure. But if I am not treating those western diseases, but instead am treating the underlying imbalance in the body, based on herbal energetics, then I am speaking and using a very non-medical model and am no longer practicing medicine without a license (hopefully). Folk herbalism works incredibly well much of the time. Unfortunately, it is in a grey area here in the United States. Using a traditional form of herbalism (like Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, Unani-Tibb, Galenic, Tibetan, or a traditional Native American or African system) can add beauty, nuance, and efficacy to your practice. But it should never bring judgment or condescension for your herbal brothers and sisters who do not.