Cannabis is often described as a “magic plant”, but it’s not the only one with seemingly magical medicinal qualities – far from it.
The practice of using the healing properties of plants is called herbalism, and it’s the oldest form of medicine in the world.
What is herbalism?
Herbalism is the practice of applying pharmacognosy: the study of plants and other natural substances as medicine. In simple terms, herbalism is the practice of using plants to support a healthy body and mind.
Herbalists, people who practice herbal medicine, use all parts of the plants in their remedies, including the stem, root, stalk, bark, leaves, and flower.
A brief history of herbalism
Herbalism is the oldest form of medicine in the world, with written records dating back 5,000 years and the practice extending far before that. Archeological evidence of herbal medicine has been found in cultures across the world, from the native tribes of the Americas to Africa and Asia. Herbalism is still practiced in many countries around the world, including the US. 1 2
Herbalism has deep roots in the United States, though they aren’t pretty. The country’s long history of medical innovation is equally matched by the history of denying care and treatment to certain groups, like enslaved and indigenous peoples. Herbal medicines have been used for millennia by indigenous groups, and these medicines were literal life-savers to enslaved people who were denied even the most basic health care. 3
The effects of herbalism are hotly debated in modern medicine, despite the evidence of human use of plant medicine through both written and unwritten history. A 2015 report by the Australian Government concluded “the reviewers were not able to reach any conclusions as to [herbalism’s] effectiveness or potential harms.” There is also concern over adverse reactions to herbal medicines since they do not have the same level of quality control and regulation as pharmaceuticals. 4
Meet a cannabis herbalist
Being an herbalist is not simply about identifying and consuming plants, but requires an intimate relationship with and respect for nature.
One such herbalist is Ashley Jelks, the founder of The High Priestess Herbal Wellness, a Black herbalist-owned cannabis apothecary. She crafts herbal blends using CBD and other plants to help her customers with menstrual pain, sexual wellness, stress, sleep, and more.
Jelks grew up in an agricultural family with roots in New Orleans, an American hotbed of mysticism and plant medicine. She began to create herbal blends for herself and her friends, and credits the COVID-19 pandemic with giving her the space to create her business.
Though she is a cannabis consumer, Jelks regards the plant as just one in her toolbox of many (though she admits it holds a special place in her heart.)
“Cannabis is an herb, a medicine, just like anything else on my shelf.” She said. “I envision a future where slowly and surely people are gravitating towards using plants to support their wellness.”
The intersection of cannabis and herbalism
Cannabis has been utilized by the human race for thousands of years. In ancient times, cannabis, though multi-purpose, was regarded as a plant like any other. The terpenes and phytochemicals that give cannabis much of its “power” can also be found in a variety of other plants, and cannabis was used both individually and in conjunction with other plants. The plant was particularly revered for its effect on the spirit.
Unlike Western medicine, which typically seeks a “cause and effect” by pairing medication and clinical diagnosis, herbalism seeks to treat not just the body, but the mind and the spirit as well. Cannabis has a long record of spiritual healing, holding a place of importance in many religious and spiritual ceremonies.
Even today, many cannabis enthusiasts will tell you the plant has made them a kinder, more mindful person. It has, in essence, helped their spirit.
Jelks agrees. “It’s a plant that really helps me be honest with myself. It has truth-telling qualities that break down those subconscious barriers.”
And science is finally proving what herbalists have always known – that the plant in herbal form is powerful medicine. Recent studies have shown that cannabis use can actually make you a more empathetic person, and that’s just one benefit on a long list of research-backed conclusions. 5
The possibilities for what the cannabis plant can do seem endless, and is a rapidly growing body of research. The more cannabis is acknowledged and validated by modern medicine, the more it can lead the way for a wider acceptance of the power of plant medicine.
Incorporating herbalism into your life
You may already participate in some aspects of herbalism in your life without even realizing it. A warm cup of peppermint tea to soothe an upset stomach is herbalism. So is adding extra garlic to your dinner during cold and flu season or putting aloe on top of a sunburn. Here are a few more ideas:
- Drink tea. Tea is one of the most common and oldest forms of herbal medicine. Soaking herbs in hot water is an efficient and simple method of utilizing their medicinal benefits
- Incorporate more herbs in your food. Fresh or dried herbs are powerful sources of phytonutrients that support your overall health and wellness.
- Combine herbal blends with your smokable cannabis. Not only will it create more flavorful blends, but you’ll also gain the benefits that these plants bring to the table.
- Use aromatherapy. Essential oils, which are primarily made of terpenes, are a form of herbal medicine that can be inhaled, rather than consumed orally or topically. Even the smell of flowers or the smell of a pine forest is a simple way to appreciate the way nature influences us every day.
- Pan, S. Y., Litscher, G., Gao, S. H., Zhou, S. F., Yu, Z. L., Chen, H. Q., Zhang, S. F., Tang, M. K., Sun, J. N., & Ko, K. M. (2014). Historical perspective of traditional indigenous medical practices: the current renaissance and conservation of herbal resources. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2014, 525340. https://doi.org/10.1155/2014/525340
- Oyinlola Oyebode, Ngianga-Bakwin Kandala, Peter J Chilton, Richard J Lilford, Use of traditional medicine in middle-income countries: a WHO-SAGE study, Health Policy and Planning, Volume 31, Issue 8, October 2016, Pages 984–991, https://doi.org/10.1093/heapol/czw022
- Koithan, M., & Farrell, C. (2010). Indigenous Native American Healing Traditions. The journal for nurse practitioners : JNP, 6(6), 477–478. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nurpra.2010.03.016
- Ekor M. (2014). The growing use of herbal medicines: issues relating to adverse reactions and challenges in monitoring safety. Frontiers in pharmacology, 4, 177. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphar.2013.00177
- Vigil, J.M., Stith, S.S. & Chanel, T. Cannabis consumption and prosociality. Sci Rep 12, 8352 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-12202-8
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