Using plants for medicinal purposes is one of the oldest forms of healthcare on the planet. Practiced around the world, throughout thousands of years of human history, herbalism today is built on generations of practical and anecdotal wisdom. And women are largely to thank as stewards of this ancestral knowledge.
Herbalism in America is an eclectic tapestry, woven together by the histories and traditions of all those who have come to live on this land. As women cared for their neighbors and kin, and they began to learn the land, exchange occurred—an exchange of culture and knowledge. As these ancestral keepers of herbal wisdom shared seeds and passed along stories about keeping their communities well, a new lineage of herbal trailblazers was born.
Here is a snapshot of just some of our herbal foremothers. For a deeper dive into the women across time and place that have contributed to this field, see the resources section at the end of the article.
Europe’s Folk Herbalists & Colonial Massachusetts’ “Witches”
During the Dark Ages in Europe, most people had to rely on their local community, usually folk healers with no formal training, to take care of their health. The midwife tradition emerged as a way for women to care for their families and neighbors, and share the generations of herbal knowledge. But to do this in the Western World risked social and religious persecution because women’s roles were heavily regulated by a church that condemned the pagan herbal practices of the past. Hildegarde von Bingen, a 12th century Benedictine abbess, dedicated half her life to sharing her revolutionary musings around viriditas, or “the energy of the green.” Her teachings laid the groundwork for Traditional European Herbal Medicine, leading many historians to consider her one of the most significant scientists of Medieval Europe. Many of these herbal remedies can be found in her book, Liber Simplicis Medicine.
Five-hundred years later in 1692, the Salem Witch Trials of Colonial Massachusetts were based on much of the same suspicion, dismissing women who communed with spirit and interacted with nature as “practicing the Devil’s Magic.” While the local government pardoned these women, and the trials were declared unlawful in 1702, 19 people—mostly women—were condemned to death by hanging, and 200 were accused of witchcraft. By 1708, Nicholas Culpepper’s English Physician was published in America, offering puritan communities of the New World greater insight into plant medicine, while likely dismissing some suspicions around it.
Native and Slave Women in the Era of “The New World”
When Europeans first began settling the Americas, they relied on the plant wisdom of the indigenous peoples, particularly women, who had the task of identifying and collecting herbs and caring for their families, whether they were designated medicine women or the wives of medicine men. From the 17th to 19th centuries, the medicine of Native American women and African-American slave women had proved often more advanced than European herbalism, teaching European immigrants, African slaves, and later, the 19th-century Eclectics, about a holistic and spiritual approach to wellness.
Although many slave owners forbade the practice of herbalism, thought to be “the devil’s work,” the slave communities of the Antebellum South benefitted from “grannies.” These female herbal healers based their practices on ancestral African traditions, while readily experimenting and collaborating with Native Americans to find herbal counterparts in the New World. As Native and slave communities were discouraged or forbidden from reading and writing, the oral tradition of herbalism became more critical to its survival. Harriet Tubman is said to have used herbal medicine for keeping escaping slaves healthy on the Underground Railroad, as well as on Union soldiers in field hospitals during the Civil War.
Women of the Herbal Renaissance
Fortunately, much has changed in the last hundred years, and American women of all colors and beliefs are now practicing herbalism unafraid and in the open. But until the 1960s and 1970s, the craft of herbalism was in danger of being lost. The counterculture and back-to-the-land movements of the time challenged this thinking and paved the way for the Herbal Renaissance, thanks in part to herbalists like Nancy Philipps, Deb Soule, Margi Flint and Rosemary Gladstar, “the Godmother of American Herbalism.” In addition to co-founding Traditional Medicinals, Rosemary also founded the California School of Herbal Studies—the first herb school in the United States, the International Herb Symposium, and United Plant Savers, while authoring 13 books. These women have mentored a whole new generation of herbalists and activists.
The Next Generation of Herbalists
Perhaps the most enduring gift of the women of the Herbal Renaissance is the new generation of herbalists—of all colors and creeds—who are finding ways of making herbalism more approachable. This new generation of female herbalists has founded nonprofits, companies, wellness centers, and blogs, teaching herbalism with modern relevance. To name a few contemporary trailblazers: the Herbalista Free Clinic brings underserved communities herbal health care on buses, The Kosmic Kitchen teaches preventative care through the incorporation of herbs into daily cooking, Angelique “Sobande” Greer founded the first African-American school of herbalism, Linda Black Elk teaches on ethnobotany and restoration ecology, and curandera Tonita Gonzales is re-introducing traditional herbal sweat lodge practices in New Mexico.
As new science catches up with old wisdom, folk herbalism will continue to prove its relevancy. America’s herbal legacy continues to flourish and gain legitimacy in the 21st century as ancient practices like Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine have begun to appear in mainstream medicine, and other herbal traditions from around the world are finally taking root. Today, herbs in America are a thriving business with growing public interest. We salute and thank the medicine women, midwives, and home practitioners of our past who have kept the tenets of plant medicine alive.
- For a historical perspective from some of our favorite female authors, check out our Herbalist’s Library
- Interested in learning from some of the best women herbal practitioners across the country? Here are some herbal symposiums to get you started:
- Join in and share! Celebrate women in natural history this month by following and using #HerNaturalHistory on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook March 8-31, 2019. Learn more!