Skip to content
FAST & FREE Delivery Over $45 How fast will I receive my order? ZIP Code: - Receive it More Info

Female Trailblazers of American Herbalism

5 Min Read
Portrait Of Old, Wrinkled Balinese Woman In Nature
Updated on March 1, 2019

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.

Field Of Daisy Flowers

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.

field of flowers in sunlight

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.

Woman making organic skincare products in her studio

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.

Dive Deeper

Related Articles

View All

3 Herbal Hacks for Mental Health

Big emotions are often natural reactions to very real challenges. Occasional stress, overwhelm and stretches of melancholy can feel scary. And yet, you’re not alone. We’ve all had seasons of...

Herbalist Tips for Healthy Skin

While clear, dewy skin is often a bit of good luck, long-term health is very much dependent on healthy habits. Herbalists use plants inside and out to nourish the skin,...

4 Ways to Soothe an Anxious Mind and Stomach

Have you ever had an anxious gut feeling about something or felt nervous and experienced butterflies in your stomach? These sensations emanating from your belly remind us that the brain...

After-Meal Drinks for Holiday Digestion

It’s the time of year when many of the simple joys of life become the heart and center of this season – spending time with family and friends, the coziness...

4 Ways to Improve Digestion with Herbs

Our gut works hard for us every minute of every day. When it is functioning properly, we hardly think twice about it. But the moment things go awry, it’s nearly...

Introducing Immune Zoom Lemon Ginger

Life can be busy, and while we try to stay prepared, sometimes we need extra support. This is when we turn to herbal allies that boost our immune system when...

Vegan Green Tea Matcha Ice Cream

Ice cream is the quintessential summer treat, and is even better when we can make it ourselves at home using whole food ingredients and an easy recipe that doesn’t require...

How to Become an Herbalist

Are you feeling called to explore the herbal path? Whether your intention is to begin a career in herbalism or simply to support the health and well-being of yourself and...

Herbal Podcasts for the Herb Nerd

Whether at home, road tripping, gardening, commuting or lounging at the beach, there’s always time to dive into the world of plant medicine, and herbal podcasts offer a convenient way...

How to Make the Perfect Herbal Sweet Tea

Nothing says summertime in the South like a tall, ice cold glass of sweet tea sipped on the porch during the buzzing heat of the day or enjoyed through warm,...

Hibiscus Iced Tea Spritzers

The beautiful hibiscus flower is the star of this refreshing recipe. Inspired by the ruby red drinks found at roadside stands in the tropics, we’ve created this bubbly Hibiscus Iced...

Stock Your Summer Apothecary

The smell of night-blooming jasmine, the sticky, moist air before an afternoon storm, the energizing midday sun, these are the quintessential signs of summertime. It’s the boldest of the seasons,...