Several times a week, I field phone calls and emails from complete strangers who have become so excited about herbal medicine that they’ve looked me up and want to know: How do I become an herbalist? What classes should I take? What do I need to do? Can I make a living at it? In fact, these requests prompted me write this blog because, 1. Now I’ll have a convenient pre-written article to send future newbies, and 2. Lots of people want to know!
Chances are, you’ve already caught the herbalism bug. Once you begin to dabble with healing plants, it becomes a calling, a love, something deeper than simply “taking x remedy for y disease.” And if you’re dissatisfied with your current career and looking for something rewarding, becoming an herbalist looks quite appealing.
The Herbalist’s Path
There is no set “way” to become an herbalist. The path in other holistic careers is more defined: Massage therapists and naturopathic doctors, for example, enroll in special programs and specific schools, take a big test, then get licensed by the state. This might surprise you, but herbalism is not a licensed or regulated practice in the United States. This gives you a lot of flexibility and ambiguity. A few fields of medicine that incorporate herbal healing are regulated – licensed naturopathic doctors, integrative physicians (medical doctors, osteopaths, nurse practitioners), and licensed acupuncturists, for example – but all other herbalists will need to carve their own paths and practice in regulatory limbo (which isn’t as bad as it sounds).
Some herbalists go from zero to 100 in one fell swoop, attending an intensive, multi-year herbalist training program, then starting a practice immediately upon completion. These programs used to be few and far between, but fortunately you now have many fabulous schools to choose from across the country as more people become interested in herbalism.
But most herbalists start off with a combination of self-study (reading about herbs in books and online, trying things out on themselves, family, and friends), attending conferences, and taking formal classes and short or long programs. They seek out herbalists and programs that resonate with their interests, piggy backing it all to create a unique education and experience and, ultimately, career.
Slowly, these herb students/new herbalists branch out, grow herbs, make their own remedies, maybe sell a few things under the regulatory radar, see clients with simple health care concerns, teach some community classes, or write articles for a blog or local paper. As they gain more education and experience, the real business begins to take shape. They get more clients, students, and customers. They charge more and attain more skill and savvy. Maybe they even quit the day job and do it full time.
Many herbalists (not to mention naturopaths and other holistic healthcare professionals) work part-time in a related field like a natural food store or for a supplement manufacturer so they can get some connections and a steady paycheck until the business takes off. Or perhaps they integrate herbalism with a preexisting career like massage therapy, journalism, farming, reiki, nutrition, research science, artistry, or marketing.
What Kind of Herbalist Do You Want to Be?
Many tasks relating to herbal medicine fall under the potential duties of an “herbalist.” These include...
- Seeing clients and performing health consultations
- Working in a clinic
- Teaching classes (in a wide range of setting and format options)
- Writing (books, magazine and newspaper articles, blogs, web content)
- Making and selling herbal remedies or herbal crafts
- Running or working in an herb shop or natural food store
- Growing and selling live herbs
- Working for an herb company in one of many capacities…
- the list goes on!
Although some herbalists focus on just one primary task (like seeing clients), most of us do a few key things, multi-tasking them to pull together a viable income and fulfilling business week. Personally, I see clients, teach, and write. I refer people to other awesome local herbalists who enjoy making and selling products and plants on a commercial level more than I do.
Questions to Ask Yourself
You have two different sets of questions to ask yourself:
1. What kind of herbalist you hope to be?
2. What kind of herbal study program would you like to embark upon?
The order in which you ask them will depend partly on the path you take. If you start off dabbling in herbs and light programs, you have the time to get the hang of your options before you need to ask big picture questions. However, if you’re on the fast-tract to an open practice within a year or two, you’ll want to have a solid goal so that you can choose the best study opportunities to meet your needs.
Big picture questions include…
- What are you good at?
- What skills do you already have that could translate into an herbal career?
- What do you enjoy doing?
- What needs do you see in your community that you would want to fill?
- Do you want to work for someone else or for yourself or rent space with other practitioners?
- Where do you want to work: out of the home, a shop, in a clinic or office, outside, in a classroom…?
You don’t need all the answers upfront – you can always adapt as you learn and grow – but these are good things to ask yourself. Nancy Phillips’ The Herbalist’s Way (one of my first herbal teachers!) is a lovely book that delves into your options and shares stories and tips of some of the country’s top herbalists.
How do you make the most of your herbal study dollars? You have an enormous range of study options to choose from (or blend together).
Some general study formats include...
- Short classes/series and entry-level programs
- Yearlong weekend "apprentice" programs
- Intensive multi-year practitioner training programs
- A few accredited college degree programs (most herb schools aren't – and don't need to be– accredited)
- On-site classes physically in a classroom with classmates
- Online programs
- Distance classes (which may or may not be online)
- Hybrid live/online/distance programs
Do you have the time, money, and interest to invest in a more serious herbal program, or would you rather proceed slowly and on the cheap? Each program will also have a different style of herbalism and approach.
Styles of programs and herbalism include...
- Science/evidence-based ("modern")
- Folk and traditional herbalism
- Intuitive herbalism and plant spirit medicine
- Kitchen herbalism
- Western herbal medicine
- Traditional Chinese medicine
No one of these models of herbalism is inherently better or worse than another. It really depends on what speaks to and works for you (and your future clients/students/readers/customers), and many herbalists blend two or more types of practices into their work.
Herbal conferences are a great place to learn something while getting a taste of different teachers and approaches to herbalism. While you're there, ask fellow conference goers about what programs they’ve taken and liked (or didn’t like). Find a list of events big and small across the country at HerbRally.
If you’re considering an intensive and expensive program, read up on what it covers, and don’t hesitate to contact the school to ask questions and see if you can visit and attend a short class or observe. The American Herbalists Guild offers a listing of many different schools (though plenty of schools are not on this list that might be excellent as well - HerbRally has an even bigger/broader list here as well as a list of online schools). AHG offers a guide for getting an herbal education and other useful features at www.americanherbalistsguild.com.
If you’re someone who likes guidance and standards, you can do what I did frame your studies around the American Herbalists Guild’s professional member requirements for clinical herbalists. These include at least two years of comprehensive academic herbal training (approximately 1200 hours of study) including a working knowledge of at least 150 plants, therapeutics foundation, ethics, and basic sciences such as plant identification, anatomy and physiology, and pathology, as well as two years or 400 hours (80+ clients) of clinical experience (so, 1600 hours of study total). However, this is not the only path available, and you may prefer a completely different approach if you’d like to work more as an intuitive herbalist working with plant spirit medicine, as a product maker, or as a grower or crafter of herbs. To see how my herbal study courses stack up, check out the Herbalist Training Intensive Program page, and scroll to the bottom.
Most people jump right from “I love herbs” to herb school and only later, when they are struggling to pay bills or justify leaving the day job, consider the practicalities and business side of being an herbalist. Depending on the herb program you choose, you may or may not get those business skills in your training. (Some distance schools offer specific business-focused training programs, such as the Herbal Academy's Entrepreneur Course and Commonwealth Herbs' Business Mentorship.) Your skill in herbalism will only partly determine your success as an herbalist. Business and marketing skills may actually determine your success much more than your skills as an herbalist (though, of course, your herbalist skills are vitally important, too, especially for your clients and customers!).
Yes, it is possible to “make a living” as an herbalist. How much can you make? It's really hard to say, but the annual income generally ranges from $20,000 to $100,000... with most herbalists closer to the $20,000 to 40,000 spectrum. Herbalists making upper-level incomes aren’t just good herbalists but often have good business and marketing skills, work more than 40 hours a week (especially at first), have supportive family members, have begun to hire outside support/employees, and aren’t afraid to put themselves out there and ask for money.
People don't like to talk about money, especially herbalists, but I think it's good to offer a reality check. I’m relatively successful with a thriving multi-faceted practice in a well-populated and middle/upper-class section fo the country with decent business and marketing skills. Before I launched my full-time business in 2007, I'd been studying and writing about herbs for almost 10 years, seeing some clients casually and teaching classes for 3 years, had made great connections by working in local natural food stores, and had a good community following. Yet, in my first six months, my net income after business expenses was a measly $800 total. In year two, I was making almost $10K, a big improvement but hardly a live-able wage. Years three through nine, I hovered near and in the $20K range (so, people flipping burgers at fast food joints made the same, plus benefits if they were full time). With the success of my books, as an individual, I'm just barely creeping out of the national "low income" range into the low end of "middle class." I'm probably among the more financially "successful" herbalists in my state, though certainly I do know herbalists elsewhere who have bigger businesses and make quite a bit more. Fortunately, my husband's income bumps us up a bit higher and gives us benefits, but my income always been necessary to pay a large chunk of our household bills. This is definitely not a "hobby" business for me where making money to pay life's bills is optional.
Almost any herbalist will tell you that we don’t go into this business to make money – it’s a calling. However, if your life is dependent on making an income (or you, justifiably, want the comfort that income provides), be aware that it will take effort, business skill, connections, and ingenuity to make that happen.
Watch to see what other successful herbalists, healthcare professionals, and general businesses do, both locally and nationally. Clinical herbal practices often fall in a similar range as massage therapists in terms of rates charged and income made. How do other herbalists and practitioners advertise and get clients? How do they stay connected with the community? How do they sell themselves? Sign up for their mailing lists, and follow them on Instagram and Facebook for inspiration.
It helps to know your assets and weaknesses. Map your money – where it goes, where it comes from, what is most/least profitable. Automate what you can to minimize busywork and hire people to do what you can’t, such as a bookkeeper, shop assistant, harvesting assistants, web designer, etc. Grow your business slowly, though – don't start off with a big dream that you can't afford to maintain that puts you in debt.
As you launch your business, make sure people can find out information about you easily (a nice-looking website with the basics or at least a Facebook page), and keep connected via an email mailing list and social media or community activities. Consider seeking out small business associations or taking a course in business, bookkeeping, and marketing, especially if your herb program didn’t cover this (most don’t). The book Business Mastery, written by a massage therapist, is an excellent guide for this journey. It even covers things like business partnership contracts, something most herbalists don’t even think of when joining forces with friends and colleagues (and can lead to very bitter partings of ways when they discover their expectations of one another was quite different... such as who "owns" clients and client records). Also check out Margi Flint’s The Practicing Herbalist.
Ethics, Rules & Regs
Herbalists have a lot of freedom as practitioners, educators, and writers. The primary rule to remember is that you’re not a doctor and are legally not allowed to diagnose or prescribe (which includes using words like “cure” and "treat"). Some states have Health Freedom Acts, which give you a little extra comfort, but you still can't "practice medicine without a license," which includes diagnosing, prescribing, treating, and curing.You are allowed to improve people’s overall health, strengthen body systems, and make recommendations. (Frighteningly, bills are now being proposed in some states to outlaw any unregulated health professional, including herbalists. Let's hope the people do not vote these bills into law!)
You should know your limits, both ethically and legally. If you’ve just taken a six-week herb course, you're probably not ready to take on a client with cancer. Know when to refer out, and develop a list of go-to referrals. Sending people elsewhere will not hurt your business. I refer people to other practitioners several times a month, and it's only increased people's appreciation and trust for what I do. You also shouldn’t tell clients how to take, wean off, or stop pharmaceutical medications – that’s their doctor’s job. But, besides the biggies, you can often do or say whatever you want in classes and with your clients (on product labels or websites/flyers where you sell products... that's a different story - read on).
You should be truthful, kind, aim to do no harm, and know when to refer out or seek a mentor’s assistance if something is beyond your skill level. If you plan to combine your herbal career with a licensed profession (such as a therapist-herbalist or nurse-herbalist), you may need to get legal or professional guidance to be sure you do it in a way that doesn’t threaten your license. (For an even more in depth look at this, check out the American Herbalists Guild Code of Ethics for professional member herbalists.)
That freedom of speech changes when you sell products, especially if you sell products that you make. The FDA and FTC together regulate claims for herbal products, and it’s a tricky road to go down even though you’ll see examples of technically illegal (even if honest and accurate) claims all over the place. For example, you can say almost anything on your website, but if you sell a product on that website, you’re now stepping into “health claim” territory.
If you make your own products (especially tinctures) to sell to the general public, you’re legally required to follow the FDA’s Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), which went live in 2010. GMPs unfortunately don't differentiate between a community herbalist and a multi million dollar national supplement company. Many herbalists fly under the radar by choice or ignorance, but the FDA has been knocking on doors. Here in the northeast, they tend to be a lot tougher than in other areas of the country. It’s good to familiarize yourself with the basics to decide whether it’s worth it to be non- or partially compliant (both technically illegal and at risk of being shut down) or the invest time, money, and energy in the legit process.
Visit nhherbalnetwork.wordpress.com/herbalregs for an overview, and herbalist training programs are starting to pop up in herb communities and professional organizations. Also see the American Herbalists Guild's Legal & Regulatory Facts. Even though the laws aim to protect consumer safety, it can be pretty frustrating. Many herbalists aren’t regulation savvy and don’t want to be. We know that plant medicine is almost always safe and effective and that most people prefer local, hand-made, customized products produced in harmony with nature… which can be difficult (but not impossible!) to do in regulatory compliance with mounds of paperwork.
Doing What You Love, In Harmony with the Plants
All the business skills and regulatory challenges aside, if we had the chance to do it all again, we’d still be herbalists. So few careers offer the flexibility and connections. My own business is based on writing, teaching, and seeing clients, and I also maintain a one-acre diversified herb garden surrounded by another acre of forest. Time physically spent with the plants rejuvenates us, and there’s nothing more exciting than sharing the healing powers of herbs with others. I love watching students' eyes light up when they realize how simple weeds and garden herbs can benefit their lives in so many ways, or when a client resolves major health concerns with only herbs, a healthier lifestyle, and a new perspective. People stop me in the grocery aisles regularly to thank me for articles, books, and classes that have opened their eyes and changed their lives. Here in New Hampshire, our local herbalists meet regularly for picnics and gatherings to build community and share our love for the plants. We all do so many different things in our expression of herbalism, and the joy and energy flows through the group as we share our passion for herbal medicine with the community at large. We know we are helping others get healthier and making the world a more plant-filled, better place.
Just Want to Be a Home Herbalist?
Not everyone who wants to “become an herbalist” necessarily wants to do it professionally, to hang a shingle, put themselves out there, and attempt to pay bills with it. Many people simply want to do this as a hobby and become the "family and friend" herbalist. The information in this article will still be useful to you as you figure out how to find a good herbal program and attain self-study skills, but you can be more laid back about it all versus someone who wants to do business with strangers and make money.
Clinical herbalist Maria Noël Groves sees clients and teaches classes at Wintergreen Botanicals Herbal Clinic & Education Center in Allenstown, New Hampshire.
The statements made on this blog have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, prescribe, recommend, or offer medical advice. Please see your health care practitioner for help regarding choices and to avoid herb-drug interactions. This article does not constitute as legal advice.
A version of this article originally appeared in Herb Quarterly magazine.
Minor updates to this blog post were made on 4/13/19.