Stepping Outside the Traditions of Herbalism

How does herbal medicine fit into health today?

By: rē•spin
Stepping Outside the Traditions of Herbalism

Humans have relied on herbs for use in traditional medicinal practices globally and for thousands of years. Herbal medicine encompasses a holistic approach to our overall well-being – the mind, body, and spirit – considering the individual’s total health, rather than isolating the ailment itself. It has been passed down from generation to generation, varying culturally based on the communal needs, seasonal patterns, and unique geographic traits of the originating region.

Today, it’s estimated that three-quarters of the world’s population relies on traditional medicine as their main source of healthcare. But as Jordan Catherine Pagán, an herbalist, flower essence maker, and healing practitioner living and working on Lenape Canarsie land near Brooklyn, New York, explains, even though herbal medicine is called “alternative medicine,” it is actually the world’s original medicine.

The history of herbal medicine

Modern medicine came about after the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century and continues to evolve over time. As for herbal medicine, it seems likely that humans have used plants and herbs medicinally as long as humanity has existed. Archeological excavations from 60,000 years ago found remains of plant medicines, including opium poppies, ephedra, and cannabis. Humans have always made use of their natural resources; in ancient times, they experimented with plants, building the foundations of modern healthcare.

Herbal medicinal practices, often rooted in Chinese, Indian, and Arabic practices, use over 53,000 different species of plants. Throughout the years, these practices have evolved, with knowledge of the healing properties of plants and herbs building over time and being passed along to successive generations.

Herbalism’s place in modern wellness

These traditional herbal practices have lasted as long as they have, because, as Pagán explains, “What works, works.” It has grown in popularity, finding its way into health and wellness products today, transforming traditions into more modern practices and trends. 

Remedies like elderberry syrup and fire cider are known today (or remembered, as Pagán notes) as the first line of immune defense during the colder months. Their prevalence can be seen in the elderberry gummy vitamins available at chain stores, making the plant medicine’s benefits more readily accessible to mainstream consumers. Although herbal medicine practices are packaged and marketed today on the shelves of modern retailers, it’s still important to remember its indigenous roots — something too often forgotten in history books, including the central roles of women in medicine throughout history.

For Pagán, there is something remarkable about herbal medicine’s resurgence. She explains that it feels empowering to her to see it being more widely embraced. “[First of all,] you know what is in it,” she says of its shelf appeal. “But there is extra energetic support when you make it yourself or get it from someone you trust. It’s radical in that way because you are truly taking care of yourself, and taking ownership, responsibility, and an active role in your health and wellbeing.”

Pagán’s practice of herbalism.

Pagán has found her own way to rē-spin herbalism in her work through Ostara Apothecary. She creates plant and stone medicine to heal on multidimensional levels, drawing from her Yaqui and Puerto Rican heritage and connection to the natural world. As a child, flowers always communicated with Pagán, who later discovered that they were a part of her Yaqui ancestor’s culture. “The Yaqui believe that when one dies, they go to a flower world — heaven — and that the flowers are our protectors, healers, and rewards.”

Since then, everything clicked into place for her. She has found hope, healing, and even her path forward through her work with flowers. In addition to being a Reiki Master and 13th Octave LaHoChi Master, she practices Pranayama Breathwork and reads Tarot, utilizing these practices as tools for soul-level transformation. In her remedies, Pagán uses both the physical plant and its vibrational qualities, putting her own floral spin on healing through the pairing of herbal medicine with vibrational flower essences to support bodily healing.

At the core of her practice is an emphasis on decolonization and anti-racism work through ancestral healing, remembrance, and an honoring of the land. “It is imperative that I operate from a place of integrity and reciprocity,” she explains. “Working with the land, honoring, and giving back to it is the only way [to do so], in my opinion. Otherwise, it comes from a place of theft, appropriation, and misalignment, however well-intentioned, and so it cannot be truly healing.”

The intersection of herbal medicine and modern medicine.

“The Earth truly does give us everything we need to heal ourselves, one way or another,” she says. If herbal medicine seems overwhelming, start with some research, consult with knowledgeable friends, and start slowly until you find what works for you. The accessibility of herbal medicine is paramount; after all, it is present in such a large portion of the world’s population.

Pagán believes that the state of modern healthcare in the United States, and worldwide, plays a huge role in the population’s continued reliance on herbal medicine. “These common and abundant plants all have powerful healing properties,” she says. “Herbal medicine is the people’s medicine.” Many people lack access to healthcare based on factors like race, gender, class, and location and have to turn to what resources they have — whether that’s using spices found in their own kitchens, calling upon family recipes, or taking advantage of the medicine that grows in nature (what modern society would call “weeds”) like dandelion, nettle, burdock, plantain, and chickweed.

Pagán believes that there is a space for western and modern medicine to coexist, as well as for herbal and vibrational healing modalities to work synergistically together. One does not need to come above the other, and its efficacy may be relative to each patient’s specific needs and belief systems. “I see it as if herbal medicine is preventative and for maintenance, while modern medicine is life-saving and emergency care,” she explains. “We need both, obviously!”

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