Have A Field Guide and Think You’re Prepared? Think Again!

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In the preparedness community, it’s common to find two extreme mindsets regarding herbs. The first is overconfidence, and has beliefs like this: “When things go to hell in a handbasket, I’ll be able to treat myself with plants. Who needs doctors!? I have this field guide!” Hopefully, they are at least working with plants hands on and learning a little about herbalism everyday. But this person may also have little to no actual experience with plants and health. They are the “I’ve read a book, now I’m an expert!” types. I’m begging you, please, if this is you, swallow your pride and read on: I promise I won’t judge- I’m here to help!

The second mindset is along the lines of “Using plants for anything is a bunch of HOGWASH.”  If that’s the case, well,  I’m not here to convince you to take plants seriously. I’m more interested in applying the brakes on some of the over-zealousness that goes down, and teaching applicable skills that will increase safety and effectiveness of herbs as a back up plan.

Thankfully, most people fall somewhere in between- which is a very good thing! Extremism is decidedly unhelpful most of the time- after all, the middle of the seesaw is the most stable place. So, whether you are maybe, possibly? interested in learning to use herbs as a health back up plan; or if you are all HECK, YES! about using herbs when the SHTF (Yes! I see you bouncing up and down in your seats and waving your field guides at me, and I love, love, love that exuberance! I’m thrilled to be here, too!), let’s walk through a series of questions so we can get a feel for where you are on the spectrum and how to add some finesse to your skills.

Do you use herbs on a regular basis?

Have you ever used an herbal supplement? This can include teas, capsule, extracts, syrups, vinegars and lots of other interesting ways that herbs can be prepared and added to the diet. No? Did all of that sound like Greek to you? Ok, well, you need to get to work! Incorporating plants into your lifestyle now, while there’s no pressure, is the way to go. The easiest, least expensive way to start is by learning to make tea- what herbalists like to call infusions and decoctions. Then you can start on these other projects. Make sure you can make at least the following basic preparations from scratch: extracts, salves, syrup, vinegars, infused oils, poultices, and compresses.  

Can you safely identify both familiar and unknown plants?

 Do you know how to identify a plant with your shiny new field guide? Being able to properly identify a plant based on the minute details botanists use isn’t busy work. It can be a matter of life and death. The four plants below look very similar, even to experienced foragers and herbalists. One of them is a deadly poison:


See what I mean? You need to understand differences in leaf shapes, stems, flowers, and growing habits to be able to grow and gather your own plant material. The best resource I know of to quickly get you on your feet here is Botany in A Day. Read it. In one sitting. And then refer back to it as needed.  In case you are wondering, the plants above are (from left to right) wild carrot, valerian, water hemlock (the poison), and elder. Technically, elder has some toxicity in the leaves and bark, but it’s not nearly as noxious as water hemlock. Water hemlock and wild carrot are the two most likely to get confused, as the root of wild carrot is often sought out by foragers. And don’t start any of that “I’ll know if it’s poisonous ’cause it’ll taste bad” or “I’ll just watch what the animals eat” BS with me. Some of the people who have had the good fortune to survive a brush with it comment on its pleasant taste, so it’s apparently quite tasty even though a bite or two will kill you quite dead. And case in point about animals, cows and horses certainly don’t have the good sense to avoid it. Botany in a Day. You need it. You need it now.  

Do You Know Basic First Aid? 
Can you handle basic, household first aid scenarios?  Again, think of this as the opportunity for practice runs while the pressure is off. If you can’t, sign up for a course and get a good handbook to keep around the house. Review it regularly. Once you can handle basic skills like first aid for cuts, upset stomachs, ear infections, colds and the like- you can start to learn bigger skills like wilderness first aid and pandemic preparedness. After basic, traditional first aid, you can start to learn how to utilize herbal alternatives when necessary.

Can You Tell Reliable Info from Bad Info?
Don’t take herbal information at face value. Ask questions. Lots of questions. For one thing, it’s good to take a glance at how much detail is being provided. It’s important to look for specifics- what’s the binomial (scientific name) of the plant being discussed? What part is being used, and in what form? 

Of course, where the information is coming from is also important. Is the information historically based; modern findings; or conjecture? Just because one blogger says she uses an herb for such-and-such doesn’t mean anything. Be especially wary if someone is claiming to have found a new and different use for a plant. Herbalists will often compare notes on individual uses and come up with interesting findings this way, but I’ve also seen people make really random, far-out there claims based on one instance of use. There’s no reason to think that it was the herb that made the difference in these cases.  Also, always compare notes from several different sources, and don’t really heavily on one expert. Check up on credentials. Read bibliographies. How many sources does the author or speaker reference? This can lead you to even more great info.

While we are on the topic of finding good information: do you understand the difference between herbalism and medicine? In the US, making medical claims regarding an herb and/or stating that is recommended for a disease or that it can cure ANYTHING is a recipe for trouble. Depending on how it is presented, not only could it be construed as Practicing Medicine Without A License (which will get you into a world of hurt with authorities), but herbs are regulated as dietary supplements- not medicines- which protects our access to them. 

Anytime you hear an herbalist use words like “treat, diagnose, disease, medicine, remedy” etc- perk up your ears. A couple things could be going on. They may be a regulated herbalist from overseas, or be an actual MD who also happens to have an interest in herbs. If that’s the case, great! 

If not, they could simply be displaying basic misinformation or misunderstanding. If that’s what’s going on, start to wonder. Surprisingly, even though it may initially make someone sound very educated and in the know, using medical jargon sometimes reveals a lack of depth in understanding when it comes to herbs. It’s not just a matter of semantics when we say herbs aren’t medicines. Herbs work differently and require a different skill set. If it’s not a case of ignorance, but rather a case of arrogance, run the other way! Chances are, they don’t know as much as they think they do, and I certainly wouldn’t want to trust my health back-up plan to someone with a weird complex about being the herbal savior of humanity.

Do You Understand Basic Herbal Theory? 
Once you take a look at whether you can spot good information vs bad information, ask yourself this: do you have a grasp of basic herbal theory? This includes things like having a good, in-depth understanding of individual herbs that grow well in local conditions, and how to identify them correctly. It means knowing how much to use and in what form. It means knowing when to favor using one herb over another. It also means being able to make several different types of preparations like the ones we talked about in #1. A great way to to develop familiarity with new herbs is to make some kind of herbal tea every day. Try a new one every week, and you will have experienced 52 different blends or individual teas by the end of the year. Read up on each one as you try it, and keep notes in a dedicated journal so you will be able to refer back to the info if you need it later.

Are You Ready for Advanced Herbal Theory?
If you have a good grasp of basic herbal theory, you may be ready for more advanced herbal theory. Advanced herbal theory covers information like how to create a targeted herbal formula, and how to describe what a person is going through in ways that can be matched with specific plants. No, throwing together 15 herbs that one book listed together under “flu” and calling it a day doesn’t count! This is where you start to add finesse. You’re not a doctor, so you can’t learn to diagnose disease. You can, however, learn to describe the state of balance in the body- how is a person experiencing health or discomfort? This is an extremely important skill to have, as it provides an entirely different way to understand the human body that is immediately accessible for laypeople when medical diagnostic tools are not available. You should study overall constitutional analysis, too- again, this is where you start to have a better grasp of the body and how it responds to itself and to its environment. Herbs can be grouped according to how they affect the balance of the human body as well. Healing with the Herbs of Life and The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism are two of the best books for this that I am aware of, and you may even be able to access them through your local public library system.   

So, how did you do? Hopefully, these six questions will help you assess where you can improve your herbal preparedness skills and give you some ideas on what steps to take next. The point is, you don’t want to think you are prepared just because you know a little. Herbalism has so much potential, and it’s a shame to miss out on that! 

Herbalist and Writer | Website

Agatha is an herbalist and author in Atlanta, Georgia. She founded Indie Herbalist in 2011. Her herbal recipe book, The Complete Guide to Adaptogens, is available wherever books are sold. To listen to her podcast or enroll in one of her herbal courses, visit Indie Herbalist's sister site, Teacup Alchemy.