Herbal medicine as substrate for art

I recently watched an instagram video loop of a lovely young herbalist chopping roots from a wildcrafted plant. Her feed is full of poetic and intimate photographs of herbs. I feel her sense of wonder and awe of the natural world by the way she chooses to portray them.

I pause when these artistic tokens enter my screen. Not only do they imbibe the viewer with a sense of beauty and connection to nature- the use of herbal materials and techniques for art also spurs a curious contrast with the use of herbs as medicine.

There are herbalists who identify as artists and creators, and others who identify as clinicians. Most of us fall somewhere in the spectrum between them.

Artists approach their work with a different orientation than a clinician. Creative expression is paramount to the artist. A clinician grounds themselves in the health of their patient. They orient themselves differently in their work with people and are asking different questions of themselves. At the core, they are distinct archetypes. There is however significant overlap between the artist and clinician. This may be conceived as the classic yin/yang: while they are distinct archetypes, there is some of one contained in the other. Great artists are regarded as such because their work is transformative and fundamentally healing to the collective psyche. Similarly, the insights and practice of great clinicians is often described as artful.

These archetypes then need not be diametrically opposed or mutually exclusive. But they inform our basic orientation to herbal medicine. For example, I was recently speaking to an herbalist about the issue of licensing in herbal medicine. He was daftly opposed to such a thing, as he “is an artist, and will not stand for any board or organization telling me how to do my art.” As an artist, his reasoning is obvious. Any type of regulation is automatically censorship to his personal expression. Criticism can be threatening. Why stifle one’s creative expression? It’s cruel, heartless, and unnecessary.

Now, look at the same situation through the lens of a clinician or healthcare provider. It is arguably absurd that there are no standards of clinical practice of herbal medicine in the United States- no assurances of standard competency, safety, or ethics. Instead we have a tragically flawed sense of “community self regulation”, which means as nothing in practice.

Which side is correct? It depends where you fall on the spectrum. The artist reminds us that act of creation is a right. The clinician cautions that clinical practice is a privilege and is subject to scrutiny (and even correction).

And maybe that’s why we haven’t gotten anywhere with this conversation. Until we acknowledge the myriad archetypes that manifest themselves in herbal medicine, we might be speaking different languages to one another. In the meantime, we would be wise to see these unique patterns, and reflect on how they’re informing our herbal practices and walks in the world.

We need herbalism in art– it inspires people and connects them to the wonder of plants. It evolves herbalism by broadening its appeal to a wider audience. It can help inspire a new way forward.

We also need herbalism as medicine to continue refining and expanding this critical body of knowledge; to answer the question of how to meet today’s health needs most effectively.

Medicine needs art, art needs medicine. They need each other because they are a bit different.

Again: they are different. They can be united through conscious integration, but they should not be de facto conflated.

By acknowledging the distinctions and interdependencies in the archetype of the artist and clinician, we can evolve our sense of what it means to embody both. Where do I fall on this spectrum? What gifts are allowed? What liabilities are exposed?

Knowledge is power.

About Author

Renée A. Davis MA RH is a designer and educator in botanical and mycological medicine. Her training began at the Pratt Institute of Art and Design in New York City and concluded in biomedical sciences at the University of Washington. She currently directs research and development for a nutraceutical mushroom company in the Pacific Northwest.


  • Patricia DeMarco
    May 6, 2017 at 3:38 pm

    How best to achieve compliance and healing awareness by the patient is vitally important with either approach…one may open a door and the other actuate the process of changing the patient’s condition. To assume that all people prefer fragrant or sweet-tasting remedies when they are allergic to either/both without acknowledgement of what the underlying condition truly is may cause the patient more complications than they need; on the other hand, a comfortable sensual approach whereas a bit of both, may guarantee the compliance. Moderation in all things, perhaps.

    • Renee Davis
      May 6, 2017 at 3:40 pm

      Very well said Patricia. I think that this is particularly profound: “one may open a door and the other actuate the process of changing the patient’s condition.” That’s excellent insight.

  • Meredith
    May 6, 2017 at 10:51 pm

    challenging discussion. as parameters are developed they will evolve. flexibility is key.


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