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Learning about herbs, Part 1: Educational Goals

What are your herbal goals?

Before talking about different methods of learning and gaining experience with herbal medicine, let’s talk about what possibilities exist for you and your goals in this path.

What would you like to do with your herbal education and experience? Teach? Practice Clinical Herbalism? Open and run an herb store? Make and sell herbal medicines? Be more confident to just work using herbs with family and loved ones?

You may not – at least for now – have any desire to work with herbs outside of just helping friends and family. But in case you have other goals, it’s important to know what your limitations may or may not be depending on the state you live in.

Herb Schools – Certification, Licensing, Registration, Degree – what’s the difference?

The practice of herbal medicine is not regulated as a profession, per se, with one exception I will address shortly. What are the differences in the types of education and documentation of that education, and how might that affect you?


Any and every herb school should offer some form of certification(s). This is an absolute minimum you should be looking for from any school. If they do not offer some form of certification that reflects actual classroom (lecture, demo, discussion, homework, etc.) then you might reconsider what you are paying for.

Certification is worth whatever the reputation is of the school that is issuing it, and is the minimum level of due diligence you can acquire to show that you have attended training of some sort for the work you are doing as an herbalist, teacher, apothecarist, herb store owner, etc.


Registration (i.e., “Registered Herbalist” or “RH”) is a peer-reviewing system that has been created by the American Herbalists Guild (AHG). This system is what most folks who are involved with herbs consider to be the next step up from certification in showing due diligence in regards to their training and experience. You can see the details of how to apply to become a registered herbalist at the link to their site above. I became a registered herbalist about 9 years ago and in retrospect I am happy that I did it. I support the mission and concept of the American Herbalists Guild because I think it is important to have some set of standards.

There are a few (very few) schools that base any of their educational programs around the requirements to become a registered herbalist. This is because the requirements are generally more extensive than the majority of herb schools in the USA are teaching.

Our clinical program exceeds the requirements of becoming a registered herbalist, and we have many students involved in the didactic, internship and mentoring portions of our program with the end goal of applying for RH status. Only students who have been through our clinical program can mentor with us and intern in our clinic. This is because we have a much different way of running our clinics that is focused on treating a high volume of diverse patients in any given day or hour, with an emphasis on quick turnaround in the clinic (from intake through herbal formulas or other treatments) and follow-up visits. It is necessary for students to train through our methods to be able to function well in a fast-paced environment like this.


There is no such thing as a licensed herbalist in the USA. If it ever does come into existence in the future, it would be a system that would be ultimately adopted and managed at a state level. The chances of that happening anytime in the immediate years to come are probably almost zero.

However, the closest thing to directly being a licensed herbalist in the USA is a license to practice Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) which primarily includes acupuncture and herbology in one of the 47 states that requires licensure. From state to state there are differences in what is required in order to be a licensed TCM herbalist.

The road to licensing in acupuncture and herbology is a long one and includes a lot of both clinical and classroom hours in the most common pathway to get there (Master of Science in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine). After fulfilling the prerequisites, it is required to pass four different NCCAOM board exams and (depending on the state) possibly a clinical exam at the state level. California has its own version of the board exams (CALE) as well.

While the exams and training are focused on Chinese herbs, there is an immense overlap into western herbs and approaches, and there is nothing to preclude a licensed TCM practitioner from using them. Depending on your state, getting a board certification in functional medicine can also give access to being able to work with nutritional, dietary changes and supplements (i.e., vitamins, etc.) as a part of your practice.

In addition to acupuncture, chiropractor licensing (depending on the state) can allow for working with herbs, however there is no specific herbal training or herbology board exams in the same way that exists for TCM licensure to practice with herbs.


There are a few colleges that offer degrees in herbalism. These are usually accredited institutions, and there are both undergraduate and graduate level degrees out there.

While a degree that has the words “Herbal Medicine” or “Natural Medicine” or something similar on it, seems like a great thing to have, it is arguably one of the least truly preparatory approaches to being able to work with herbs, and is usually looked on with about as much credibility as the title “Certified Master Herbalist” (i.e., almost zero) is by most experienced clinical herbalists that I know at least.

In general, the actual degree curriculum at an accredited college is often highly watered down, maybe because of the liability and need to go overboard on safety concerns, and is at best the same material you would get in an introductory course at some schools.

But more importantly, there is no hands-on experience available through internships or mentoring at a clinic or apothecary from a college or university program.

Clinical and apothecary hands-on experience is arguably the most important reason to study herbal medicine at any school rather than just learning the material on your own, and this option is not available to any appreciable amount in all univerisity degree programs I know of.

If you want a practical university degree related to being able to work in the field of herbalism, I would recommend something either related to plant sciences such as botany, sustainable farming, etc., or something related to health sciences and even body work such as anatomy, physiology, etc.

Being an Unlicensed Herbal Practitioner – is this possible?

All of this information begs the question, “Is it possible to practice herbalism without a license?”

Depending on what you want to do with your knowledge and experience, this may or may not matter. If you just want to make herbal extracts and sell them online, licensing (other than business licensing) is irrelevant for the most part.

However, if you want to have any kind of clinic situation where you are advising people on health and wellness as it relates to herbs, there are some issues to be aware of.

What you are allowed to do is once again different from state to state. Some states have adopted laws that reflect some of the goals of the National Health Freedom Coalition.  

If you do not live in a state that has guidelines and rules regarding unlicensed practitioners of holistic health modalities, then at a very minimum it is important to understand the specific verbiage you can and cannot use in describing what you do.

This can best be found by looking at your state’s occupational codes and rules regarding medical practitioners. Any verbiage specifically describing what a licensed health care practitioner does (i.e., “Treating patients”) is verbiage you will want to avoid using. Not doing so risks raising red flags for practicing medicine without a license.

It is important to have proper disclaimers in plain English for your clients to read and sign that explain your training and that you are not a licensed health care provider.

These are the kinds of topics and templates we cover in our Herbalism for Professionls (HMP) course.

Scope of Practice

For those licensed health care workers who want to work with herbs, there is an even more important red flag to be aware of which is practicing medicine outside the scope of your practice. Working in the world of herbal medicine may mean having a separate business that has nothing whatsoever to do with your work as a licensed health care practitioner, and should be explicitly stated and/or posted (legal disclaimers, etc.).

PART 2 and More Information

In PART 2 of this blog I will talk about all types of education in the world of herbal medicine, from self-education and books to schools and programs.

If you are intrigued by any of these subjects I have talked about here you might also be very interested in our “Running a Successful Herbal Business” Course, or our “GMP for Medicine Makers” course.