In the world of herbal medicine, we talk a lot about “plant allies” (aka “herbal allies”). But to someone who isn’t an herbalist, or for beginner herbalists, this term may be a little confusing!
As a clinical herbalist who is passionate about connecting people with plants, I felt called to write about this topic, so you can have a better understanding of what this term really means – and so you can start choosing your own plant allies from a place of joy and empowerment.
Disclaimer: If you’re navigating a medical condition, and you’re interested in determining which herbs will be the best fit for your body, make sure to consult a doctor as well as a clinical herbalist to receive individualized recommendations, and to prevent the risk of having an adverse reaction and/or an herb-drug interaction.
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What is a plant ally?
Simply put, your plant allies are a small, select group of go-to nourishing and/or medicinal plants (usually herbs, but which could also include house plants, garden crops, farmers’ market finds) that you’ve been able to lean on over and over again for various aspects of physical, mental, emotional and/or spiritual well-being.
Your herbal allies will support you (and/or your clients/community) in various ways, and they will help you to thrive. These are the herbs you’ll find you tend to keep on-hand, and the ones you may feel most comfortable talking about or recommending to others.
Getting to know different types of plants
Before choosing your own plant allies, I recommend exploring lots of different herbs (safely, with expert guidance and supervision as needed) – one at a time (i.e. on a weekly basis), if possible. First-hand experience will help you to build a conection with various herbs over time, and to evenutally narrow down your scope of herbs based on which ones feel most in-alignment.
If you’re prone to what I call “Decision Fatigue” or “Analysis Paralysis”, and you aren’t quite sure where to begin on your journey to finding your plant allies, keep reading!
How to connect with plants
Instead of choosing herbs randomly, it may be helpful (and a whole lot less overwhelming) for you to decide you’ll explore plants by one of the following categories.
- This can help you to get a deeper understanding of the similarities/differences in herbal patterns, energetics, tastes, properties, actions on the mind/body/spirit, and more.
While this list isn’t exhaustive, below are some different suggestions on how you can explore plants by category. It’s a lot. Please feel free to take what you need, and leave the rest!
Opt for local, abundant, easily accessible plants
Whether it’s diving into the world of houseplants, or exploring your local farmers’ market, starting a garden, or exploring what Mother Nature has to offer around your local community (or even in your backyard), there is something to be said about working first-hand with live, local plants.
Working with local plants can also mean more freshness and potency, supporting local businesses, and finding opportunities to harvest and prepare plants into medicine first-hand.
Pick out some special houseplants for improving the ambience and energy of your home, and learn how to take care of them.
- Try getting one new plant a month, watch YouTube videos about how to care for your new plant friends, and get books that will teach you how to develop a “green thumb.”
Explore farmers’ markets
Reap the benefits of your favorite plant-based farmers’ market finds (i.e. one of my personal favorites: lion’s mane mushrooms)!
- Pick out a new plant of choice each week, and try to work with it in as many ways as possible (i.e. make sauteed lions’ mane mushrooms in a veggie stir-fry, make a lions’ mane tea decoction, learn how to make a double extraction, or try out a lions’ mane pasta recipe.)
Learn to wildcraft
It can be fun and empowering to harvest and wildcraft medicinal plants growing locally in your region of the world (with help from a mentor and guidebooks, as needed!).
There’s something very special about choosing to work with a plant that grows only in your area of the world.
- For example, both Agarita (Mahonia trifoliolata) and Oregon grape root (Berberis aquifolium) are most famous for their bright yellow, berberine-rich roots which can often help people with dysbiosis or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).
- In central Texas, many herbalists often choose to work with Agarita (the local version of Oregon grape root) when helping clients with SIBO, because Agarita grows abundantly in central Texas.
Explore your own backyard
When you learn herbalism, you’ll start to notice that herbal medicine grows abundantly all around us in nature!
Anecdotally, in folk herbalism we’re taught that when certain medicinal plants start showing up on our property, this is no coincidence – usually it’s synergistic, and something not to ignore.
- For example, in my own yard these past few years, Mother Nature has gifted me with an abundance of herbs whose nutrients and/or medicine I happen to benefit from. I didn’t plant them – they just started showing up after we moved here!
- These include but are not limited to: oat straw (Avena sativa), which I dry and make into herbal tea infusions as a nutritive tea, and yellow dock (Rumex crispus), whose roots I have been able to harvest, dry, and incorporate into this DIY herbal iron syrup.
(Disclaimer: this doesn’t necessarily mean you should harvest and consume the plants in your yard! Consult an herbalist and a medical professional if you’re unsure how to navigate this.) 😉
Consider starting a garden (weather-permiting)
There’s also something very empowering about being able to grow your own healing plants and/or produce in a garden at home. It’s definitely worth trying, if you’re able to do this. (You don’t need to be an herbalist!)
For some step-by-step expert guidance on how to get started growing your own herbal remedies, you should check out the book Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies* which was written by one of my herbalism teachers, Maria Noel Groves!
Allow your allies to come and go with the seasons
Your go-to plant friends might ebb and flow throughout each year, especially if you’re working with local plants that grow conditionally based on the weather.
- Consider spending one to two weeks focusing on one plant at a time, which adds up to about a dozen different herbs per season or quarter each year.
Perhaps your allies remain the same year-round, or maybe some of them are interchangeable depending on the time of year and the state of your wellbeing.
- For example, I used to take vitex tincture to help with my hormonal cycles, but I don’t need it anymore. It was not a forever herb; my relationship with vitex ran its course. However, I still recommend this herb often for some of my clients navigating certain types of hormonal issues!
Connect with herbs for your mind & body
Enjoy a custom herbal blend or collection of herbs picked out just for you, with help from a clinical herbalist and/or holistic nutritionist!
Take these herbs everyday (as instructed), and keep a journal of your experiences and observations in terms of how they impact your mind and body.
Get to know herbs by delivery method
Every few weeks or 1x/month, choose to start making, buying and trying a specific delivery method of herbs of your choice, such as:
- Herbal tea infusions and/or decoctions
- Herbal tinctures
- Topical salves
- Flower essences
- Essential oils
- Herbal incense
- Herbs for smudging
Dive into herbal energetics
You could start getting to know one group of herbs at a time, based on their taste and/or energetic action in the body:
- Bitter herbs
- Mucilaginous (demulcent) herbs
- Nutritive herbs
- Sedative herbs
- Nervine herbs
- Aromatic herbs
- Astringent herbs
Explore plant allies for specific health outcomes
For those of us in the health field, it may be most helpful to get to know groups of herbs based on how they serve a specific health purpose – i.e. herbs for leaky gut, or herbal medicine for iron deficiency anemia, or nootropics for anxiety, or herbs for hormone balance to name a few.
- If you’d like to go this route, I highly recommend the book Body Into Balance.*
Note: Doing your research and reading about herbs for the body is a great place to start, but this should not replace trying out herbs first-hand. (I rarely ever recommend an herb to someone else that I haven’t yet tried myself!)
Lastly, I wanted to share my two cents on ethical harvesting as it pertains to environmental sustainability. This is something that should be considered when it comes to choosing herbal allies.
Work with plants that are environmentally sustainable
In herbalism, there’s a code of ethics when it comes to harvesting and working with plants. When it comes to choosing an herbal ally, it’s considered best practice to opt for herbs that are readily available in abundance, versus choosing similar plants that are less widely available, or not as sustainable to harvest.
- For example, while herbalists can agree that slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) offers lots of potential health benefits as a mucilaginous herb, this herb is now considered an endangered species due to overharvesting in the wild. (1)
- Fortunately, those of us who are in need of a mucilaginous herb for one reason or another have the option to lean on alternative demulcent plant allies such as marshmallow root, plantain leaf, or licorice root.
Your plant allies can be dynamic
Your “list” of plant allies can be dynamic in that it’s never fixed or set in stone. There are no rules! You can always add, change, and update your list of “go-to” herbs as much as you’d like, depending on which plants you discover/learn about/experience, and what season of life you are currently in. (And you don’t need to officially write them down – you can just start working with your favorite herbs, over and over and have an unspoken understanding that they are your herbal allies.)
- For example, if someone gets pregnant, their list of herbal allies will drastically change and evolve over the next 9 months! (Red raspberry leaf may become their new BFF.)
- Or if somebody is navigating a digestive health issue, they may find themselves deep-delving into the world of digestive bitters.
Why narrow down your options?
One thing I love about herbalism is that no two plants are exactly alike; even when there’s some degree of overlap in terms of herbal actions in the body, each individual herb still has its own personality, energetics, benefits, pros, cons, strengths, contraindications, and elemental correspondences.
And there’s an herb for pretty much everything!
So why limit yourself to just a few dozen herbs, when there are so many wonderful options to choose from?
To be clear, I’m not telling you to limit yourself or to hold back from working with a certain number / type of herbs that you feel called to work with.
Plants are like people, in that we aren’t going to have the same level of connection with all of them. There will be certain ones that give us a very intentional and profound experience, and those are the connections we should foster and nurture.
Choosing a roster of just one to two dozen plants to lean on allows you to deepen your herbal practice by getting intimate with the plants you find most helpful, relevant, and in alignment with you and/or your family/friends/clients/community. (Go deeper, not wider.)
Plants are a gift to humans from Mother Nature, and it’s up to us to make the most of what they have to offer! The deeper we go working with our plant allies, the greater the benefits we can receive from partnering with them.
Choosing your herbal allies: 12 key questions to consider
There are lots of different ways to go about creating your own inner circle of go-to plant friends you can depend on.
Here are a dozen questions worth considering, as you get to know various plants and start which ones you’d like to keep in your inner circle:
- How might this plant be able to support my wellbeing? (Or meet the needs of family / friends/ clients, if applicable)
- Are there any safety concerns? (For example, herb-drug interactions or mislabeling issues)
- Is this plant very easy to identify, or could it get mistaken for something else? (If planning to harvest/wildcraft)
- Should I be concerned about pesticides, unethical harvesting, or environmental contaminants related to sourcing this plant?
- Is this plant easily accessible?
- Is it available locally, or does it need to get shipped from halfway across the country / world?
- Does it grow in abundance, or is it at risk of extinction?
- Are there alternative versions of this plant that offer similar benefits that are local and/or growing in greater abundance?
- Does it grow year-round, or only seasonally?
- Is there an alternative way for me to purchase this plant the rest of the year when it’s not growing in my region?
- What is the best delivery method for this herb?
- How does this plant make me feel?
I don’t have a step-by-step algorithm to go with those questions, but you may want to refer back to them as needed and use your intuition to guide you when it comes to choosing your go-to herbal allies.
- For example, I choose to work with yellow dock (Rumex crispus) because it meets my needs from a health standpoint, it grows in abundance, and it’s in my backyard. 😉
Do I need to be an herbalilst to have herbal allies?
You don’t necessarily need to identify as an “herbalist” in order to have your own plant allies or to learn about herbs! Herbal allies are for everyone.
And you don’t need to be working with dozens of different plants – it’s totally fine ot have just one or two herbal allies, especially if your’e just starting out.
Plant allies are herbs that meet our needs and enhance our well-being. They are herbs we can lean on over and over again. They may be available in abundance, locally and/or seasonally. We tend to build special connections with these plants over time.
Working with a roster of up to one or two dozen different plant allies (herbs we can lean on to meet various needs) is a wonderful way to build and deepen your practice as an herbalist or as someone who is going on a healing journey with herbs.
The bottom line is that no two people are going to have the same experience with an herb. Getting first-hand experience is often the best way to figure out what works best for you!
You get to decide how many and which types of herbs will become your allies. This path is unique to you!
If you found this article helpful, please feel free to share it with someone in your herbalism community! 🙂