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Herbalists face a daunting challenge. Theirs is a complex discipline, made so not only by the diversity of raw material at their disposal, but also by the vast accumulation of empirical data handed down from previous generations of herbal practitioners: Chinese and Ayurvedic physicians, native healers and shamans, Eclectic doctors, tribal priests, “witches”…all have bestowed their share of herbal lore to their successors.

Unfortunately, much of this information remains untested in any scientific sense; that is, it hasn’t been scrutinized to the same degree as the “evidence-based medicine” that supposedly buttresses modern health care. However, since most of today’s medical philosophy is molded by entities that profit from manipulating scientific evidence, it may be a good thing that herbal empiricism hasn’t yet been filtered in the same way.

For now, then, the herbalist – or anyone else who wishes to utilize herbs in a beneficial fashion – is pretty much left to his or her own devices. Yes, there are courses in herbalism that offer encouragement and enlightenment, but these are typically taught by people who have obtained their own education at the feet of other herbalists – there is no standardized certification process for aspiring herbalists.

Hence, it seems reasonable to keep the quest for herbal knowledge as simple as possible. Thankfully, herbalists have, over the millennia, developed an ideology that is not only designed to easily transfer useful data from one generation to the next; it helps to protect foraging herbalists from inadvertently gathering useless or (worse) toxic plants.

This unfettered philosophy is called, appropriately enough, “simpling.” A “simple” is any readily recognizable plant which is commonly found in one’s immediate vicinity and whose medicinal properties have been defined by prior use. A “simpler” is merely one who gathers, prepares, and employs such botanicals.
Traditionally, simplers garnered their know-how from family or tribal members, from clansmen, or from mentors and subsequently passed it on. Nowadays, this methodology is less common; a lot of people who want to learn about medicinal herbs consult books or go to the Internet...the smart ones then go to the woods or their backyards to confirm what they've learned.   

Simpling forms the foundation for any herbalist’s knowledge base; for people whose interests extend only to the immediate needs of their families and who don’t wish to delve into the boundless realm of herbalism, simpling is sufficient.

A wonderful example of how simpling works can be found in the common yarrow, Achillea millefolium. This ubiquitous, fragrant, wayside herb has been attributed with a variety of properties: Diaphoretic, anti-inflammatory, antipyretic, carminative, hemostatic, astringent, antispasmodic, and stomachic, yarrow has been used for any number of common ailments, including colds, flu, fevers, hypertension, painful menstruation, hemorrhoids, urinary tract infections, wounds, and stomach upset. Stripped of their leaves and flowers, the stalks have been used for centuries to key into the I Ching.

Whether dried and powdered, prepared as a
tincture, infused as a tea, or ground into a poultice, yarrow is one of the most valuable herbs in the world. To avail ourselves of yarrow’s beneficence – and to take advantage of similarly overlooked herbs – we need only open our eyes, cast off some preconceived notions and prejudices, and make use of what lies at our feet.

What could be simpler?