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Energetic Herbalism: A Guide to Sacred Plant Traditions Integrating Elements of Vitalism, Ayurveda, and Chinese Medicine


Energetic Herbalism: A Guide to Sacred Plant Traditions Integrating Elements of Vitalism, Ayurveda, and Chinese Medicineby Kat Maier. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, Inc.; 2021. Softcover, 392 pages. ISBN: 9781645020820. $24.95.

By Matthew Wood, MS, RH (AHG)

As its subtitle indicates, Energetic Herbalism bites off a mouthful. Can a book live up to that description? The most important claim is the first one: This book is about sacred plant medicine. For most of us, that means having an inner experience with the plant world. My heart leapt when I read author Kat Maier’s, RH (AHG), description of an experience she had with black cohosh (Actaea racemosa, Ranunculaceae) in the forest, when she first sensed the living intelligence of a plant. In my opinion, that is the mark of a true natural physician.

In this book, Maier integrates major traditions of medicine that are likely familiar to many herbalists. Her background includes certification as a physician assistant and training with herbalists Karyn Sanders and Sarah Holmes of the Blue Otter School of Herbal Medicine. She studied the history of Western herbalism with herbalist David Winston, RH (AHG), the doctrine of signatures (the idea that plants may, in some way, resemble the condition or body part the plant can treat) in fields and forests, and the traditions of vitalist and energetic* Western, Ayurvedic, and Chinese herbalism.

At a certain point, one can see the basic contours of pharmacology, physiology, and pathology shine through the energetic categories of these different systems: the four elements of the West; hot/cold and damp/dry from the Greek, Arabic, and Jewish physicians of the Middle Ages; yin and yang and the five elements of China; and the three doshas and five elements of Ayurveda. Maier integrates all this with confident brushstrokes because she has studied this material for decades. She also delves into the primal organs, emotions, and substances of Chinese medicine, including relationships with the seasons, tastes, and more. Her account of Ayurveda is likewise detailed. As if this were not more than enough, she gives an extensive treatment of Western traditions, including history and the six tissue states (hot/cold, dry/damp, and tense/lax). Since this is a subject I know something about, I can say that she has internalized the material and presents it from within herself, not from books or outside “experts.”

Maier also discusses the importance of plant preservation. For many years, she was on the board of the United Plant Savers, a nonprofit plant conservation organization that was founded by Rosemary Gladstar, who wrote the foreword of Maier’s book. Maier delves deep into issues of bioregionalism, Indigenous rights and practices, permaculture, and the preservation of plant sanctuaries, forests, and regions.

Part 2, called “The Apothecary,” contains basic kitchen herbal pharmacy and a materia medica of 25 herbs, described as only someone who has imbibed so many traditions can provide. She also includes a section on the late herbalist William LeSassier’s triune system of formulation, which provides the foundation for creating herbal formulas based on the combination of primary herbs, nutritive support herbs, and catalysts in specific ratios.

I may have missed some excellent new books, but in my opinion, this is the most comprehensive treatment of herbalism from the standpoint of inner experience (sacred plant or plant spirit medicine), energetics, diverse traditions, and kitchen pharmacy. It should be included as a textbook in any school that is like-minded. But it would take an advanced reader years to assimilate all that is found here. Thank you, Kat, for the time and energy this must have taken.

Matthew Wood has an MS in herbal medicine from the Scottish School of Herbal Medicine, which is accredited by the University of Wales. He has been a professional herbalist for more than 35 years.

* According to Maier, vitalism is “a teaching that states there is an invisible force governing our health, lives, and planet that is unseen and unmeasurable.” Energetic herbalism “relates the energetics of the plant (i.e., cooling, moving) to a current imbalance or condition then lastly to the energetics of a person or constitution (i.e., sensitive, dry).”