by erin stewart sm (474 of 247)

9 Things Every Exceptional Herbalist or Aromatherapist Does

Have you ever thought about the difference between an exceptional herbalist or aromatherapist with years of experience and a deep level of wisdom about plants and people vs. an herbalist or aromatherapist who is just not quite “there” yet?

We’re all learning and growing and in my own journey of growth, I’ve noticed a few things that seem to set truly skillful practitioners apart from the rest – things that can also help us to grow in our own skill sets if we commit ourselves to them. Since I’m sure we all want to be better practitioners, I thought I’d share a few of those things with you today.

They Are Perpetual Students

When I was in college, I had a classmate who was known for “collecting degrees.” He had several bachelor’s degrees and was working on what I believe was his second master’s degree with plans to continue his education after that. He had a hunger to learn and was committed to investing the time and resources he needed to continue learning.

A good herbal or aromatherapy practitioner is committed to continual learning; to ever deepening our understanding of the plants and how to work with them, the human mind and body, and our relationship with the earth.

I’ve found this idea to be true in every kind of profession. The best doctors in my own team of medical professionals, for example, are the ones who are consistently dedicating time to further learning. They are the ones who have always helped me the most. They bring a higher level of proficiency and skill to their practices and I appreciate the level of quality their commitment to continuing education brings to me as their patient.

While herbalists and aromatherapists are clearly not medical professionals (unless you have a medical license), this principle carries over to our work too.

Looking back at my first year as a practitioner and comparing my level of knowledge and understanding at that time to my skill level today helps me to understand this even more. Looking back at where your skill level was just a year or two ago, can you see the same sort of comparison? Can you imagine where you will be in 10 or 20 years if you continue to learn throughout that time? One of the beautiful things about this field is that there is always more to learn, always more to understand, always more to research and discover.

Something I really value and recommend to people who enjoy this field of study is learning from many different teachers and investing in learning from them personally, not just through books. Books are wonderful (I love books; I collect books; not discounting the value of books), but I have learned so much from my many teachers that I did not learn in the hundreds of books I’ve read.

“A single conversation across the table with a wise man is better than ten years mere study of books.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Learning is not attained by chance; it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.” – Abigail Adams

They Are Researchers (Not Just Professionally)

I’ve really come to appreciate the value of solid research in the past couple of years. As someone who is both right and left brained (I always test exactly half and half!), I can fully appreciate the art and all the esoteric aspects that come with working with plants, but I also really love science, analysis and data. I love seeing the things that have been traditionally known about plants confirmed in quality studies. I also appreciate having a solid starting point to look to when it comes to researching a new idea in the health and wellness field. Good research helps me to differentiate between solid evidence and things like exaggerated claims or health fads and trends that will ultimately come and go.

I also really appreciate my own teachers who focus heavily on solid evidence when they discuss how plants interact with our bodies. They are the teachers who tend to read a lot of research. They know what they’re talking about and they’re often some of the most credible professionals in our field.

It’s a lot easier to respect a professional who can back up what they’re saying with either hundreds of years of traditional use consistent with what they’re saying or modern, well-performed study/trial results to support those uses than someone who makes outlandish claims that they can’t back up with solid evidence.

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” – Zora Neale Hurston

“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” – Albert Einstein

They Are Educators

An herbalist or aromatherapist who truly understands their professional role and scope of practice understands that our main role is as an educator.

We partner with plants and our clients to help support our clients in their health and wellness goals, but ultimately, we are teaching our clients how to work with the plants to facilitate growth and healthfulness in themselves.

Many clients come to us wanting us to help them with their disease. Educating them about our role as practitioners who work with people and plants, not diseases, is a big part of our work with people. Our culture thinks in terms of diseases and diagnoses and a prevalent “this for that” mentality. Re-educating people so they can learn to think the way we do as practitioners who don’t treat diseases is an integral part of our role, especially when we first begin working with a new client who may not understand that paradigm yet.

“Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela

They Know the Plants

This goes beyond research and book learning and knowing all the facts you can find about a plant.

To truly understand someone, you must spend time with them. You will never learn as much about a person by reading their biography as you could learn by sitting with them and talking with them in person.

Plants are living things. To truly understand them, we must spend time with them as living things.

When I started spending more time with plants in their natural habitats, growing them in my own garden, and learning to work with them as living things, my depth of understanding of them grew tremendously.

I truly no longer believe that you can be an exceptional herbalist or aromatherapist and never work with living plants because you will never understand them as living plants. You’ll be limiting your knowledge to what you can read about on paper, hear from someone else, or experience from a purchased product and that’s like limiting your knowledge of a person to what you can read about them on paper or hear from someone else. It’s just not the same. Even working with purchased plant products and experiencing how they work yourself is just not the same as understanding those plants as living things. You get to know them in a different way. I can’t really explain it except to say that when you dedicate yourself to trying it, you’ll understand what I mean.

I don’t say this in a judgmental way. I realize that not everyone has space or the desire to grow all their own plants. But I do speak from experience and I do know that if you want to find a way to spend time with living plants, you can find a way. I’ve been there and I’ve done it. 

They Are Connectors

Do you know someone who is a great connector of people? I have a friend like this. She knows a lot of people and she’s really good at connecting people with each other. When she hears that someone needs to find a person who offers a specific skill or service, she’s ready to connect them with the person they need. She’s known for it!

We are that person for people who need to be connected to the plants that have what they need.

As educators and plant-knowers, we can skillfully connect people with the plants and tools that will best help them move toward their goals. The more we learn and continue to grow in our own knowledge and understanding, the better we become at this and the more successful our results (and the results of our clients).

This goes beyond just understanding the therapeutic effects of a plant and reaches into an understanding of chemistry, energetics, and plant personalities. The more we expand our knowledge base, the broader our understanding of who the plants are and how they really work with different kinds of people.

They Are Teammates, Empower-ers, and Tool-Sharpeners

When we realize that we are working with people and plants, and that our work really has more to do with those two things than it does with us, it’s easy to see that we’re really just teammates working with our clients. We help teach them what we know that they don’t that will help them move toward their goals, we give them the tools they need, and we help them sharpen those tools as they learn how to work with the plants and listen to their bodies themselves. We even team up with their medical team when appropriate.

I think this kind of client-practitioner relationship can be one of the most fulfilling and rewarding because it removes ego when we realize that we’re just one member of the team here. We’re not really doing the work. It’s the client and the plants that are doing the work. We’re just the conduit.

They Are Cheerleaders

I think of cheerleaders in this sense as hope-givers and encouragers. We’re the ones who are saying, “I hear you. You can do this. You have all these great tools you can use to help you in your journey toward your goal. I’m here for you. Baby steps. You’ve got this!”

Often when clients come to an herbalist or aromatherapist, it’s because they aren’t seeing much success in their conventional treatments or they’re experiencing difficult side effects from those treatments. Knowing that there are people who can help encourage them as they walk through those treatments and help support them with complementary therapies can often give someone the hope they need to see their treatments through.

They Are Gardeners

Learning to build the soil, heal the land, cultivate and care for plants is one of the most healing practices I’ve adopted in my life. Gardening not only helps you to feel rooted and grounded in your own life but allows that to carry over into your own practice. Gardening teaches us to listen, to observe, to be quiet and still, to work efficiently and diligently even in adverse conditions, and to pay attention. Learning to nurture another living thing to help it thrive in its environment teaches us to be better humans and better practitioners. It’s an essential growth-facilitating skill for the herbalist or aromatherapist.

Gardening also gives us a way to connect directly to the plants we’re working with to help our clients. Growing at least some of the plants ourselves gives us a layer of connectedness that we can’t find elsewhere and helps us to ensure the availability of high quality plant material for our apothecaries. Wild-tending can also be helpful, especially for those who may not have room for a large garden.

They Are Remedy Makers

We know how to transform raw plant materials into tools that we can use to facilitate growth and health in ourselves and our clients. We know how to work with ingredients, menstrua, chemical constituents with varying degrees of polarity and solubility characteristics, and we know how to best capture their effects. We know how to skillfully prepare and blend them, store them, and match them with the right person. This reaches beyond consumer-based selling of products into a deeper layer of connectedness and it’s true for the aromatherapist too. The aromatherapist who knows how to gather rose petals covered in the early morning dew and distill them to make hydrosol and essential oil, for instance, has something that the person who only knows rose in a purchased amber glass bottle does not.

I’d like to think that I’m moving toward being able to be included in the “they” in these headings, but I realize I have so much yet to learn, just as we all do. Like you, I’m enjoying the journey.

Much love,


Erin Stewart is an herbalist, NAHA certified aromatherapist, organic gardener and urban homesteader. She grows over 150 kinds of aromatic and medicinal plants for her own apothecary and distills essential oils and hydrosols in her PNW garden. Erin is the founder of Floranella and of AromaCulture’s herbalism + aromatherapy magazine.

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6 thoughts on “9 Things Every Exceptional Herbalist or Aromatherapist Does”

  1. Beautifully said Erin. Thanks very much for writing this. I will use it in the future with my students and customers because I totally agree about these things that are not often considered. Again, thank you.

    1. Erin Stewart

      Thank you for the feedback, Joan! <3 I've found these things to be helpful for me too.

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