Bright red berries, small purple flowers and long brown roots — they may sound like typical plant parts, but when they are made into extracts, tinctures or teas, they can possess a variety of healing properties.
As the use of herbal medicines become increasingly mainstream in popular Western culture, Ithaca College students don’t have to look far to find these natural remedies. Senior Mike Hanlon is an herbalist in training.
Hanlon has been working as an herbalist for a year and a half. They said they first became interested in herbalism at the beginning of their junior year, when they started to take a more natural approach to taking care of themselves.
“I came across herbalism, and I didn’t know much about it, but I had a couple of friends that were really into it,” Hanlon said. “When I heard that there was an herbalism course being offered over the summer at Ithaca College, I decided to take it and learn more about herbalism and kind of get into it a bit.”
The summer herbalism class, taught by Jason Hamilton, professor in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences, has been offered at the college since 2015 and will be available to take this summer. This three-credit course explores how herbalism can be applied to typical Western medicine. Part of the experience of the class included going on what Hanlon described as “plant walks” in which the class would go to various places across the Ithaca area, identifying plants and learning what parts of those plants can be used to make medicine. Then, the students produced hands-on projects in the college’s labs by making their own tinctures and extracts out of plants they harvested themselves.
Hamilton said he was inspired to develop and teach this course because of his own personal interest in the topic.
“When I first started teaching at IC, I was looking for a way to engage students in learning about plants,” Hamilton said. “I met the founders of an outdoor education program in Ithaca, and this gave me the idea that helping students build a relationship with plants through food and medicine could be very engaging. After exploring this a bit, I started a distance learning program at herbalism school where people could go more in depth about different topics in herbalism on their own time, and became convinced that this was a productive path.”
Hanlon said that when they took Hamilton’s herbalism class during the summer of their junior year, their initial interest in herbalism turned into a full-blown passion. They were inspired to dive deeper into the subject and take an independent study course with Hamilton last semester after learning about what parts of plants can be used to make medicine their own products. Part of that independent study involved working with Cali Janae, local clinical herbalist and botanist.
Though Janae has been practicing as a clinical herbalist at Ithaca Free Clinic and at their own personal practice for the past five years, they have been studying plants for their entire life. They graduated with a bachelor’s degree in ethnobotany from Drake University in 2010 and studied herbalism at the Northeast School of Botanical Medicine in Ithaca. Within their practice, they focus on conducting individualized consultations that take a person’s overall health and lifestyle into account, and then they recommend certain plants, usually in the form of tinctures or teas, that will best fit that person’s needs.
Janae said they first met Hanlon when tabling at Food Not Bombs, a free vegan lunch event that occurs every weekend at Shawn Greenwood Park in downtown Ithaca. After the two spoke about their shared interest in herbal medicine, their relationship grew into an apprenticeship, where Hanlon worked on hands-on projects with Janae.
“Mike helped me out with activities such as wildcrafting plants for medicine, dehydrating plants, making tinctures, pressing tinctures, preparing herbal extracts for sale, filling custom herbal blends for clients and the sexiest job of all: scrubbing tiny, tiny bottles,” Janae said. “In exchange for all of the help, I taught Mike some of my approach to herbal medicine. We tested tinctures together, talked about theory and practical applications of plants medicines, pondered over neurophysiology, mental health and how to best support people in our lives.”
Hanlon’s experiences in Hamilton’s classes and their apprenticeship with Janae inspired them to start their own practice in which they set up consultations at their apartment with students at the college to listen clients describe the issues they are having and assess what plants fit their individual needs.
The main herbs that Hanlon uses are skullcap plants and ashwagandha roots and berries, which they usually buy from Bramble, a holistic medicine shop in downtown Ithaca, or Mountain Rose Herbs, a holistic medicine shop based in Eugene, Oregon, that also allows online bulk orders across the country. Skullcap plants can be found in temperate regions worldwide and are commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine as remedies for diarrhea and inflammation. In Western herbalism, it has been used to treat anxiety and muscle tension. Ashwagandha roots and berries are mainly grown in drier regions of India as well as China, Nepal and Yemen. They are used in Ayurvedic medicine practices and are more well-known for helping to ease symptoms of anxiety and stress.
“Both of these herbs are nice, relaxing herbs that can help you wind down after experiencing some sort of stress,” Hanlon said. “Almost everyone that I talk to is experiencing anxiety in one way or another, so using these herbs can definitely help in some way.”
One of Hanlon’s close friends and current clients, senior Marisa Lansing, said she has supported Hanlon’s endeavors in herbal medicine and has been using their products since last semester. With Hanlon’s guidance, she has taken skullcap and cannabidiol for anxiety and chronic stress, bright orange turmeric powder and black pepper capsules for improving digestive function, and lion’s mane mushroom — a fungus that looks somewhat like a furry cauliflower — to help with her recovery from a concussion by improving cognitive function.
“I think the herbs have absolutely helped me heal in all facets,” Lansing said. “Firstly, reaching out to Mike and working with them in the first place is such a huge step in taking charge of my own health and well-being. Secondly, taking herbs is a great supplement to Western medicine. For larger issues, simply herbs alone won’t necessarily do the trick. So, working in combination with medication, herbs can be incredibly beneficial to the healing process. Even alone, they have transformative healing effects.”
Senior Abigail Chirokas has also been using some of Hanlon’s remedies. Chirokas said that their products, which include ginger root tea to relieve nausea and calamus root extract to increase focus, have helped her symptoms. She said her initial consultation with Mike was her favorite part of the experience.
“I was very comfortable throughout the whole process, and Mike gave me a lot of different options of herbs that would help with my issues,” Chirokas said. “I definitely had confidence in their knowledge base, and I liked that I could kind of make my own choices on which herbs I wanted to try.”
As herbal medicine has become increasingly popular in Western cultures, there is also the fear of these practices being a form of a cultural appropriation. According to the American Herbalists Guild, some of the most well-known forms of herbalism are traditional Chinese medicine and traditional Ayurvedic medicine, which were initially practiced in China, India and Nepal respectively. Hanlon said when they are practicing, they make sure they do their best to honor the cultures these ideas come from.
“I think that it’s important that we do acknowledge that there’s a lot that we can gain from medicine practices of all cultures,” Hanlon said. “The big thing is that by acknowledging and respecting the traditions and honoring the requests of people of those identities, my practice can be as inclusive as possible.”
Along with the risk of cultural appropriation, there is also the stigma that the use of herbal medicine in Western cultures are not legitimate because their benefits are only advertised to make a profit — just like Dr. Oz, who paid over $5 million in damages in a class–action lawsuit after making claims that garcinia cambogia capsules can help people lose weight. Hanlon said herbalism alone is not a fix-it-all solution.
“When it comes down to it, both Western medicine and herbal medicine have their own set of pros and cons,” Hanlon said. “Because of this, you can use herbal and Western medicine to complement each other in a sense that both of their strengths and weaknesses can balance each other out and can, overall, benefit ourselves.”