About the Issues


photo by Sandra Lory

Whole Plant Medicine

The belief that whole plants are used to treat whole people is the heart of traditional herbal medicine and so the heart of Numen as well. This is a key difference between allopathic medicine and most traditional systems around the world. As Larry Dossy says in the film, western medicine is about breaking the body into parts, into organs and tissues, and then finding ways to treat particular diseases and ease certain symptoms by targeting particular cellular pathways with silver-bullet drugs.

Traditional herbal medicine, like almost all traditional medicine systems, instead treats underlying imbalances in the body that are believed to cause disease. Herbalists use medicines made from whole plants that, with their complex mix of chemicals, are believed to be the most effective way of addressing these imbalances.

As Matthew Wood told us:

It is very seldom that herbs are strong enough to kill germs. A few of them can, but then they become drugs. Killing germs isn't how traditional medicine works. It works instead by changing the environment, working to address imbalances in organ systems and tissue states, not targeting a specific bacteria with a single chemical extracted from a plant or synthesized in a lab.

Whole plant medicines have the ability, as Isla Burgess says in the film, to "nudge a person back to wellness. They don't do it fast, and they don't do it overnight, but they have an effect on the body that is sustaining and ultimately is healing."


photo by Larken Bunce

These differences are not only about chemistry. Traditional herbalism is based on the belief that healing arises in part by finding the right plant, or combination of plants, for a particular individual. How that happens is partly a matter of the chemical constituents in the plants, but it is also about so much more than that, because understanding the wholeness of a plant and how it might work in our bodies is never only about chemistry.

As Rosemary Gladstar says:

There are some constituents that have been well researched and documented, but it doesn't really explain the whole personality of that plant. You can relate it to an individual. The longer, the deeper, the more in depth you know a person, the more you begin to see these levels of who they are. On first encounter, you may understand that they're a good mother or an artist or play music, but as you get to know them, as your relationship deepens, your ability to understand all they can do in the world deepens. And it's much the same with plants. I mean, why would it be different? They're living beings. Older than we are. Far older.

Many different herbalists write and teach about these ideas. Matthew Wood's books are a good place to start learning about working with whole plants within a framework of traditional herbal medicine.