A conversation with herbalist and reflexologist Elle Levenson about her career path describes the evolution of medicinal herbalism in the US over the last two decades. It’s an interesting story.
“You had to make your own way in those early years. There weren’t many books by true herbalists available to us 20 years ago. Like a lot of things about herbs, knowledge was often hidden. I had David Hoffmann’s New Holistic Herbal (published in 1990) and that was my bible for a long time. Those of us who were early herbal people found we really didn’t have anyone else to talk to. You would have someone come to you with a question and you had to study to find an answer. Now we have so many more books by herbalists like David Winston, Rosemary Gladstar, Matthew Wood, Chris Hobbs and Susan Weed, and many others too numerous to mention.”
Elle has been a practicing herbalist and reflexologist for 20 years and a student of David Winston’s even longer. “When I found David’s herbal classes I was a single mother in a corporate job but wanted to earn my living through something more meaningful. It wasn’t an easy path, but I do come from a background that has an affinity for this kind of healing and health.”
Elle had taken a class on herbs that introduced a few plants. At that seminar someone mentioned David Winston. She called him and fortuitously he had a new two-year Herbal Therapeutics session starting a few weeks later. “At that time you had to interview with David personally to be in his training program. I knew from the very first class that it would be a fascinating ride. I never missed a class and very quickly the doors and windows to what I call ‘the seen and unseen world’ in nature opened to me.”
Elle practices as the Greenstreet Herbalist in Denville, New Jersey. Her Grandmother, who instilled in her a love of plants and natural healthcare, grew up on Green Street in Philadelphia. “My grandparents were filled with old world knowledge. My father’s grandmother was an herbalist and midwife to the immigrant Jewish farming community in South Jersey. I got this affinity directly from my parents and grandparents. My herbal studies feel like rediscovering old friends who were waiting for you and they were happy when you found your way back to them.”
“David said that to be a good herbalist you should also be proficient in some sort of body work, so I chose to study reflexology. It was through reflexology that I was able to have an herbal practice, because twenty years ago one didn’t hang a shingle out saying you were an herbalist. Reflexology opened doors for me. By the way, reflexology is just a modern word for an ancient practice of taking care of the feet and body.”
“David always said health starts with food. My practice is foods, teas, soups, baths and then tinctures, and of course growing things, what I call the ‘flowering medicine garden.’ I only buy products from professional herbalists. Availability of products on this side of the spectrum has grown enormously. I need to know where the good products are, and that is just one of the things I get from David’s classes I still attend.”
Elle is known in the Herbalist & Alchemist order department as the single biggest customer for topical products. “I use a lot of ointments like St. Johnswort/Sage and Comfrey/Calendula. It suits my practice. It’s my entrée to speak to and address herbal questions and offer information. I use St. John’s Wort/Sage ointment on everyone’s feet, and use it somewhere on my body almost every day because it has so many benefits. Most people now know a little bit about St. John’s wort and think of it for depression. I explain to them it has been used for thousands of years as a topical wound healer; I think when you are depressed you are a little bit wounded. I must use more than any other Herbalist & Alchemist customer, because they called me once to ask what I do with all this ointment!”
“I believe everyone should have some healing knowledge, so what I do is beyond prescribing and into the practical. You need to have grounding and a background; I come to that place through the garden and the feet. It’s all about a respect for the plants and a responsibility for passing the information on. I have had a lot of opportunity to teach and speak at libraries, clubs and adult schools. I tend to think of myself as focusing more on practical information. I’m not trying to lecture on the clinical level, my presentations are not going to go over the heads of the interested new student.”
“One of the local hospitals wanted to begin a program on alternative medicine and I taught that for many years. A lot of what I do is teach people to take care of themselves using what they have in the house or yard already, empowering through information and resources. I call it “grandmother wisdom,” because your grandmothers knew it and it got lost along the way.”
Elle believes people are hungry for this information, which is why there is more mainstream access these days. “Dr. Oz says things I heard from David 15 years ago. This information is not new but we were just a small group without a voice on the evening news. Not everyone can study with David for years, but we all can have this information. It’s our responsibility to put that information out there in a practical and useful way.”
“I have a very stable practice. I have people who have been coming to me every week for more than 10 years.” Elle’s latest project is writing a small book on herbs and reflexology in Spanish and English.
“David’s students go down many different paths but his influence is amazing and it’s been very significant to me. I’ve made wonderful friends in his classes herbal conferences. I have had a fortunate route through the plant world.”