Richard Mandelbaum RH is a clinical herbalist with a private practice in Brooklyn and in Sullivan County, NY. Richard has been practicing as an herbalist since 1997, with a background in both Chinese and Western herbal traditions, and at one point worked at H&A making herbal products. In addition to seeing clients, he teaches classes in herbal medicine, medicine making, and botany. He is currently on the faculty at David Winston’s Center for Herbal Studies in Washington, NJ. He has been a professional member of the American Herbalists Guild (AHG) since 2003, and joined the AHG Council in October 2012. You can learn more about Richard on his website, by reading his blog Reality Sandwich, or contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is your earliest memory of realizing herbs were more than just foliage around you?
Something awoke in me when I was around 14 years old. I became curious—about birds, about stars, about trees. Growing up in suburban New Jersey, despite being in a fairly rural area near farms and woods, I realized I was ignorant about the world around me. I had not been raised with any of that knowledge passed down to me, and I wanted to know my world better. Looking back on it, I can say there was some realization and expression of my disassociation with the natural world—the real world. At the same time, I began immersing myself in philosophy of all kinds, from all parts of the world, with Buddhist writings along with the Hindu Bhagavad Gita being the ones that influenced me the most, and continue to influence me.
So, long story short, I went a bit geeky teenager field-guide crazy, studying on my own how to identify birds, stars, and plants, beginning with trees and then expanding from there. The plants “stuck” more than the others did apparently! In some alternate universe, I am an astronomer or ornithologist.
How did your herbal education begin, and expand?
From there I spent several years studying plants, teaching myself field botany skills, gradually beginning to forage wild foods, and eventually gardening and cultivating. I found myself in the mid 90’s (in my mid-twenties) in rural Arkansas, working in the organic gardens of an environmental education center. The local community there used herbs extensively, and a co-worker, local to the area, was an herbalist and midwife. That opened my eyes, and then when a group of us traveled to the Frontier Herb Fest that summer, my eyes were pried fully open. I realized how deep and vast herbalism could go, and I was hooked immediately. One of the teachers who most impressed me was David Winston, and when I learned he had a program in New Jersey, I suddenly knew what I was going to do next. So when my time was up in the Ozarks, I headed back East, enrolled in David’s program, and began working on an organic permaculture farm in northwestern NJ. I went on to grow and wildcraft medicinal plants on my own for Herbalist &Alchemist, and also to work in the H&A lab making medicines. I highly recommend to anyone studying herbs or enrolled in a program to try to find work or activities that complement that program. For instance, I have students working in herb shops or making products.
After David’s program, I enrolled in the Advanced program at Rosemary Gladstar’s Sage Mountain, and subsequently had the incredibly good fortune to be able to study with William LeSassier shortly before his death.
I’m now very honored to be teaching for David as well as at my own herb school.
Of course, learning is an endless path, not a destination, and we always have an infinity left to learn. That can be daunting for some but I find an odd comfort in it and cannot picture it any other way. Learning is so dynamic and creative, whereas “knowing” something seems a bit dead, or at least boring, doesn’t it?
As an herbal educator, have you seen changes in the backgrounds of people who come to you to learn about herbs?
Yes there have been changes. Of course, it is difficult to know what are general trends, and what are changes in just my own narrow experience, but I see larger numbers of young people in their twenties and early to mid-thirties deciding to study herbal medicine in an in-depth way such as enrolling in a school or program. When I studied with David, I was one of only three or four in that age bracket. At my school in New York now for instance, that is the predominant demographic, with a healthy mix of folks who are older, and a small number even younger.
One thing we are also seeing is more and more people of color coming to the forefront and making their voices heard. This is incredibly important. As a white man, I try to point out to people studying herbs or in the herbal community that white men probably use herbs less than any other demographic. But yet we see some of the same racial (and other) power dynamics in the herbal community that we see outside the herbal community. People of color, immigrant, African American communities, and of course, LGBTQ communities too, have always used herbal medicine since time’s fuzzy beginnings, and yet often due to societal pressures and injustices might have more challenges in formally studying. So I think it’s important as educators to acknowledge that we have an indispensable role to play in this process and to address inequities in our own community in terms of teachers, students, curriculums, etc.
I also see a hunger for re-establishing our relationship with our land, our planet, and the plants themselves. Perhaps this is not a shift in my own small world in people who want to study herbs, but I do know from colleagues and fellow herbalists that more people are wanting to study herbal medicine who have no prior exposure to deep ecological thinking and do not even consider it to be part of herbalism per se. This is a red flag in my opinion! It is pointing out to us the importance of emphasizing and not diluting what for me are the true roots of herbalism - it is something we want to hold and protect, and nurture, as herbal medicine becomes more popular.
One change I have seen among people who come to me as a practitioner for a health consultation are more and more men. When I first began practicing, it was easily 90% women I was working with. Now it is still majority women but closer to equal—maybe even 60/40. I consider that to be a very positive sign of societal views of herbalism. Men tend to be more conservative than women addressing their own health less than women do; so if men are now embracing herbs this to me shows we have a strong future!
One of the things you teach is herbal medicine preparation—what are your thoughts on the pros &cons of herbs made by companies like Herbalist &Alchemist and the ones you teach about compared to mass market offerings?
Oh there is no comparison! We have to always keep in mind that the capitalist market is amoral—there is no ethic built into it except profit-making. So as herbs become more popular it simply goes without saying that more and more companies will be selling remedies of inferior quality, or that have come from unsustainable sources – whether new companies on the scene, large supplement companies expanding into herbs, or herb companies that used to be high quality but whose quality is now slipping. I think it is vital to teach herb students how to make their own medicines. Both botany—identifying the plants accurately—and then knowing how to make them into remedies - have always been an integral part of being an herbalist. Now in modern times, not everyone always has that time or access, or even interest, in making all their own medicines. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think it is still crucial that everyone learns how medicines are made, so they can assess quality accurately, and that is where ethical and superior-quality companies like H&A come in. I remember David Hoffman once saying we should never conflate “herbal industry” with “herbal community”—they are not the same thing. Herbalist &Alchemist is one of the small companies doing it right that span both those categories.
How do you see the state of raw herb sourcing in terms of fair trade and sustainability?
This is one of our greatest challenges. In my time as an herb student and practitioner, I have seen at least one herb go from extremely popular to so threatened from overharvesting it is hardly ever used anymore: pygeum bark (Prunus africana). This should serve as an example to all of us that as market consumers we can have tremendously negative impact on local economies and local ecosystems somewhere else on the planet—often both at the same time. I try to point out to people as often as I can that when something is popular today that was not ten or fifteen years ago, then by suddenly purchasing huge quantities of it in the global North we are almost certainly having a negative impact on that plant and on the human communities there as well. Think maca or quinoa, or rhodiola, which is now disappearing in the wild. Or cacao, which I consider a true herbal medicine; there is more forced and child labor in the chocolate industry than any other. And we as herbalists and educators are complicit in this. If we constantly talk about rhodiola more than other adaptogens, or slap a photo of rhodiola everywhere, we have to know more people are going to use it and we are contributing to its demise. We have to be so careful in how we educate our students and clients. And we have to be savvy and skeptical and leave our naiveté aside. It is trendy now to be eco-friendly and fair trade—green washing is rampant. For instance, there is no legal definition of “fair trade” in the U.S.— any company can say they are “fair trade” or “sustainable” no matter how awful their practices may be. So if we truly care about workers and harvesters in the fields or processing plants, the communities they come from, and their human rights; if we care about the plants themselves and their well-being, then we have to first educate ourselves, and then spread that knowledge far and wide.