An Interview with Holly Bellebuono

1. Your new book is titled, An Herbalist's Guide to Formulary. What exactly is formulary?

When I first began to learn about medicinal herbs, I had so much excitement and passion that I threw herbs into my remedies with reckless abandon. Over time, I realized that fewer herbs actually work better, and as my work with clients and with my retail apothecary progressed, I honed a method that helped me organize my thoughts, select the most appropriate herbs, and make my remedies more effective. Formulary, for me, is the act of combining herbs so they do the most good for a client or patient; my 4-Tier formula is a simple structure that allows me (and my students) to think about herbs in the most efficient way so that every remedy is the best it can be.

2. You've worked extensively as an herbalist, healer, and author. From where did you begin with these practices? Why are they so powerful?

I've been working with plants, beginning as a gardener, since 1994 and teaching, writing and speaking about herbal medicine to universities, conferences, retreats, and schools ever since. Learning that common weeds in the backyard could be medicinal was revelatory to me, as someone who grew up in Asheville, NC, and was a suburb-child accustomed to the grocery store and the doctor's office. My father was a pharmacist and my mother was a registered surgical nurse, so I was raised in a very clinical-minded family that never once thought about digging up an Echinacea root and making a tincture. My education has been part hands-on, part book-learning, and one of the things I love most is sharing the chemistry and also the magic of plants with people who are generally unfamiliar with them yet who want to learn about self-sufficiency, healing, and the natural world.

3. Do you need any previous knowledge of herbs or herbalism to use An Herbalist's Guide to Formulary?

This book is readily accessible by beginners new to herbalism, but it has the most to offer for those who are healing arts practitioners and health care professionals. Many of my students at The Bellebuono School of Herbal Medicine are intermediate to advanced in their fields; they are midwives, nurses, pharmacists, herbalists, clinicians, botanists, pharmacologists, and even social workers. They use the information in An Herbalist's Guide to Formulary to strengthen their connection with their patients using herbal medicines—products that many of their patients are already taking or are very interested in. Any healing arts practitioner that wishes to include herbs in their existing practice will find very useful lessons in this book on how to incorporate those herbs by body system, and beginners will get a taste of how herbs work—which will make their future discovery of herbal medicine all the richer.

4. In the book, you've separated your formulary into a four-tier structure for each herbal remedy. Why do you approach herbal remedies in such a way?

I find that winnowing a formula to four herbs is a convenient and commonsense way to work with plants, though a remedy can certainly have fewer or more herbs in it and be effective. It's not the number that is important so much as the framework that includes a variety of actions and functions in the remedy. The four tiers are Tonic, Specific, Corollary, and Vehicle, and in the book I teach how to determine which herbs go in which tiers, how much of that herb is recommended in the formula, and how to create formulas for a variety of conditions. We have so many herbs available to us through multiple traditions that it is very helpful to have a structure such as this to narrow down the herbs and organize your thoughts when working with someone. We herbalists ask ourselves, "Should I use this herb or that? If three herbs do the same thing, should I use them all? Is more better?" This books helps to answer those questions while still allowing the individual healer to be creative and use herbs that he or she is familiar with.

5. What do you hope readers will take away from An Herbalist's Guide to Formulary?

Many of my herb school students have told me that the 4-Tier formula is a life-saver, helping them to make sense of the many herbs out there and determine which are best in a given remedy. I try to make the ideas simple and I've been told my teaching is clear, down-to-earth, and straightforward. I imagine this is helpful when you're new to herbs and you're looking out at a garden with seventy-five different medicinal plants in it, or you're working with a client who has two or three primary health issues and multiple secondary issues that need attention. How to select the right herbs? How to focus on health issues for that client? An Herbalist's Guide to Formulary helps to take the guess-work out of remedy-making; it distills my twenty-three years of making teas, tinctures, vinegars, syrups, salves, oils, honeys, and more into an easy method that can be the springboard for anyone wanting to work with plants.

About Holly Bellebuono

Holly Bellebuono (Massachusetts) has been a community herbalist, apothecary director, and teacher for over two decades. She uses her inspiring lectures, books, curriculum, retreats, and workshops to empower people to ...