In short, a person can become an herbalist by acquiring knowledge on the medicinal properties of plants. Traditionally, herbalists learned from folklore or apprenticeships. Today, specialized educational programs and professional organizations provide much of this knowledge to those entering the herbology field.
By strict definition, a mother who gives her child a cup of chamomile tea for a stomachache has become an herbalist. Within rural or indigenous populations, where mainstream medical treatment is rare, these types of herbal remedies are passed from generation to generation. Those individuals who are particularly gifted at the craft become regarded as shamans, medicine men, or wise women. This type of lay herbalism is largely unregulated.
In more developed areas, herbalism is frequently met with skepticism from mainstream health care providers. In these areas, a person wishing to become an herbalist must frequently provide proof of his or her knowledge. Specialized curriculum combining folklore with modern botany and pharmaceutical texts are offered to these aspiring herbalists. As these courses are more grounded in scientifically recognized fields, friction with the medical community is often reduced.
An individual wishing to become an herbalist may seek recognition from professional organizations. In locations with few or no regulations, membership in these organizations often acts as a surrogate license. Membership requirements in these organizations are frequently rigorous. The National Herbalists Association of Australia (NHAA), for example, has a curriculum, clinical hours, and continuing education requirements comparable to that of registered nurses in the United States.
The extent of government regulation for practicing herbalists varies widely from region to region. In Japan, where herbalism is highly integrated into the medical system, only a pharmacist or practicing medical doctor may become an herbalist. The United Kingdoms also both regulates and protects herbal medicine.
Even within a country, licensing standards can be inconsistent. Within the United States, for example, only a handful of states have specific regulations for herbalists. In general, a person who wishes to become an herbalist is regulated by small businesses law. Those wishing to prepare herbal remedies may also be held to health department regulations for food preparation.
In the United States, it is generally illegal to practice herbalism as a form of medical treatment. Often, this comes down to semantics. An herbal consultant, for example, may tell a client that feverfew is used to treat headaches. He or she may also tell the client how a tea can be made from the herb. An herbalist, however, cannot tell a client that the pounding pain in his or her temples is a headache.