Talking Herbs

Interview with Lise Wolff

Sprout, Seward Co-op, August/September 2005

Toni: How did you become an herbalist?
Lise: I was in New York studying to be a physical therapist and volunteering at a holistic learning center. I came from a pretty “sciencey” family, and for various reasons was convinced natural medicine didn’t work. So I decided to take a class on herbs because I believe that if you’re going to have a bias you need have an educated reason for it.

I started walking around New York City streets and discovering plants. These plants had thousands of years of history in medicine and their nutritional content was really high compared to typical foods. It was so interesting, and this was New York City, not like Minneapolis with all our green spaces. It changed my whole world.

I was listening to a book on tape that said “do what you breathe” (left to your own devices, what you do with your time) and it gave me goose bumps. As soon as I started working with plants I was constantly looking for them. Actually it was funny because in New York everyone looks straight ahead when they walk, and I was looking down at plants. I also found a lot of money! I thought that was a reasonably good omen.

Toni: How did you learn about herbalism?
Lise: Once I decided it might be right for me, I wasn’t sure how to get there. In Minnesota today, herbalists can practice legally without a license as long as they explain a client’s rights to them. At the time that didn’t exist so people were secretive about their practice and it was difficult to get educated to the point of practicing. I took a lot of classes and was able to apprentice with practicing herbalist Matthew Wood. I practiced with family and friends to find out what worked. Teaching came about because I was frustrated with not having peers and I wanted others to talk to about herbalism. I also just wanted people to know how useful plants are. Eventually my friends convinced my I needed to start charging for my services.

Toni: How would you describe your philosophy of herbalism?
Lise: Plants remind the body how to heal itself by promoting flow, releasing blockages…The type of herbalism I practice is from a tradition called Eclecticism. Eclectics integrated whatever worked based on empirical evidence. They were practical. I combine some concepts of traditional Chinese medicine, such as pulse testing and organ systems, with homeopathic principles and western anatomy and physiology. I also focus on local herbs. Plants grow where they are needed. I prescribed nettles for a woman with a rash. It turns out nettles were encroaching on her home just as her husband was approaching the need for kidney dialysis (nettles are a kidney tonic).

Toni: What trends do you see in the herbal world? Do you see the herbal community moving toward a kind of “pharmaceutical” herbalism (using plants like drugs)?
Lise: Yes. Our local herbal community may be an exception, but nationwide I think that herbs are being used in a way similar to pharmaceuticals. It’s like the germ theory. But why does a germ cause problems for one person and not another? A healthy body/immune system is the difference. I think about herbs as supporting the terrain of the body to facilitate flow and balance. I think it was Andrew Weil who said, “Plants are not drugs with green coats”.

Another difference from the “drug” approach is that when herbs are used correctly, they should clear the condition. You don’t need to keep taking them like you do medicines that mask symptoms. Learning from the plants themselves is another big difference. This supports a creative approach… a living herbalism. You get ideas and correspondences you can’t get from a book. It’s never static.

Toni: The public view of natural medicine has changed a lot recently – how has this affected the practice of herbalism?
Lise: In my practice, it’s more common now that clients come in for check-ups or for a cold, rather than just serious health conditions. At the same time, more people are going to M.D.s who practice botanical medicine (usually with very little training) due to trust or insurance concerns.

Toni: Speaking of trust, how do you recommend finding a good herbalist?
Lise: Referrals are great, and taking a class is a good way to get a feel out an herbalist. Also the American Herbalist Guild website lists practitioners.

Toni: Tell me about the guilds you belong to.
Lise: The North Country Herbalist Guild ( is the local one. It is open to anyone interested in herbs, not just herbalists. Their goal is to educate, create community and share information. The American Herbalists Guild sets strict standards nationally for practicing herbalists.

Toni: What do you think about individuals treating themselves?
Lise: It depends….herbs, like anything else, will cause side effects or imbalances when they’re not used appropriately. If you treat yourself, pay attention to how you feel when you take something- physically, mentally, emotionally. I tell my clients to check in with themselves regularly about this. After a week or two do you feel better, worse…or just different? If the herb creates a healing crisis, this may not be negative, but you may want to lower the dosage or the frequency, or you may need an herbalist to help interpret what’s happening. After an herb has worked through something, it will start to cause what it cures. If you’ve taken something for a month or two and you’re feeling pretty good, taper down and see if the effect holds. If it doesn’t, you can go back up. You should be able to stop it when your body has resumed normal function. If it’s a liquid extract, even thought the bottle says 30 drops or whatever, 1-3 drops under the tongue is sufficient.

Toni: Would you describe a typical consultation and a typical work day?

Lise: An initial consultation with a client is 2 hours. We talk about all aspects of their life and health – physical, emotional…and then I choose an herb based on that. I pulse test to make sure the choice is correct…by the way, because of this I have never in 10 years of practice had an interaction with pharmaceuticals. My job is like a detective- finding out what the imbalance is and then the right thing to help normalize it. When I’m not with clients I harvest and prepare herbs, teach classes, check homework, and return phone calls and emails. Multi-tasking!

Toni: Can you tell us one of your success stories?
Lise: I have had a lot of success with a plant called False Solomon’s Seal, which is a trouble shooter for the muscular-skeletal system. I met someone who found out I was an herbalist and started to tell me about his health problems. He had surgery on his knee three years before and still had to wear a brace. I brought him some False Solomon’s Seal. He called me back two weeks later and said “Well, I’ve wasted a lot more than $10 trying to fix this knee..”, and I’m thinking uh-oh, maybe he’s mad at me for wasting his money. He said “But this morning I walked 4 miles to my deer stand without my brace”. Since then he calls every few years to get bottles for friends and relatives. And this is not an unusual story with False Solomon’s Seal, which by the way is not sold commercially.