Clinical herbalist Andrew Bentley is continuing in a practice that, for his family, can be traced back more than four centuries. The techniques he uses to treat modern patients are rooted in even older traditions.
Lexington herbalist Andrew Bentley has been harnessing the healing power of medicinal plants and herbs his whole life.
"I have a picture of myself as a 3-year-old boy digging ginseng in stands I still harvest from today," says Bentley, who grew up in Lee County, in Eastern Kentucky.
Bentley trained under the practice of his own father and grandfather, who in turn are part of a long family line of herbalists and doctors, which Bentley has traced all the way back to the 1600s. One of Bentley's ancestors was Napoleon's physician, while even earlier generations were court physicians to the Earls of Ormand in Ireland, he says.
Bentley has also traveled the world learning from tribal and traditional healers from various cultures.
Bentley has been seeing patients professionally since 1993, harvesting 85 percent of the plants, herbs, and fungi he uses in his practice right here in Kentucky — from Eastern Kentucky ginseng (good for increasing stamina and overall sense of well-being, he says) and yellow root (a natural disinfectant), to yarrow, a multi-use flowering plant that grows in central Kentucky meadows.
"Kentucky is an amazing place for medicinal plants," Bentley says, noting that the state sits at the intersection of several biome types, allowing for an unusually large diversity of plants. "You can go out in the woods in Kentucky and find a birch tree, which grows from here all the way north into the arctic. And you can find it growing next to a magnolia tree, which doesn't grow much farther north than this, but grows south all the way into the tropics. So, in Kentucky, you can literally have arctic plants and tropical plants right next to each other."
Kentucky is an amazing place for medicinal plants. You can literally have arctic plants and tropical plants right next to each other.
And while the notion of looking to the woods and meadows for ailment relief, rather than to a modern pharmacy, might seem far-fetched to some, Bentley notes that for most of human history, and in most parts of the world even today, herbal medicine was and is the primary form of available health care.
Generations ago, most everyone had a basic knowledge of the health applications of the plants in our midst. People simply knew that dandelions were a natural diuretic, or to chew on willow bark (which we now know contains salicin, a compound similar to aspirin) as a pain reliever and fever reducer.
The pendulum began to swing away from natural remedies in the early 1900s in America, Bentley says. But to a degree, it seems to be swinging back. For more than a decade, from 2003 to 2015, Bentley offered an annual lecture on herbal medicine to medical students at the University of Kentucky as part of a grant to incorporate teaching on alternative medicine into the curriculum. He says students were eager to learn more about his practice, which he operates out of an unassuming office building off of Lexington's bustling Southland Drive.
Inside Bentley's small but tidy office sit dozens of both clear and dark brown apothecary bottles of all sizes, most of them hand labeled. St. John's Wort. Skullcap. Partridge Berry. Oakmoss. Bentley knows them all intimately, since he's gathered and harvested most all of them himself, on seasonal foraging trip through the Kentucky woods.
He harvests specimens at least twice each season, since different medicinal plants can be found across every season in Kentucky. Even in winter, Kentucky produces lichens, ferns and shelf fungi that can be used in treatments.
Bentley sees patients of all ages, who come to him complaining of everything from high blood pressure or weakened immune systems to infertility issues. He's also co-author of a book on herbal remedies for Parkinson's disease, and sees Parkinson's patients from all over the country. (Yet Bentley notes that his goal with the herbs is not to treat the Parkinson's disease itself as much as to strengthen the brain's ability to function normally in spite of the disease, he says.)
When new patients come into his office, Bentley usually begins with a series of open-ended questions: What brings them in? How long have they been feeling that way? What other medications are they on? His approach is a bit different from that of a conventional MD.
"The important distinction here is that I am not trying to diagnose and treat diseases. I'm trying to figure out what systems and functions of the body are working the way they should be and which ones are not," he says. "It's more of a structural and functional approach, rather than a pathology-centered approach."
Bentley's own herbal regimen includes hawthorn, which is thought to improve heart health. And, he doesn't have to go far to find it.
"Hawthorn is a common landscaping plant around town," he says. "The average yard, if you don't poison the hell out of it, probably has 50 or 60 medicinal plants growing in it."
To learn more about clinical herbalist Andrew Bentley, visit kentuckyherbalist.com.
Photography by Savanna Barnett