Worldwide healing

“Women Healers of the World,” by Holly Bellebuono of Vineyard Herbs, explores herbalism and other medicinal techniques from around the globe.

Polynesian kahuna Raylene Kawaei'a is one of the healers in "women Healers of the World."

In recent years, the practice of holistic and alternative healing methods has increased in popularity. Westerners are becoming more interested in yoga, meditation, and herbalism to ease their medical woes, embracing healing techniques from around the world.

In her newest book, “Women Healers of the World,” released in September, Holly Bellebuono of Vineyard Herbs trots across the globe, exploring the legacy of women healers using plant, body, spirit, and land traditions from as far away as New Zealand and as near as mainland Massachusetts. With stunning color photographs, a forward by Rosemary Gladstar, and watercolor art by Tracy Thorpe, the book also features recipes and remedies that “any budding herbalist can make at home.” Available at $24.95 from Amazon and Skyhorse Publishing (

In an email to The Times, Ms. Bellebuono answered a few questions about her new book.

Where did you get the idea for this book?

I’ve always been interested in ethnobotany, the relationship between people and plants, so celebrating the healers who use plants was a natural extension of my use and appreciation of herbs for medicine. I began by interviewing four or five American herbalists that I had met at conferences. Then I started telling people of my project. Since many people who come to or live on the Vineyard are world travelers, I quickly collected a list of recommendations for other women I could include.

Why did you decide to focus on only women?

I focused on women because throughout history, women have been underrepresented in science and medicine. Most people can name a small handful of female doctors, nurses, or scientists, whereas we can think of pages of men in these categories. Most women who have contributed to science, midwifery, botany, and healing methods have done so “behind the scenes” and have not gotten credit for their knowledge, especially the gardeners and community healers who worked on a small scale, like most herbalists.

Did you get to travel in order to write the book? Where were some of your favorite places or moments?

I was fortunate to travel to meet some of the women I feature, including to Hawaii where I interviewed the Taoist master Lillian Chang and the beloved Hawaiian kahuna Aunt Velma Dela Pena. Meeting Velma was a highlight for me, as she has such a warm, welcoming spirit and is very connected to the natural world. She relies so much on her intuition, and is a positive influence for the more than 100 people in her family for whom she is a matriarch. I also arranged to meet other healers, such as Oaxacan midwife Dona Enriqueta Contreras and Ecuadorian ethnobotanist Rocio Alarcon, at herbal gatherings.

In what ways are place and culture related to healing technique?

Some of the women related their special healing techniques to me, which were certainly inspired by their homelands. When I interviewed Princess Basma bint Ali of Jordan, she shared recipes and methods based on her growing up in the desert. The shaman Bernadette Rebienot lives in the tropics of Gabon and uses special plants native to its forests to perform her ceremonies. Place and culture certainly influence a healer’s choice of plants and method, which gives us the great variety and versatility of our herbal traditions.

Did you notice any universal themes or techniques used by the women in your book?

The greatest theme I discovered was confidence, that having self-confidence was requisite to becoming a healer. Several of the women, especially the indigenous healers, told me that to lack belief in one’s ability to heal was reason to “leave the camp” and pursue a different career. Choosing to be a healer is a huge undertaking — as they put it, you’re not just building a house, you’re saving a life — and not only should you be grateful for your special gifts, you must have faith in your knowledge and abilities.

What can Western medicine learn from global healing practices?

I advocate integrating allopathic medicine with traditional cultural practices, as they both have benefits. Modern allopathic medicine could improve if doctors were better listeners, if they respected whole plants rather than isolates, and if they supported a cultural climate in university and professional settings in which women were respected — and paid — equally to men.

Where did you find the time to do this while running a business on the Vineyard? How long did it take to to gather all of these stories?

I began this project in 2008, so it’s been a seven-year endeavor. It took years to find a publisher that wanted to take on a huge book like this, and while my agent and I looked, I sought out the women and interviewed them, and researched the essays of the 16 healing traditions. In the past year, I turned it into a true Vineyard collaboration, bringing in Island friends to model as the ancient women. Since 10 of the women portrayed in the book lived long before cameras, we have no real idea what many of them looked like. I researched how they likely dressed, and I set up photo shoots where the models dressed as the women and we photographed them. Then I commissioned Island artist Tracy Thorpe to paint watercolors from the photos, and these turned out to be gorgeous depictions of women who, in a couple of cases, have likely never been illustrated before. The book is full of my photography of plants and cultures, as well as the photos of Island resident Harry Beach and others who contributed their photos for different chapters. It’s fulfilling to see all of these pictures, portraits, and interviews come together at last.