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A highly skilled herbalist will not only pick shrubs more quickly, but will also be able to get a larger quantity per shrub (stacks); this has a positive effect when further processing and will allow for more efficient barrel use.
The herbalist skill will only affect shrubs that you did not plant as crops, and will only collect those you designate with the gather plant command.
Plant gathering can be a good food source early on, and a source for seeds otherwise not obtainable, but tends to be rather useless later in game unless you are in a biome where you can find the valuable Kobold bulb or Valley herb or feel the weird urge to do no farming or food trading at all. However, as both trees and shrubs compete against each other toward an overall plant life limit within a particular region, having several skilled herbalists can be useful in encouraging tree growth (if you mark the otherwise trampled saplings as restricted traffic areas).
Any plant appropriate to the biome will appear as a shrub. This includes seedless plants such as the muck root and bloated tuber. If you have discovered an underground river or pool, shrubs (and tower-caps) will start to grow in underground soil and mud in all biomes of the map.