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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A history of healing herbs

I now know you can't judge a book by its cover. I almost managed to overlook my review copy of "Backyard Medicine"by Julie Bruton-Seal and...

Scripps Howard News Service

I now know you can't judge a book by its cover. I almost managed to overlook my review copy of "Backyard Medicine"by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal (Skyhorse Publishing, 2009); however, one evening I sat down to give it a look and was pleasantly surprised to discover a first-class read.

I learned it was originally published in Britain as "Hedgerow Medicine,"a tome devoted to helping readers find real medicine in the plants of both the gardens and weeds of wayside places.

What the British knew about useful plants our colonists inherited to apply in the New World, and therein lies the root of our American herbal traditions — the value of eons of ancient English cottage herbalism.

As I browsed through, I found a lovely blend of superior photography, close-up details that tell a deeper story and wonderful old botanical prints. These all help to augment a running text that, unlike other herb books, deals with the facts, not remnants of old herbalism based on magic and philosophy. Furthermore, the language is both concise and conversational.

The sidebars featuring specific plants are particularly striking, packed with interesting and useful tidbits. Included in the plant information are the botanical descriptions, habitat, distribution, related species and the parts used. The useful bullet points make it easy to extract information, such as maladies treated by the plant. Special tips and boxes that warn against toxicity, allergy and other such caveats are found in contrasting ink. Quotes from English herbalists who solidified the foundation of modern botanical medicine provide vital context and link the contemporary text with its historic roots.

I was also happy to see mullein discussed in these pages; it's one of my favorite herbs. According to this book, mullein leaves were popular as toilet paper and were traditionally grown outside pits or privies. The leaves, often the size of a human foot, were also used to ease the pain of plantar fasciitis, a painful inflammation of the muscles of the foot. Layering a mullein leaf inside a shoe became one of the first medicated orthotics.

Even more admirable are the recipes throughout the book that discuss how to harvest and prepare the plants for use as medicine — too many publications lack these important how-to details. For mullein, the instructions include detailed descriptions of how to make dried mullein tea for coughs and colds. It challenges the reader with the more complex recipe of mullein-flower oil as an earache remedy. There's also a how-to on making and using a mullein poultice to draw out splinters.

The book covers an astonishing variety of plants. One of the best sections addresses common elder, detailing uses of its flower and berries. Other extensive write-ups deal with commonly found wayside weeds such as red clover, nettle, wormwood, mallow, dandelion and dock. Some widely cultivated garden plants common in English hedgerows include hawthorn, briar rose and St. John's wort.

"Backyard Medicine"is an affordable starter book for the new gardener or first-time homeowner, and it makes a superior foraging guide for the gutsy urbanite. Whether you grow your plants or gather from field, fen or roadside, every page is highly useful.

And there are great ideas for herbal holiday gifts made from free wayside weeds.

Don't let the rather pedestrian cover throw you, because the wisdom of the ages is beautifully shared inside.

Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist. Her blog, the MoZone, offers ideas for cash-strapped families. Read the blog at www.MoPlants.com/blog. E-mail her at mogilmer@yahoo.com.

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