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New Herbals Worth Having: Reviews, Rants and Recommendations

Posted May 09 2009 10:09pm

It’s a good year for herb books, folks! I have the proof sitting next to me on my desk in a pile threatening to topple into my lap at any moment. I thought I’d briefly (or not so briefly, knowing me) discuss the ones I like the best for those of you who might not have heard of them yet or are on the fence about purchasing them.

Keep in mind when reading my reviews that I’m very picky (you might even say persnickety) about my herb books and I only keep about one out of every ten I purchase. So here you go, my very own opinionated opinions, your mileage may vary.

Herbal Medicine: Trends and Traditions by Charles Kane

The Tucson-based author of the bioregionally based Herbal Medicine of the American Southwest (a great book by the way) is back at it with his new and broader based materia medica. It covers over a 100 popular and widely available medicinal herbs along with about 50 color plates of the herbs. Charlie studied with Michael Moore and is of the same common sense bent. The genius of his work is how based in clinical experience it is, a rare and valued quantity in herb books, I assure you. The writing is often dry and pragmatic, but is also concise, useful and a very informative. Because his work is based in the experiential and not just scientific studies, he often includes tidbits on herb uses you just won’t read elsewhere. Kane can also be counted on to be extremely specific, and completely avoids the annoying tendency of many herbals to lump every herb into some kind of universal panacea, sticking instead to usable, real life anecdotes and therapeutic suggestions. The practical, even conservative, approach taken in this book is nicely complimented by Matt Wood’s broader look at materia medica in his books. It also serves as an excellent companion to Michael Moore’s classic herbals of the American West.

Kane includes an extensive bibliography, glossary, index (regular and therapeutic), guide to common preparations as well as fluidextract worksheets, plant family groupings, weights and measures chart AND repository (that includes preferred preparation, alcohol percentage and suggested dosage of each herb) making this a great reference with a broad range of use to either the student or practicing herbalist.

Evidence of how much I like this book is that my copy has already gotten the preferred herb book treatment which includes being wrapped in a protective binding and then taking a pen and highlighter to the interior for notes and key points to remember.


The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants by Matthew Wood

The second book in Matt Wood’s new materia medica is the one I’ve been waiting the longest for, since it specifically covers the New World plants that I primarily use in my practice. The introduction to American herbal energetics, especially the section on Appalachian/Southern Blood Typology is really fascinating and certainly added to my understanding of the subject. I probably would have bought the book just for the introductory portion.

As an added benefit though, the body of the book stands just as strong as the earlier bits. I’ve always loved how Matt speaks in clear specifics about the nature and personality of each plant as an individual and draws not just from own experience but also from other practicing herbalists, eclectic and physiomedical texts as well as even older literature for his eclectic and often unusual information. The herb entries vary a great deal in size, from tiny paragraphs for herbs such as Sweet Clover (a bit of a disappointment, really) to several pages for Lobelia. Some monographs, like the one on Rose, really require that you have both volumes of the materica medica (Old World and New) to get the most from the information. For the longer entries, Wood includes additional information on Taste, Tissue States, Specific Indications, Preparation and Dosage and reference in the literature.

The selection is eclectic, including standard herbs of commerce as well as lesser known botanicals like Virginia Creeper. His emphasis and deep understanding of little used herbs such as Cherry, Beebalm and Sumach never fail to fascinate me, and it’s always refreshing to read an herbalist who refuses to dwell in the well known and widely accepted (in any way). I also appreciate how the author repeatedly emphasizes that the information comes from experience and traditional knowledge rather than constituent breakdown or animal studies.

I tend to think that Wood’s work most benefits experienced herbalists in that he can range into the tangental and complex and includes many concepts and terms probably unfamiliar and intimidating to the neophyte. However, given the practical value of the writing, I would recommend all of his books to any serious student with an interest in Traditional Western Herbalism.


Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health by Aviva Romm

This sizable text (nearly 700 pages including the index) is really one of the first in-depth looks into the botanical treatment and maintainence of women’s health. There have been plenty of books on the subject but most of them have either been seriously lacking depth and practical application or almost entirely based in the biomedical approach. Aviva is a practicing herbalist and midwife as well as an MD, giving her a wide breadth of experience and knowledge to draw from and making her a perfect bridge between the medical industry and grass roots health care. Nutritional information and alternative approaches such as acupressure are mentioned and suggested throughout the text.

Guest articles are inserted through the book, including writings by David Winston, Susun Weed, David Hoffmann, Mary Bove, Isla Burgess, Margi Flint, Lisa Ganora, Christopher Hobbs, Amanda McQuade Crawford, Ruth Trickey, Jill Stansbury and many many more. These additions really give the depth and tone of the book, making it much more informative and interesting than it would have been otherwise. Case histories are also sprinkled throughout the text, which is great, although I definitely found myself wishing for more. There are formulas and recipes, as well as numerous charts, graphs and other informational tidbits widely distributed through the books many pages, and they add both visual interest and a quick, concise reference on notable subjects.

The book is divided into five parts. The first is called Foundations of Botanical Medicine and includes extensive sections on herbal actions (which earned it some serious points from me), dosage, preparations, constituents, ethical considerations, specific indication in the eclectic tradition and even a bit about selecting quality herbal products.

The second is called General Gynecologic and Menstrual Health Concerns which covers everything from the normal discomforts of adolescence to polycystic ovary syndrome, endometriosis and all manner of endocrine issues and disorders.

The third is entitled Fertility and the Childbearing Cycle and is just that. It includes detailed looks at infertility, pregnancy, labor postpartum and breastfeeding, including common complications and issues. It also lists herbs most commonly used during pregnancy and suggestions on those best avoided, among many other charts and info boxes.

Part four is The Menopausal Years and includes a great section written by Susun Weed entitled Reframing Menopause: The Wise Woman Perspective. It also explores both conventional and botanical approaches to common menopausal issues from hot flashes and depression to low libido and vaginal dryness.

The final section is Plant Profiles that includes Black Cohosh, Blue Cohosh, Chaste Tree and Dong quai. There are also shorter portions on specific plants throughout the book, usually as relating to a particular issue. Personally, I felt the plant profiles were the weak point of the volume and actually found myself yawning through the generally reductionist look at these “women’s” herbs, with much of the information simply extrapolation of scientific studies rather than clinically based knowledge.

The appendix also includes an extensive chart briefly describing common name, botanical name. preparation, use, dosage and cautions of each herb.

In general,  find the therapeutic suggestions to be useful guidelines and starting points for many cases. I am admittedly disappointed with some parts of this book, especially the outdated nutritional information that promotes low fat diets and the way too in-the-box profiles of most of the herbs. Nevertheless, it is an excellent resource and one that should probably be on the bookshelf of every practicing herbalist who regularly treats women. It would also be useful for the more advanced student or those with a background in nursing, physiology etc. This is a textbook, no doubt about it, and those looking for a light read or personable story won’t find it here. If, however, you are searching for an up to date, in-depth clinical look at botanical treatments for women’s health by an experience practitioner will be very pleased with this new resource.


Backyard Medicine: Harvest and Make Your Own Herbal Remedies by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal

The lovely little book was first released in the UK as Hedgerow Medicine last year, but has been adjusted for the North American audience re-released here with its new name. First of all, this book is an absolute joy to peruse — it’s just one of those books I want to sit down and take a long look at and then look some more. You know how they have those obscenely yummy culinary photographs they call “food porn”? Well, this is surely “plant porn” for the flowerophile (yes, I made that up all by myself) as well the aesthetically obsessed herbalist. Brilliantly colored photographs of plants, plant parts, flowers and preparations nearly fill every glossy page. Old botanical drawings are also featured and are very nice when placed in contrast to the more modern photos.

Beyond the simple beauty of the book, there is also substance. This herbal is fairly broad in content, drawing from modern writers such as Matthew Wood as well as from older texts such as those of the Eclectic physicians. There is also a fair amount of info that falls in the range of lore/myth/theory that I’m not terribly fond of, but seems an integral part in the broad-audience general herbals so popular these days. It does include some clinical/first hand experience including small case studies here and there which add a lot to the reliability of the text as a whole.

One of my favorite aspects of Backyard Medicine is that being from the UK, there seems to be a fair amount of common uses for well known plants that aren’t so common on this side of the pond. That’s the kind of thing that absolutely delights me and why I will read this book from cover to cover. I also really like the little sidebars included with each plant that list botanical family, description, habitat, distribution, related species, parts used and then uses by preparation. There’s also other informational sidebars and text boxes with recipes, safety notes, harvesting instructions and other little tidbits that help hold interest and provide quick info bites for the focus challenged.

I would highly recommend this book to the newly plant obsessed and most herbal students. I would recommend it to practitioners who have the money and time to purchase and read yet another herb book, but would not recommend it above the more in-depth volumes above. All in all, a very nice little tome, and one I will be pleased to peruse time and time again.


Ok, so no real rants this time around, maybe I’ll get to that next time ;)

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