Rodale’s 21st Century Herbal: A Practical Guide for Healthy Living Using Nature’s Most Powerful Plants by Michael J. Balick. Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Books; 2014. Hardcover, 512 pages. ISBN: 978-1-60961-804-9. $35.00.
Michael Balick, PhD, is uniquely qualified to understand herbs not just as medicines, foods, or a hobby, but also as an integrated element in the lives of people around the world. Rodale’s 21st Century Herbal reaches broadly: There is everything from phytochemistry to recipes for enhancing laundry to landscape design. This “practical guide’s” sweeping focus allows it to achieve the lofty goal of inspiring and educating with myriad ways one can connect with herbs while consciously avoiding significant depth in any one area.
As a professor of herbal medicine, the initial goal with my students is twofold: to marvel at the complexity and mystery of our powerful herbal medicines and to rejoice in the practical aspects that make them fun, accessible, and a true, simple pleasure. Dr. Balick does just that — “convey the excitement, joy, and purpose that can come from incorporating herbs more prominently into your life” — by delving into the plethora of ways people can understand and use them. There are few better means by which to impart wonder than to weave the cloth of connection between people and plants through history and into modern life, from the theoretical and historical to the kitchen and the garden.
Beginning with a discussion honoring many of the traditions of herbal medicine, Dr. Balick acknowledges the global tradition that is herbalism with a broader focus than the typical herbal by incorporating many African regional histories and less-common Asian traditions such as those of Micronesia and New Zealand. A short but aesthetically pleasing primer on botany and a basic exploration of phytochemisty bring the reader up to the task of understanding the extensive materia medica section that follows.
Each of the more than 180 herbs in the central materia medica section is accompanied by delightful photos and text that is categorically tailored to the use of the specific herb with varying emphasis on culinary use, history, medicinal application, cultivation, and a brief but useful “Plant Profile,” which includes the botanical description, range, and parts used. Like many parts of this book, these plant pages are at their best when they are accompanied by specific recipes, tips on exactly how to cultivate, or the story or lore that can inspire and connect readers to the plant. The book’s weakness in this section concerns the lack of personal touch of an experienced user of the plants as medicines. Mentioning that herbs are used for various conditions stops short of assisting the reader understand how to apply them for self-care, and, beyond that, some of the safety information — particularly for that of Lobelia inflata (Campanulaceae) — is significantly over-cautious. Additionally, the mention of clinical research is useful, but for some readers, like me, these incomplete listings may lack credibility due to the absence of references or specifics that could make this book a stronger candidate in its class of reference texts.
The section titled “Herbs for Life” offers readers a breadth of possibilities for how they can bring herbs into their lives. The “Cooking with Herbs” chapter is as comprehensive as a stand-alone cookbook and offers tables and charts to help the herbal novice begin to explore and prepare herbs with confidence. A gem from Tieraona Low Dog, MD, explores her favorite herbs and their very specific applications, including preparation and dosage information. Following a section on safety and medicinal application, there is a near-exhaustive lineup of uses for herbs: in cosmetics, cleaning products, potpourri, with pets, and even for dyeing textiles. Lastly, and with plenty of useful information, appealing diagrams, and instructive images, the book explores herb cultivation and includes 12 lovely herb garden designs.
Rodale’s 21st Century Herbal has a lofty goal of allowing readers to jump head-first into the wide world of herbs in all of their utilities. It succeeds in structuring a wide web of herbs as living medicines that reach almost every corner of human existence and every place on the globe. Readers can see the prospect of integrating herbs into their lives in a multitude of ways, and the specifics — when offered — equip them the information needed to do so. The breadth of a book of this type inherently lacks the depth that would be possible with a more focused text on any of the topics at hand — but the goal of spreading enthusiasm and encouraging a reader to “play in your own personal sandbox” with herbs is an important and honorable goal, one which Dr. Balick achieves.
—Bevin Clare Associate Professor and Program Manager, Clinical Herbalism, Maryland University of lntegrative Health Laurel, Maryland