Given the editorial conservatism toward "healing herbs" that seems entrenched in Rodale periodicals such as Prevention and Organic Gardening, Michael Castleman's new book from Rodale is a welcome and candid assessment of medicinal herbs and their usage. It is Rodale's best herbal to date, and one of the best-researched and readable popular herb healing guides in many years. Castleman, a health writer of broad experience, has produced an objective, insightful, and easy-to-read blend of history, lore, research, applications, safety data, and gardening information for the herb consumer. One hundred well-known and widely available herbs are treated. Each chapter includes information on history and lore, healing applications, preparations, "the safety factor," and a brief sketch on growing the herb.
The "healing" information strongly focuses on scientific confirmation of an herb's known effects or traditional uses. One can turn to the back of the book for bibliographical listings of the scientific literature consulted for each herb. This is an extremely valuable feature. Entries often include "intriguing possibilities" -- citing research that could evolve into future uses for a plant's healing powers.
Unfortunately, a number of herbs are treated in a generic sense. For example, "Angelica" includes information on the European Angelica archangelica, the American A. atropurpurea, and the source plant of the Chinese herb dang-qui (A. sinensis), as if they were a single entity, and as if the information on one species could be applied across the board to the others. In this sense the book is a little too cursory.
The "safety factor" section under each entry, according to Rodale's press release, "is the foundation on which this book is built." The author has taken great pains to provide a balanced, yet cautious approach to herb use. The often repeated sentence, [this herb] should be used in medicinal amounts only in consultation with your doctor," is perhaps a necessary but hollow piece of advice, given the fact that most consumers, after consulting this book, will have more information on the plant in use than do the vast majority of doctors. While self-medication is not recommended, per se, the reader is given information that, in effect, serves to help avoid a trip to the doctor. Some will find the safety data overly conservative, but for the general reader (or physician) whose introduction to medicinal herb use will come with this book, the cautions are rational and necessary.
The faults of this book are minor compared to the rich army of useful information presented in a positive, progressive light. The book will enjoy wide circulation and will serve to greatly further both interest in and use of "the healing herbs." Good job, Michael.
Article copyright American Botanical Council.