Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide by Rosemary Gladstar. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing; 2012. Softcover; 224 pages. ISBN: 978-1-61212-005-9. $14.95.
At first glance, this Beginner’s Guide seems to be just that: a comprehensive resource to introduce the public to medicinal herbs. It is only when you read further into each of the aptly named sections that you realize this is more a compilation of the insights and wisdom gained from a lifetime of practice using medicinal herbs, rather than just another treatise on the most basic information.
This book is comprised of four sections meant to take the beginner from basic theory to medicine-making to a concise materia medica. Complemented by enticing photos of mason jars filled with flowers and captivating images of the plants themselves, Medicinal Herbs is a convincing companion for anyone inclined to get outside and find (and hopefully correctly identify!) something green to put into a teapot.
An herbalist from a young age, Rosemary Gladstar has become an iconic figure in the herbal medicine community, celebrated for her practical and applied system of herbal medicine, which focuses on the wisdom of the generations and of the plants themselves. It is Gladstar’s natural approach to her work and her style of folk herbalism that makes this text a breath of fresh air. With Medicinal Herbs, Gladstar does not try to create a clinical guide, or an evidence-based resource, or the latest trend in herbal health. Rather, the book emphasizes the system of herbalism, which is intended to be practiced in people’s daily lives among friends and family (and has been practiced in this way for centuries).
That is not to say that this book would not be useful for a practitioner or advanced student of herbalism. The information in Medicinal Herbs makes it highly useful for anyone who wishes to bring herbs into their life (or their patients’ lives) in a number of fun and practical ways and to play a greater role in their own healthcare. While much of what is written on herbal medicine seeks to present a treatment alternative, Medicinal Herbs seeks to help readers include whole plants (or plant parts) as part of an array of wellness practices.
The opening section of Medicinal Herbs highlights what Gladstar does best in her teachings: It inspires the reader to incorporate medicinal herbs into their daily health practices. Each herb mentioned in the two sections, which elaborate upon specific medicines, is accompanied by one or more recipes as well as the beautiful images typical of Gladstar’s earlier books with Storey Publishing. The recipes are reminiscent of those one might find, barely legible, on a tattered recipe card in an elder herbalist’s kitchen from a lifetime of use — recipes conceived, crafted, and remade countless times.
The basics of safety and the routine disclaimers also are present and clear, although appropriately simple for an herbal text of this nature. And while there are recipes for common home remedies, such as for headaches and stress, housed within the sections on individual herbs, this text doesn’t delve into the more complex issues or concerns of disease or treatment, thereby allowing it to retain its true purpose to support wellness and daily practices. A similar approach is apparent in the explanation of using the “simpler” method for medicine making. By not including medicinal dosing and compounding language, Gladstar allows the individual to feel comfortable attempting a new recipe without the intimidation factor of figuring out milliliters or grams.
It is difficult to find complaint with a book so comfortable in its own skin, so to speak. However, if you own the Family Herbal or any number of Gladstar’s other texts, you will undoubtedly notice some overlap in the recipes. Also, the nod to some of the key constituents of the plants highlighted in Medicinal Herbs can seem a bit technical in comparison to the focus on sensory information, but it encourages the reader to begin to understand plant commonalities and characteristics.
There is not a lot of free space on my bookshelves nowadays, but I will make some room for Medicinal Herbs if only to remind me of the beauty of kitchen herbalism and the lineage of recipes and ideas as developed, refined, and applied over a lifetime.