Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

REVIEW: Christina Hart-Davies, The Herbal Year

Posted on by royvickery |

Christina Hart-Davies, The Herbal Year, Yale University Press, 2024.

Hart-Davies, known mainly as a botanical illustrator, brings together a lifetime of enthusiasm for plants in a 219-page volume, which will be enjoyed by anyone interested in plants, herbal remedies and plant folklore.  As might be expected, the illustrations are both accurate and delightful, and the text reveals decades of  observation, discussion, and gentle passion.

The book starts with a disclaimer:  ‘Neither the author nor the publisher … is a medical or health professional, and the book is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment’, and  similar warnings, against using the remedies without professional advice, are repeated throughout the book.

The introduction includes a brief history of herbal medicine, using herbs safely, what is a herb? and advice on using herbs.  Then follow five chapters arranged according to seasons, with others on ‘foods as medicine’ and ‘colds and flu’.  Recipes for a number of remedies, such as lavender hand balm, and Pliny’s rose oil, all apparently used by the author, are scattered throughout the text.

Spring starts with celandine, Ficaria verna, and greater celandine, Chelidonium majus.  The latter is said to have been used to treat eye complaints being mentioned in the tenth-century Leechbook of Bald and by Gerard in 1597; in fact this use was remembered well into the twentieth-first century, being recorded from Mardu, Shropshire, in 2004, and Whitstable, Kent, in 2012.  However, the three pages devoted to celandines give a good overview of the folklore associated with them.

A disadvantage of arranging material according to seasons is that different people have different ideas of which species are associated with which seasons, and there is a dearth of material for winter.  Watercress, Nasturtium officinale, is included in high summer, and although its white flowers can be conspicuous then, traditionally it (like pork) was not eaten during  months which lacked an R in their names.  The paucity of winter material is to a certain extent overcome by the inclusion of  remedies such as senna, Senna alexandrina, pods, and spices such as ginger, Zingiber officinale.  Mallows, Malva spp., seem out of place under winter, but William Cobbett in his Rural Rides (1830) urged people to collect and dry mallow leaves for winter use.

The ‘Further Reading’ section is  disappointingly noncommittal:  ‘There is such a bewildering variety of modern herbals for sale these days that it is hard to know which to choose.  I would suggest checking that the author is an accredited herbalist’.

However, the book provides an interesting and easy-to-read introduction to herbs, their folklore, history and remedies, enriched by the author’s childhood and later memories.  And praise of the illustrations deserves reiteration; they are outstanding, whether they are full-page, such as those of common milkwort, Polygala vulgaris, and mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris, or occupy the corner of a page, such as that of Sphagnum.  Also outstanding is the book’s layout, the way in which the illustrations have been incorporated in the text.

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