Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

REVIEW: Remembered Remedies

Anne Barker, Remembered Remedies – Scottish Traditional Plant Lore, Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd., 2011.
Anne Larvin, Remembered Remedies of Northumberland, Durham: Roundruit Publishing, 2008.
These books, both written by members of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, detail remedies which they have collected.
Barker, the energetic Scottish Co-ordinator of Ethnomedica,* records herbal remedies which she collected in the Highlands and Islands in 2007-9. Her work which is illustrated with photographs of her collecting areas, informants and the plants involved, starts with a history of the collection of Scottish plant-lore, but her main aim is to demonstrate the wealth of information which can still be collected. Consequently her book is mainly a series of statements such as ‘A woman in Holm, Orkney, remembers …’. While she has collected interesting remedies which are worthy of publication, the book as a whole is somewhat lacking in substance; there’s sufficient material for an introductory article on remembered Scottish remedies, but not really enough to justify a book, especially as she fails to make much effort to relate her material to historical information, the distribution of cures elsewhere in the Brtish Isles, and the current uses of plants by professionally trained herbalists. However, the book provides a good start and we hope she will continue collecting so that a fuller account can be produced.
Larvin collected her material from members of the Northumberland Federation of Womens Institutes, and casts her net wider than Barker so she includes both herbal and non-herbal remedies taken from ‘both oral and written reminiscences … as well as printed and handwritten books that [W.I.] members have in their possession’, consequently she has a great deal more material to use. She also relates what she has collected to her knowledge as a trained herbalist, but sometimes fails to make it clear whether she is writing of collected material or her own knowledge. Her work is illustrated by ‘delightful paintings and drawings’ by WI members and plant photographs taken by the author.
Both books make worthwhile contributions to the recording of remedies and we hope that they will inspire others to do likewise.

* Ethnomedica is a Kew-based organisation which seeks to collect and study ‘remembered remedies’ in the British Isles; according to Barker ‘by the end of 2009, more than 5,000 remedies had been recorded, including more than four hundred and fifty plant species’.
Relevant material contributed to Plant-lore Archive is passed to Ethnomedica, and currently about 20% of Ethnomedica’s records have been received via this route.

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