Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

REVIEW: The Physick Garden

Alice Smith, The Physick Garden: Ancient Cures for Modern Maladies, Frances Lincoln, 2022.

This well-produced and easy to read book starts with a short introduction which makes it clear that it is ‘by no means instructional’, and ‘neither is it comprehensive’, instead it aims ‘to intrigue, surprise and delight, by offering the curious and inspiring stories of plants that have … been used to cure’.

It then moves on to discuss approximately 80 plants which have been used medicinally over many centuries and in many parts of the world.  Smith is primarily an artist and was assisted by Martin Purdy in producing the text.  Consequently each entry consists of a page of text facing a page occupied by an attractive, interesting and often humorous illustration.  These illustrations are not intended to be used to identify the plants, but usually consist of the plant depicted against the part of the body which it is used to treat.

As is usual in publications which attempt to cover the use of plants over thousands of years and around the world, does all of the material provided for each plant really refer to that plant, or has material relevant to other species crept into the account?  For example, under ‘corn silk’ (maize, Zea mays), it’s said that ‘corn silk has been cultivated in Central and South America for more than 4,000 years … and cherished for just as long by followers of traditional Native American, Mayan, Incan and Chinese medicine’.  Has maize really been available for use in Chinese medicine for 4,000 years?  Also it would be interesting to know the origins of some of the statements in the text.  Where, for example, did the idea that selfheal (Prunella vulgaris) ‘thrives … often growing close to where agricultural accidents took place’ originate?

However, both the text and the illustrations can  be enjoyed, and the originality of the latter will ensure that it is a book which can be revisited with pleasure

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