Half a Hundred Herbs – the writing
Every time you go into a bookshop you can find books about herbs – growing, cooking, remedies, aromatherapy or cosmetics. But it seems to me that for the most part, (there are honourable exceptions. I mentioned some in a previous post and I’d be delighted to hear of more), these books are shinier pages, more beautiful pictures and recycling the same information over and over, often without any personal checking or experience.
For instance, many herbals will tell you that you can use sweet cicely to polish oak. I have tried this, believe me, let me count the ways. I’ve used the leaves – smeary and sticky and useless. I’ve used the seeds, green (useless) and dried (no impact at all). I’ve looked at soaking them in oil (which? how much? how long?). No dice. Yet all these writers say how useful this herb is for polishing oak. Have they ever tried, or are they just repeating what they got out of someone else’s book? Well, here’s the thing. I found an American book of spices which says that in order to use the seeds you have to take off the dark hard shell, and grind them up. If you know sweet cicely seeds you know this is going to be a bit of a palaver, but when I write about sweet cicely, later in the year, I’ll actually try it, and see how I get on.
But apart from those herbals, or a few identification guides for the wild flowers, what other writing about herbs is there? There is Richard Mabey, of course his Flora Britannica and Food for Free are pretty much essential – and Flora Celtica, edited by William Milliken and Sam Bridgewater. There are novels – most notably those of Mary Stewart, which include a lot of folklore about herbs – often in connection with magic or witchcraft. And not much else. While there is a lot of eco-literature about farming, trees and forests, mountains or wild country, herbs don’t seem to have attracted too much attention.
So far I have come up with three:
- Letting in the Wild Edges by Glennie Kindred
- 52 Flowers that Rocked My World by Charlotte du Cann
- Evenlode by Charles bennett, which includes poems written in the Chelsea Physic Garden
Does anyone know of any more?