This is a lovely, comprehensive book for people who enjoy herbs enough to want to grow their own as well as use them in cooking and home remedies. Its large format (8 by 10 inches rather than the more usual 6 by 9) provides plenty of room for lots of well-organized information that’s easy to understand and use. If you ask me, though, the highlight of the book is the set of color plates at the back, beautiful watercolors of the herbs by talented artist Stephanie Pui-Mun Law. Law also created the artwork for the book’s cover and the illustrations that open each chapter. Though Law’s artwork usually veers well into the realm of fantasy, in this book her talent shines through traditional Victorian-style botanical illustrations surrounded by woodsy borders.
Back to the book itself, which is well worth reading when you’re not busy drooling over Law’s exquisite illustrations. Author Sandra Kynes begins with a history of herbal medicine from ancient times onward. She describes how we’ve come full circle back to herbs again after falling away from that kind of natural healthcare. Not only does this return to herbalism offer us alternative methods for taking care of ourselves, but it also allows a certain amount of self-sufficiency, since most herbs are easy to grow at home. So really, this is an all-in-one resource for anyone who wants to get back to those traditional practices, literally from the ground up.
The book is divided into three main parts that focus on the information the do-it-yourselfer needs: how to grow an herb garden, how to make herbal remedies, and what each herb is good for in terms of cooking and medicinal use. Though the book is large and fairly long, I found it to be a quick and interesting read. Kynes speaks to the reader in an easy voice, managing to be both friendly and authoritative at the same time.
Part 1 focuses on designing and planting what Kynes calls an apothecary garden, in other words, an herb garden whose purpose is to provide materials for making herbal remedies. She includes suggestions for how to incorporate herbs into whatever landscaping you may already have, which is helpful if you don’t want to start from scratch and dig up a portion of your yard. This section includes tips for choosing the best herbs to grow based on your climate, soil type, amount of sunlight your yard gets, and so on. There’s a long list of common herbs and their gardening requirements, so no matter where you live, you can probably put together a healthy apothecary garden. Kynes also talks a good bit about container gardening, which is helpful for those who live in apartments or who can’t get out to garden for other reasons (and of course, even those of us who have big gardens also like to have a few herbs in pots as well).
As a longtime gardener and herbalist, I often read books that give me information I’ve heard over and over again. This book surprised me by offering some new ideas, things I haven’t heard before or that haven’t been collected up into such easy-to-use form in other sources. For instance, Kynes includes a section on companion planting specifically for herbs. I’ve seen a lot of companion planting charts, but they’re mostly for vegetables with maybe a couple of herbs thrown in for good measure. Here, herbs are the star. The author also includes tips on which beneficial insects each herb attracts and which pests it repels, some very helpful information for those of us who prefer to avoid chemicals in the garden.
Part 2 is a good introduction to all the basic techniques for harvesting and storing herbs as well as turning them into herbal remedies. Kynes addresses the issue of essential oils and carrier oils, both of which are common ingredients in herbal remedies. I like her explanation of what essential oils really are and how they’re produced; this is information consumers need so they won’t be tricked into buying inferior or synthetic products.
The author offers clear instructions for making the most common types of herbal remedies: teas, infusions, oil infusions, decoctions, and tinctures. There are also basic recipes for a variety of other useful herbal concoctions including bath salts, creams, liniments, and salves. None of these take unusual equipment and all can be made in the average kitchen. In this section, Kynes also addresses the use of culinary herbs for health, in other words, how to add certain herbs to your food not so much for acute health issues but for long-term support of good health. In our instant-gratification society, we often want to just pop a pill, even if it’s an herbal one. I like that the author points out the need for us to take continual care of ourselves rather than ignoring our health until a crisis occurs.
Part 3, Herb Profiles, is the meat of the book. The herbs, from Angelica to Yarrow, are listed alphabetically by common name so you don’t have to know the botanical name to find what you want (though Kynes includes the botanical name as well, for clarity). Each herb listing includes interesting tidbits about its folklore and historical use. Then the author provides clear, understandable information about the medicinal uses as well as precautions and contraindications. This is important, since natural doesn’t necessarily mean completely safe (remember, arsenic and uranium are completely natural).
The herb profiles include gardening tips specific to each herb, which is really helpful because some of them are picky about where and how they grow. Each profile also offers recipes for using that particular herb, including teas, cosmetics, first aid supplies, medicinal remedies, and foods. I’ve already marked several that I’m going to try. I like that the author has obviously made these recipes herself and tweaked them; they’re not the same ones I find in so many herbal references.
The book ends with a section of helpful appendices: herbs organized by the conditions they can relieve; measurement equivalents for volume so you don’t have to do the math in your head; essential oil measurements and dilution ratios; and the aforementioned color illustrations of the herbs. Finally, there’s a glossary with medicinal and botanical terms that the average reader might not be clear on, which is really helpful.
This really is a lovely book, a pleasure to read and a reference that I’ll use over and over again as I garden, harvest, and prepare my herbs. Highly recommended.
~review by Laura Perry
Author: Sandra Kynes
pp. 247, $22.99