Book Review – The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Herbal Medicinal Plants by Matthew Wood
I just finished The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Herbal Medicinal Plants by Matthew Wood and given that it is more than 500 pages I feel I’ve accomplished quite a task in doing that! Mind you, it is an extremely worthwhile time spent doing that.
Right in the introduction of the book as he provides a look at philosophies of herbalism, as well as his own, he sets a tone I can completely respect:
“The selection of medicinal herbs was originally base on “tradition only, with shrewd guesses, and close observations,” as Dr. W. T. Fernie (1914,8) wrote. Or, as Nicholas Culpeper (1653) would say, Dr. Tradition, Dr. Reason, and Dr. Experience. These are the foundations The Earthwise Herbal particularly cherishes, and attempts to build upon. Modern knowledge is not ignored or trivialized, but the latter has in recent times been pushed with great zeal, at the expense of tradition, shrewdness, and observation, and it is time that we begin to value experiential and traditional wisdom.”
Philosophically I like at lot so it made for a very promising start.
The first few chapters of the book covered overviews of Energetics of Traditional Medicine, Herbal Actions, The Art of Herbal Practice and Preparation and Dosage – which gives a useful skeleton to hang the rest of the book around. While each of the chapters are good they clearly aren’t meant to be real how to training but just a quick introduction. The bulk of the book is the Materia Medica of numerous individual plants and that part is extensive and fascinating.
In the introduction to this section he describes not only how it is structured but more importantly his approach and intention in writing it:
“It was not my intention to write a formulary, or workbook giving specific preparation methods, formulations, and standard dosages. I have instead merely handed on a collection of notes on preparation from my own or others’ experience that should prove useful and may, in the future, provide material for a formulary.”
So while, of course, an excellent reference book when you want to look up a particular plant, I think its greater value is as a basis for exploration, inspiration and experimentation. The text is sprinkled throughout with ideas of different ways herbalists have worked with and prepared the various herbs discussed. What really shown brightest for me though was not the ideas of the contemporary herbalists but those of previous generations where I’d stumble across something that would cause my eyes to gleam and a deep smile to press across my lips as I thought “I have to try that!” (Like garlic infused brandy which is seriously on my agenda for future explorations!)
It is also great for drawing your attention to plants you may, or may not, be aware of but simply haven’t worked with as much. For example, I was reminded how much short shrift I give to the medicinal and healing properties of what are more commonly used as culinary herbs (basil, oregano, sage, thyme, etc.) Definitely thyme (sorry I couldn’t resist!) to give them the respect they deserve as long time healing allies by working with them more and getting to know them outside the kitchen! 🙂
I think my only frustrations revolved around getting all excited to see discussion of a plant I wanted to read more about – only to find there was very brief coverage of it and much longer ones on others I wasn’t nearly as interested in. But realistically, it would be nearly impossible to cover everything so extensively and meeting the interests of every single reader would be quite impossible.
Even though, I knew going into it from his description (which I quoted above) that it wouldn’t necessarily go into depth on formulations. There were times when he’d discuss the use of different plants and I really wanted to know more details and had to step back and remind myself that wasn’t the goal of this particular book. Those would have to be just enticing tidbits for my own future herbal journeys.
And one thing that amused me terribly – these two entries in a row:
“Spiraca ulmaria. Meadowsweet.
Refer to the entry under the modern name, Filipendula ulmaria.”
“Stachys officinalis. Wood Betony.
Refer to the entry under the old name, Betonica officinalis.”
I can kind of rationalize why, but still it struck me as laugh out loud funny. But I’m weird that way.
Overall, a wonderful reference book that I have, and will continue to, referred to often. It’s a great foundation for research and future adventures in herbalism. I certain made a great deal of notes of things that I plan to look into more and explore – and who knows what new ones I’ll find as I return to it.
One final great quote from the book:
“I do not feel that is a good idea to copy the United States Pharmacopeia or National Formulary slavishly. Herbs are like condiments; they can be prepared in subtle, beautiful, and almost countless ways.”
I think you can make magic working with the plants but to do so you have to embrace that free form, magical creative energy in yourself.