The Gift of Healing Herbs: Plant Medicines and Home Remedies for a Vibrantly Healthy Life by Robin Rose Bennett. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books; 2014. Softcover, 552 pages. ISBN: 978-1-58394-762-3. $24.95.
The Gift of Healing Herbs by Robin Rose Bennett is a treasure of well-lived stories and well-loved recipes. Bennett’s goal in writing this book is to deepen the integrity of the “people’s medicine movement” by making herbal medicine accessible to many. This book is useful for beginners looking for solid information and easy-to-find supplies and techniques that will start them on a safe path with healing herbs. Seasoned practitioners also will find great value from the author’s years of experience and her mastery of food and plant medicine.
Rosemary Gladstar, who has brought kitchen apothecary to its rightful status, wrote a wonderful foreword. Robin’s work is deeply influenced by the Wise Woman tradition, and as an urban herbalist practicing in New York City, she has brought sophistication and a clinical perspective that makes it her own.
Part I is titled “What is Healing?” The first three chapters are about the spirituality of this work as well as ceremony and ritual. Far from presenting a superficial, New Age rendition of wholeness, Bennett comes from a place of certainty, skill, and experience when she writes of the soulful nature of healing. This is relayed in her skills as a medicine gatherer, gardener, and a true herb crafter in the traditional sense of the word. The author infuses these chapters, and, actually, the entire book, with a sense of magic that organically arises from relating to plants and individuals through a heart- and spirit-centered practice.
For many traditions, all work with herbs is ceremony: from the gathering of plants to the apothecary and administration of remedies. Bennett shares very simple rituals that would be received tenderly by all because they honor the moment, the self, and the intention of healing.
Psychologist and author Jean Houston, PhD, is quoted in the beginning of the second chapter:
One of the most poignant human hungers is the need for ceremony and ritual. In its elemental form, this need is located in the deepest, oldest part of our brains. Spiritual ceremonies, especially when personalized open up new dimensions of the mind, spirit, and heart and can create surprising, beneficial results. Rituals of meaning, depth and beauty are needed now individually and collectively as we seek new ways of contributing to our own welfare and the well-being of all that we cherish.
Part I ends with a chapter on herbal preparations that includes very useful lists of tools and supplies needed for medicine making and processes for kitchen apothecary work. The author’s descriptions and definitions are clear, written with obvious enthusiasm for the process, and are not intimidating to the beginner. The experienced herbalist also will find gems and new tricks of the trade that can come only from years of experience. No matter how many recipes on medicinal oils or products there are, skilled clinicians possess a kind of ingenuity and creativity that is well represented in The Gift of Healing Herbs.
Bennett’s expertise in the field and the garden lends a depth that is not always present in books such as this one. She knows the seasonal rhythms for wildcrafting, recollects places in the streets of New York City where she often visits her favorite species, and, as a gardener, intimately knows the growth patterns and needs of various medicinal plants.
Part II is titled “The Herbs and Your Body Systems,” which covers cardiovascular, digestive, immune-lymphatic, musculoskeletal, nervous, respiratory, integumentary, and women’s reproductive systems. As a “recovering scientist” (I was trained in conventional medicine and then as an herbalist), I had some difficulty with the layout of these chapters as I appreciate a different format for organizing material and methods of referencing information. The materia medica is dispersed throughout the chapters under different headings pertinent to given systems.
After sitting with this book, though, I realized that the very nature of this information is to induce the energetics of a spiral — the notion in permaculture that there is a sacred energy in form. Bennett’s systems chapters ensure that one takes time to read the stories and glean the medicine from each one. While very modern in the diseases she addresses and the realities of our current culture, the book is traditional (in the true meaning of the word) in that there is medicine in her stories as opposed to “case histories.” That being said, there is a valuable index of more than 200 clearly named recipes and formulas. This book is a very user-friendly resource when looking for specific recipes.
Part III is titled “Everything is Medicine.” Here, Bennett places the reader in the kitchen and uses the spice rack and everyday foods to bring home oft-quoted Hippocrates, who posited “That our food be our medicine and our medicine our food.” Bennett offers solid information about spices, their actions, and how best to incorporate them. Foods become the material medica. There is a whole section on vinegar, its medicine, recipes like blood-building Concord Grape vinegar with molasses, and the author even includes a recipe for making apple cider vinegar from apple scraps. For these days, when sustainability and the do-it-yourself movement are gratefully taking hold, this section provides invaluable skills.
The final section, Part IV — “Additional Remedies, Tips and Thoughts on Healing” — provides the important chapter “Wound and Bruise Healing.” Poulticing, fomentations, and emergency treatment with plant medicines seem to be fading arts. While appropriate protocol needs to be followed in all situations, herbalists have witnessed profound healing, pain relief, and near-miraculous tissue repair with herbal medicine. Again, Bennett’s stories inspire the reader with confidence and know-how that will serve in a variety of situations.
Ms. Bennett’s aim in writing the book was “to share a wealth of practical herbal knowledge … and to offer clear guidance on how to apply that knowledge in everyday situations as well as extreme situations if need be.” The plethora of beautiful recipes, healing stories, and decades of work as a community herbalist certainly make this book a success in accomplishing her goal.
—Kathleen Maier Director, Sacred Plant Traditions Charlottesville, Virginia