The New American Herbal by Stephen Orr. New York, New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers; 2014. Softcover; 384 pages. ISBN: 978-0-4498-1993-7. $27.50.
The New American Herbal is an exceptionally misleading title for what really should have been called Another Herb Garden Book or Herb Gardening Lite. It seems that publishers, editors, and book designers all have taken the same online short course called “how to make all herb gardening books look identical.” The book has hundreds of color photographs of varying quality, with the obligatory cursory introduction to herbs, plus an “A-Z” section covering about 125 plants. It would have been a nice little food-and-gardening title if the book stuck to gardening, food, plus parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, but it ventures into other herbal realms where the author’s obvious lack of expertise invites a raised eyebrow. Still, for those new to the subject, The New American Herbal offers an enticing invitation to delve deeper into the limitless herbal universe.
The book begins with the predictable chapters on flavor, harvesting, propagating, and drying techniques, along with a rudimentary discussion of extraction, essential oils, and do-it-yourself projects for herbal vinegars and oils, and even how to make herbal tea. There is a nice two-page spread that includes five recipes for making dried spice blends that are increasingly available (if you live in major metropolitan areas such as New York or Los Angeles). Another two-page spread is devoted to salad herbs, which sparks new culinary possibilities.
Additional short chapters cover “specialty herbs” such as native American herbs, Chinese medicinal herbs, trees and shrubs used as herbs, “herbs from older traditions” (whatever that means), “controversial herbs” (poisonous and psychoactive plants), and “tropical herbs.” Nearly 200 herbs are included in the “specialty herbs” section, most of which receive a very brief treatment. For example, in “herbs from older traditions,” plantain (Plantago major, Plantaginaceae) is covered thus:
“Plantain, common (Plantago major)—an effective treatment for bleeding.”
The number of herbs treated in the “specialty herbs” section provides marketing folks an opportunity to tout the book as containing “information on hundreds of herbs.” Dozens of photographs accompany the mostly one-line entries, which, if you are brand new to the subject, furnish a glimpse of uses past and present. Here it becomes glaringly evident that the book attempts to be too many things to too many people.
At the heart of the book is the treatment of 125 plants in the “A-Z” section. The New American Herbal reflects North America as a melting pot of cultures and cuisines as only six of the 125 plants (or generic groups) covered are indigenous American plants. Most of the herbs in these expanded entries are treated in two-page spreads unless a recipe is included, in which case the information can stretch to four pages, usually including two full-page photos. The book’s 45 recipes are original and worth the price of the book.
Those knowledgeable in medicinal herb topics will get a strong sense that the author strays far beyond his area of expertise with statements such as “Ginseng’s [Panax spp., Araliaceae] intricate chemical cocktail of triterpenoid saponins, which are thought to enhance its adaptogenic properties, is combined with ginsenosides, a complex class of steroidal glycosides that are being studied as active components of ginseng....” In reality, ginsenosides are triterpene glycosides generally classifieds as saponins. We also learn that black cohosh “has estrogen-containing hormonal compounds.” Really? Further, the statement “Black cohosh is frequently used with another unrelated American herb called blue cohosh” may apply to use of the herbs’ names in the same sentence, but not to the use of the herbs by those seeking their respective health benefits.
Like the photographs, the information in this text is presented in broad impressionistic brush-strokes that lack clarity. The author has an obvious passion for herbs and sharing information on the diversity of human interaction and use of herbs in a modern context. If you do not own any other herb books and have no knowledge of the subject matter, this herb book was meant for you. For those new to the vast herbal field, the book will fulfill the author’s hope that it “...will inspire you to travel further down whatever herbal path you find most enticing....”
—Steven FosterAuthor, Photographer, HerbalistEureka Springs, Arkansas