The Herb Society of America Encyclopedia of Herbs & Their Uses is the single most comprehensive illustrated volume on "herbs and their uses" to be published in decades. It covers more than 1,000 plant species, and is a veritable visual feast with over 1,500 color photographs. All this in one volume for a price of under $40.00 is truly a remarkable publishing feat. In addition to the encyclopedic A-Z treatment of over 1,000 plants, the book includes chapters on history, myth and legend, herbal books, and herbs that changed the world. An excellent chapter on designing an herb garden is included. There are also general treatments of using herbs for culinary, medicinal, and cosmetic purposes. A section on "herbs in the wild" has separate spreads on the environments and herbs harvested from continents or major regions of the world, each brilliantly illustrated with color photographs, and providing a list of major herbs in world commerce to come from each gion. There are a few errors of fact here and there. For example, evening primrose is listed as a major herb of the European region. While it is commonly naturalized in Europe, it is a species of North American origin. Nevertheless, this section provides the reader with excellent and entertaining background information on economic plants.
The bulk of the book is in two encyclopedic sections. "The Herb Catalog" provides botanical descriptions, photos and a guide to hardiness and uses for hundreds of herbs. This is great quick-reference information on individual plants, their origins, and descriptive features. The botanical descriptions give the gardener essential information on how tall a plant will get, when it flowers, and where it comes from. The fact that each herb is illustrated with a color photograph in the same box as the descriptive information is an enormously useful feature.
The second major section, "The Herb Dictionary" has less visual appeal, and includes details on use, history, and "concise instructions for growing and harvesting." The publisher would have served the reader by combining the two sections so that one would not have to look up a single plant in two or more places in the book. Why not keep the entries on one plant in one place? Species entries, arranged alphabetically by plant genus, are preceded by a description of the genus, with general facts about the plant group, and cross referencing to other parts of the book, or other species, if applicable. The individual species entries include the scientific name followed by common names, parts used, properties, and uses of the herb (medicinal, economic, aromatic, warnings, etc.). A short descriptive section on growth and harvest is set off in its own box beneath the species entry. The information is succinct and useful, especially the growing information.
There is a tremendous amount of human interest facts in this section, particularly on medicinal use. The medicinal information, while of human interest value, falls short of practical value in that the reader is not instructed on how to actually use the herb. While generally providing good quick-reference medicinal information, some of the material is dated and inaccurate. Medicinal uses for echinacea enumerated include the now obscure use for treating gangrene, with no mention of current use as a cold and flu preventative. The author tells us that the "active constituents of Eleutherococcus senticosus are similar in effect to those of Panax species, but stronger." The constituents are neither similar nor stronger. Under St. John's Wart there is no mention of anti-depressant activity other than the curious comment, "Not given to patients with chronic depression." In fact, it is the phytomedicinal choice for depression. Since the book is not referenced, and the bibliography is sc ant, questions arise over the origin, hence reliability, of some of the medicinal information. The book bears the name of The Herb Society of America, and is meant for an American audience, but the content often reflects the book's thoroughly British origins. Despite these largely hidden, picky points, as a popular, general, all-round herbal, you won't find another herb book which covers as many plants, with descriptions, good cultivation information, medicinal use, historical facts, and color photographs. Deni Brown has completed a monumental, massive work, which any herb consumer will be delighted to own.
Article copyright American Botanical Council.
By Steven Foster