Here in the Western world, in addition to formal education, apprenticeship, and first-hand experience, reading books is still one of the main ways to accrue information and learn a particular subject. Luckily for those studying herbalism we have many valid opportunities to engage in all of these forms of learning. Home study courses, classes, conferences and books abound, and of course we can take a walk and meet some plants along the way.
There are many types of herbalism out there, and there are many corresponding books. When people ask for a book recommendation as they begin or expand their herbal education, I first ask a few prying questions to get a feel for their style of herbalism and learning. Matching an herb book to a person is not always transparent, though. For example, I knew one medical student who, contrary to my first impression, didn’t want any research-driven, phyto-chemistry heavy, plants as drugs resources (think Tyler’s Honest Herbal). Instead, it turned out she was craving the more New Age-y, mystical, plant spirit medicine type books as a break from the daily grind. The beauty of herbalism is that there are little rules – both ways are perfectly valid!
But when it comes down to it, most people that I talked to didn’t really care what they read, especially starting out. They were open to and thirsty for any decent herbal information. For pretty much everyone, Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal is a good starting place due to it’s beauty, wisdom, variety and practical bent. Matthew Wood’s The Book of Herbal Wisdom was recommended often, as it dedicates many pages to a single herb to help the reader get to know the plant, it’s energetics, and plethora of uses. There are more similarities then differences within herbalism (at least I think so); if it works and promotes health, it’s medicine.
Back to the book. Last week I finished re-reading a well-known herbal, The New Holistic Herbal by David Hoffmann. I choose to bring this book with me on vacation for a number of reasons. Mainly, it has a good herbal section, an alphabetical section of well over 200 herbs containing growing habitat, parts used, constituents, actions, dosage and of course indications. I am building an herbal reference notebook, so the book I brought with me had to have a decent herbal. The other reason I brought it with was simply to re-familiarize with a book I often recommend to as an introductory book (the last time I really sat down with it was in 2004). If I am telling others to read it, I better know well what’s in there!
In addition to the herbal, The New Holistic Herbal has information about preparation, chemistry, action categories, a small section on harvesting (the suggested harvest times are not for every bio-region, especially Minnesota!), self-care and prevention and a brief section on creating an herbal protocol for yourself. The uses of the herbs themselves and examples of formulas are in a body systems format. Basically, this book as a little bit of everything which is what makes it so useful for those discovering herbalism.
The edition in my possession was updated and printed in 1990, nearly 20 years ago, but it originally was published in 1983. Some ideas have changed with the times, and having read his much newer Medical Herbalism book, I know Hoffmann has updated some things, too. One example of this is seen in dietary recommendations. A healthy diet in the early 1990’s often emphasized whole grains, limited fats and lots of fruit. Nowa days, quality protein and veggies reign.
Details and dates aside, I’d still recommend this book as an introduction because of it’s underlining emphasis on holistic herbalism. Holistic in this sense emphasizes the interconnectedness of all life, within the earth and withing out bodies, and moves us to overcome “…centuries of conditioning to ‘apartness’ thinking”. The first page of the book says, “A herbal celebrating of the wholeness of life”.
Instead of listing all the herbs good for this or that, Hoffmann keeps reminding the reader of two underlining principles of herbalism. First assist the person, not the disease, and secondly, to learn the qualities of herbs (like action categories) – advice that is more pertinent now then ever.