After writing “Friday’s Flora and Fauna” piece last week, I realized that, for the sake of safety, I should include some references for working with herbs.
First and foremost, a good field guide is an herbalist’s friend. If you grow herbs in your own garden, then you can be fairly certain of the plant identification because you know what you’ve planted but, in the wild, you can never be too careful. Some benign species may have some close-looking cousins that could make you very ill if you consumed them–they can even be deadly. Take, for instance, Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) and Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). These dainty, white, umbrella-shaped flowers grace nearly every roadside–so much so that one would think it is easy to identify them. Of course, they each have a distinctive leaf pattern to tell them apart, and both are benign. However, their close cousin (in looks anyway), Hemlock (Conium maculatum) is poisonous. So much so, that even touching the plant with your hands, and then touching your lips with those hands, may have a deadly reaction. So plant identification is extremely important. I recommend Peterson’s Field Guides as they are ranked above most.
Roger Tory Peterson wrote many field guides, starting with birds, but including “The Peterson’s Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs” and “A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants”. They are both worth the investment. There are others; please look them over thoroughly for references of distinctive marks, colors, leaf-patterns, etc. that are unique to the plant you are looking for. Also, make sure there are notations for size and what sort of growing conditions they prefer. If we’re looking for Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa or Actaea racemosa), which prefers a moist, heavy soil, you’re probably not going to find it growing in the desert.
Another good rule of thumb is to learn the correct botanical names. My herb instructors, Michael Ford and Joanne Pacheco, were death on using botanical names–and for good reason. What I may call a dandelion, another person may call Lion’s Tooth, so common names can be confusing when wild harvesting. (And, though I am going off subject a bit here, when wild harvesting, please don’t take everything; leave some quantity of herbs for others and, more importantly, for further propagation; over-zealous wild crafting–i.e. depleting whole stands of an herb or edible, puts plants at risk for extinction; take only what you need and leave the rest. Google “United Plant Savers” for more information about responsible harvesting) For safety’s sake, it is especially important to know your botanical names when purchasing herbs from a local nursery. I mentioned Yarrow earlier; there are ornamental varieties that are quite beautiful but they may not have the medicinal properties you’re looking for. And, as with improper identification in the wild, these ornamental varieties may be poisonous. If the botanical name on the variety in the nursery doesn’t match what you know is correct for that herb, don’t use it; you never know.
As for working with herbs, and learning those correct botanical names, some recommended herbals are “The Way of Herbs” by Michael Tierra, “Healing with the Herbs of Life” by Lesley Tierra, “The Green Pharmacy” by James A. Duke, as well as anything written by either Rosemary Gladstar or Juliette de Bairacli Levy. These should give you some good starting points and have you brewing and simpling in no time at all.
Warning: once you start, it’s a little bit like that slogan for Lay’s Potato Chips “Bet you can’t eat just one!” Well, not exactly eating but, bet you can’t stop with only one. Herbs have a way of getting under your skin–in a good way. Knowing you have the knowledge and the tools to help keep your family and yourself in good health is empowering, and it gets to be habit-forming. Not a bad addiction though if you ask me.
May God bless you & keep you!