Review: The New American Herbal by Stephen Orr (Crown Publishing: NY, 2014)
4 stars out of 5
Once you master growing vegetables in a few raised beds, garden rotation, and companion planting, the backyard gardener may be tempted to get into a rut. The New American Herbal will prevent gardener stagnation. Orr is a garden writer as well as a food writer. He is not an herbalist. It’s a shame.
Stephen Orr writes a different kind of herbal, a book written for the gardener, the cook, and the lover of plants, rather than the practitioner. While some obvious medicinal plants are included in the book, very little is offered in the way herbal remedies – you’ll want to consult another book for that. In this book you’ll find growing instructions for some common herbs and some unusual herbs, a few recipes, medicinal lore, and a few stories. While not a comprehensive resource, this book bridges the gap for the gardener and student of herbs. This book will inspire the gardener in the grey days of winter with new vision for the next growing season.
After a brief introduction that touches on herbal preparations, spice blends, propagation techniques, and a few garden and kitchen projects, the book launches into an alphabetical listing of various herbs. This is not an exhaustive herbal encyclopedia. Instead a strong cross section of herbs used in cooking, herbal medicine, and craft are displayed with stirring photography. A sidebar beside each entry gives the folk names, growing conditions, and origin of the herb at a glance.
The design of the book includes alphabet tabs on the fore edge. The book was designed to flip through rather than read from cover to cover. Look up the herb that interests you, read, be inspired and flip again. For those who love to read the dictionary to discover fresh words that have not yet tripped off their tongue, this book will be a delight. It has the flavour of savouring the dictionary without the dust, must, and fine print.
The author prefaces the book with, “I want every reader to realize that in a small quarter-acre in the country, in an ordinary suburban backyard, or even on a cramped city terrace ten floors up, herbs will thrive without too much fuss and provide a valuable harvest. It’s one no labour-intensive garden can match square foot for square foot. (p. 14)” The book is high on inspiration. It is not an in-depth study of medicinal or even culinary herbs, but a cross section of herbs that can be grown in North America’s various climate zones.
What I liked about the book
The photography is a feast. Everything about the photography was well done. It’s not a field guide so the plants are not shown in their growing habit. Rather each photograph is a work of art on its own, a delight and inspiration, not a definition.
The sidebar planting information, included with each entry, is very useful and provides what other herbal books lack, to the home gardener and student of herbs. At a glance you can find out whether this or that herb will grow outdoors and unprotected in your zone, how to grow it, and when to harvest it.
The real meat and delight of the book is the prose that accompanies each listing that gives stories and little known historical information about each herb. For instance in the entry on Madder (Rubia tinctorium)
“A hue known as Turkey red, along with indigo is used in the most highly prized Persian carpets. This same red dye tinted the original bandanas, manufactured in Glasgow and subsequently taken to America, where enslaved Africans used them as headbands and to tie up parcels of food in the fields. Cowboys and Native Americans soon made them popular out west. It is rumoured that madder roots were also ground up and used to colour musical instruments such as lutes and perhaps even Stradivari violins.” (p. 231)
In this listing I learned why Mr. Joybilee was advised by his mentor to purchase a red tie when he began his work as Chief Administrative Officer. And why in the first picture of Canadian Prime Minister Harper in Israel we see him, as well as PM Netanyahu wearing navy suits and stunning red ties. A red tie represents power and authority, due to the rarity of natural red dyes through antiquity.
What I didn’t like:
While there are culinary recipes in the New American Herbal for some herbs, I would have liked to see more creative dishes to experiment with, and perhaps some herbal recipes for bath balms or herbal teas that would excite the senses.
I gave this book 4 out of 5 stars for two reasons. First, the book lacks any references to preserving the harvest for winter. So you’ll need a different source for directions on how to save the herbs for winter. If you need to know whether to dry basil or prepare it in an oil infusion, like pesto – this book doesn’t tell you. FYI, basil loses most of its complex flavour when dried, but preserving it in oil retains the best of it.
Second, the book is only a basic garden resource for herbs. If you need to know more of the gardener’s concerns about the plant like what kind of soil it thrives in, whether acid or alkaline or what its common pests are, again you’ll need to find an additional reference. I think this is a disappointment in the book. It would be useful to know which herbs are devoured by the common flea beetle and which herbs repel them, so that the gardener can manage his garden efficiently and maximize the harvest in a small space. This information, where appropriate, could have been added to the side bar references without expanding the length of the book, and would have made the book much more useful to the novice herb gardener.
The book was too short. While it was over 375 pages long, and an extensive resource, at the end I wanted more. It is the type of book you’ll want to read again and to keep on your reference shelf. You won’t know whether to put it with your cookbooks, your herbals, or your gardening books.
Who is this book for:
The New American Herbal would speak to the educated connoisseur of plants and herbs, or the adventurous. It is a coffee table book and an adjunct to other herbal references. It is not a substitute for a good herbal or a comprehensive organic herbal gardening book. Those who read for the joy of it and love to read the dictionary will find delight in this book. Those who are lovers of historical trivia will enjoy this book. Garden photographers will be inspired. It’s like an appetizer plate with many cuisines to choose from. Each entry offers a flavour to savour for a moment, but not a full meal.
If you have a gardener and aspiring botanist or herbalist on your gift list – this book will whet their appetite for more and inspire further study.
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Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book from Blogging for Books, nevertheless this review represents my honest opinion of the work.