HISTORICALLY, THE PLANTS WE CALL HERBS have been a keystone of human civilization. They have nurtured, sustained, and healed us and have improved our quality of life in so many ways. The power of that bond between plants and people quickly becomes evident to an ethnobotanist—a scientist who studies the relationship between plants, people, and culture.
As an ethnobotanist, I have been privileged to learn about nature and how people use natural resources. Since the early 1970s, my work has taken me to many fascinating, complex, and distant locations—from deserts that receive less than 2 inches of rain each year to lush tropical rainforests that could receive that same amount of rain on any given day. The focus of my research is on gaining knowledge about botanical diversity and learning about the people who live in these wilderness habitats and depend on plants for their daily survival.
My fascination with the green world started early in life. My youngest memories are of wonderful times spent in my grandparents’ garden, watching—with awe—the way seeds responded to a bit of moisture and soil and how vegetables such as cucumbers noticeably grew in size from one day to the next. I am fortunate to be able to continue this childhood interest as a botanist and horticulturist trained first at the University of Delaware and later as a graduate student at Harvard University.
Since 1980, my home has been The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), acknowledged to be one of the world’s premier horticultural, educational, and scientific institutions. Geographically, The New York Botanical Garden’s research program spans the world, and through its sophisticated laboratories, collections, and international expeditions, NYBG scientists investigate plants, from the molecular level to whole organisms, as well as study and conserve the habitats in which those plants are found. Being an ethnobotanist means living with the people you are working with, and for me this has involved lengthy stays in Central and South America, Oceania, Asia, and the Middle East. But I also believe you can do ethnobotanical research in your own backyard—in most places, including modern cities, you can find people knowledgeable about the historic or contemporary uses of plants. At NYBG we developed a field of study now known as “urban ethnobotany.” For 2 decades, we’ve investigated the ways people use plants in New York City—one of the world’s great urban centers (for me, it’s an urban laboratory)—where more than 800 different languages are spoken, representing a vast diversity of cultures.
Most of the cultures I’ve visited recognize hundreds of native and introduced plants used for healing, food, construction, and to improve their quality of life. Just as gardeners eagerly share their horticultural knowledge (and plant cuttings) with other gardeners, the people of the traditional, preindustrial cultures I’ve lived with have shared their plant knowledge with me. A common language seems to connect those interested in plants, sometimes to the exclusion of other distractions in life.
Many people today suffer a disconnection from nature. Plants offer a life-giving elixir that can sustain us physically, mentally, and spiritually. As an ethnobotanist, I’ve had many opportunities to learn about plants. Seeing, touching, smelling, harvesting, and discovering how to prepare and use them has resulted in what I would argue is a fuller life. My intention for this book, written with my friends at Rodale, was to produce a guide for healthy living, using nature’s most powerful plants: herbs. Getting to know and use these amazing plants—for flavor, health, beauty, and much more—will not only enrich your life in unimaginable ways, but also bring you closer to nature.
Digging into the world of herbs can mean researching the diversity of species you want to grow; planning and planting your garden; nurturing your plants as they grow and mature; and harvesting your herbs and preparing delicious foods, healing teas and salves, fragrant soaps and shampoos, as well as natural products for your home. You’ll enjoy the beauty of herbs in your garden and the tranquility you feel as you tend them. You’ll value their culinary, aromatic, healing, and cleansing powers. And you’ll love sharing your discoveries and accomplishments with a community of like-minded individuals.
Although people have used herbs for health and wellness for tens of thousands of years, the earliest known written instructions for using these powerful plants date back 5,000 years, when they were inscribed on clay tablets by Sumerian healers in the region known today as Iraq. In ancient Egypt, around that same time, medical practitioners wrote of their formulas on papyrus sheets; the most ancient of those documents is known as the Ebers Papyrus, thought to be written around 1500 BCE. In China, more than 4,000 years ago, healers also made careful notes of the plants and plant combinations they used.
Works known as “herbals” were first produced in ancient Greece, ca. 350 BCE. Herbals were medical textbooks of the day, containing descriptions and illustrations of plants, along with recipes and dosages for their use in treating diseases. They also contained information on the culinary uses of plants, as well as their uses as tonics, for cleansing, and in magic, plus information about their toxic qualities. Herbals continued to play an important role in the education of health-care providers and the public well into the 1600s, when the fields of botany and medicine, once allied, began to diverge. The 1800s saw a revival in popular interest in healing with plants and traditional remedies that continues today.
Rodale’s 21st-Century Herbal is a celebration of the rich and magnificent history of herbals, providing both ancient wisdom and modern science about herbs and their uses. The book is divided into three sections. The first section discusses how people around the world have utilized herbs—from their uses for healing in prehistory through the development of our earliest medical systems and their use by billions of people today. This section also explores the botany and chemistry of herbs; how plants are classified; and the reasons why herbs can exert a powerful effect on your body, palate, mind, and desires.
The middle section is an encyclopedia of more than 180 of the world’s most useful and interesting herbs. It describes their historical importance, healing properties, and culinary and ornamental uses. It also tells how to grow and harvest many of them at home and what cautions to take with certain species.
The final section is a guide for using and enjoying herbs. This section offers dozens of recipes and step-by-step techniques to help you cook and heal with herbs, to make your own beauty-care products, and to make natural products for cleaning, scenting, and decorating your home. It also provides in-depth information on how to grow herbs organically—in gardens, on terraces and patios, and indoors—from planting seeds and cuttings to propagation and harvest. At the end of the book, you’ll find a chapter on herb garden design with 12 illustrated sample designs and complete plant lists, followed by a section on herbal resources.
While I can’t take you to the places I’ve seen through my studies or have you at my side as I learn from elders about a plant’s use, I try to do just that in a small way by sharing some personal stories in many of the chapters. Far from being a profession filled with excitement, adventure, and life on the edge, as it is sometimes portrayed by the media, ethnobotanists spend a great deal of quiet time listening to the stories we are told, asking questions, and honoring the wisdom of others. Much of my work has been to record that wisdom, as it relates to plants and their uses, before it is lost—particularly among cultures that have never written down this knowledge and people who do not formally teach it to their children. Tragically, in some of our research studies, such as in the remote Pacific Ocean region, we’ve found that those who stray from a traditional lifestyle and adopt the Western way of life do not live as long as their ancestors and have more illnesses and an overall reduced quality of life.
In this book, I’ve tried to convey the excitement, joy, and purpose that can come from incorporating herbs more prominently into your life and to give you some of the tools and ideas to spark your own explorations. The statement that “education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel,” attributed to Socrates, has been my approach to university teaching. I encourage students to experience ethnobotany firsthand by developing and implementing their own research projects, rather than by memorizing facts and training to become talented test takers. Rodale’s 21st-Century Herbal follows that philosophy, and I hope you will use it to explore and learn about plants from around the world, to play in your own personal sandbox as excitedly as perhaps you once did, and to enjoy the plethora of benefits herbs can offer.
Michael J. Balick, PhD