Rodale's 21st-Century Herbal: A Practical Guide for Healthy Living Using Nature's Most Powerful Plants


As mentioned in the Introduction, the favorite book in my library, The Herball by John Gerard, has a special sheaf of 18th-century notes bound into the book. These notes contain the therapeutic observations of one of the families who owned this priceless work during the past 400 years that have been passed down from generation to generation. I hope you will feel inspired to record your observations about herbs and their uses, making your copy of this book a one-of-a-kind reference.—M.J.B.


At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.


I HAVE BEEN VERY FORTUNATE to have so many people who were, and are, supportive of my lifelong interest in plants, people, and culture. My family has been a constant source of support and encouragement, from my first years of elementary school through graduate studies and into my professional life. When I was an undergraduate horticulture major at the University of Delaware, Professor Richard W. Lighty was an extraordinary and inspiring mentor who, during my first year at the University, invited me to prepare and deliver a public lecture on harvesting and processing herbs that was the beginning of my interest in this topic. This exceptional quality of mentorship continued through my graduate education at Harvard University, where I studied under Professor Richard Evans Schultes. The Botanical Museum of Harvard University, directed by Professor Schultes, was a remarkably inspiring place for a young graduate student to learn about ethnobotany and tropical plants because of its facilities, collections, and the multitude of world-class scholars who would visit the museum. Many of the graduate students who studied in the Biology Department with me during the 1970s are now considered leaders in their fields, and I am so fortunate to count a number of them as close friends.

My career at The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) began in the fall of 1980, and I am grateful to the Board of Managers and Staff of the Botanical Garden for their support of the NYBG’s International Plant Science Center, as well as my own studies, through all of these years and for their steadfast commitment to the institution’s renaissance as one of the world’s greatest botanical gardens. The comprehensive horticultural collections, groundbreaking public exhibitions, innovative educational programs, and unparalleled resources of The New York Botanical Garden’s International Plant Science Center, including the Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory, Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics, Genomics Program, William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, C.V. Starr Virtual Herbarium, LuEsther T. Mertz Library, Institute of Economic Botany, Institute of Systematic Botany, Graduate Studies Program, NYBG Press, and international field studies programs, along with the dedicated staff and graduate students, have made this institution an ideal place for me to continue to learn about ethnobotany—particularly how traditional cultures have used plants for healing and to promote wellness.

My research and scholarly contributions to our understanding of tropical floras, ethnobotany, and ethnomedicine have built upon the work of others, as Isaac Newton wrote, “ . . . by standing on the shoulders of giants.” These giants have included my colleagues here at the Botanical Garden as well as the people I have worked with in remote field sites around the world who have helped guide my studies of plants and their uses. In addition, this group includes the remarkable collection of dedicated individuals at the Botanical Garden who support its daily operations, from upkeep of the landscape and buildings, to managing its resources, to raising awareness of its programs and administering the institution. And when my “light” (as Schweitzer called it) dims, I often find my “spark” by taking a walk through The New York Botanical Garden, enjoying the beauty of its historic landscape, its exquisite gardens, and reconnecting with nature.

A book that covers so many different topics, most of which are in a state of constant updating and evolution, can never be the work of a single individual. This book has been a community effort, building on the contributions of a previous group of authors to produce what you see in these pages. In addition, a number of people took time to review sections relevant to their specialties, kindly contributed directly to the chapters, or helped in some other way. I offer my heartfelt thanks to the following who graciously responded to my requests for guidance, wisdom, and inspiration: Mark Blumenthal and the staff of the American Botanical Council; Peggy Brevoort; Francisca Coelho; Paul Alan Cox, PhD; Mia D’Avanza; Linda S. Einbond, PhD; Margaret Falk; Fabiana N. Fonseca, PhD; Todd Forrest; Susan Fraser; Ashley Glenn; Katherine Herrera; Sara Katz; Steven R. King, PhD; Fredi Kronenberg, PhD; Daniel Kulakowski, PhD; Sally A. Leone; Gregory Long; Marie Long; Tieraona Low Dog, MD; Robert F. C. Naczi, PhD; Thomas Newmark; Emily Lewis Penn; Nancy Rutman; Stephen Sinon; Ina Vandebroek, PhD; and Andrew Weil, MD. I am deeply indebted to my family and dearest friends, who patiently understood my commitment to writing and rewriting during evenings, weekends, and vacation breaks and who offered their suggestions, answered questions, and vetted ideas for stories I wanted to tell.

The idea for this book was the result of a conversation I had in the Costa Rican rainforest with Organic Gardening editor-in-chief Ethne Clarke, during a Sacred Seeds meeting warmly hosted by Tom Newmark and Steven Farrell at Finca Luna Nueva. Sometimes it seems that our best ideas come during a break from normal routine, when novel thoughts can be fully explored without the limitations of busy schedules and, in this case, in a very special part of the world. A weekend brainstorming session, hosted by the book’s editor, Karen Bolesta, at Rodale, outlined the shape of this book. Many thanks to Ethne and Karen for their ideas, support, and contributions, which made this project possible. And my gratitude to art director Christina Gaugler whose inspirational design and meticulous approach to photography and art make the story of herbs come alive in this volume, and to botanical illustrator Lizzie Harper for her beautiful renderings. Sincere thanks, as well, to many others who contributed their time and talent to photography and styling, nomenclature research, copyediting, layout, and indexing, including Nancy Ondra, Tom MacDonald, Paige Hicks, Hope Clarke, Erana Bumbardatore, Andrea Chesman, Keith Biery, Elizabeth Krenos, Wendy Gable, and Lina Burton.

I am particularly grateful to Vicki Mattern, who began this journey as my editor. Early on in our work together she became my coauthor as well, carefully preparing and updating significant portions of the text. This book would not be the comprehensive, rich, and joyful volume it has become without her wisdom, guidance, thoughtfulness, skilled writing, and encouragement all along the way. For those contributions I offer my most sincere gratitude and can only hope that, sometime in the future, I have the great fortune to work with her again.

Finally, my thanks to you, the reader, for your interest in nature’s green treasures.

Michael J. Balick, PhD