I’m not really an “earth mother” and my thumb is hardly green, but I do love using herbs both medicinally and in cooking, and I do love watching things grow. I see a sweet, special quality in herbs, whether they are topped with delicate pink flowers or display sticky, prickly leaves. They seem innocent and unassuming; many of them are considered roadside weeds, and most of them are not given credit for their surprising potency, by anyone other than those who know of them personally. Thus, with my genuine but simple love of herbs, it was a sincere pleasure reading Earth Mother Herbal, in which Shatoiya de la Tour introduces us to 40 “essential” herbs, and the art of herbalism.
I have a number of books on herbs. Some of them present the science of herbs, noting studies that back up health claims; others are informal, sharing kitchen wisdom; and a few give an interesting glimpse of how herbs have been used historically, even by — witches! Earth Mother Herbal offers a little of everything, and this is probably why it has quickly become a favorite of mine (also because it is as unassuming and as potent as the herbs themselves).
Within this book is the information needed to begin from scratch — or from seed, if the desire to grow your own is there. De la Tour instructs the way she writes, with a warm, knowing voice, and patient wisdom. The first thing she teaches is a bit of history — of herbs, as well as healers. For readers who aren’t that familiar with “herstory” (history through women’s eyes), or with the controversies surrounding the advancement of modern medicine and the displacement of traditional forms of healing, this section of the book might either be eye-opening or seem overly political. She says:
Some of the witch-hunting hysteria of medieval times can be traced to the conflict of ‘modern medicine’ with traditional healing methods. By the 1500s, a medical education at Oxford could take fourteen years. After completing such an arduous program, what new doctor could tolerate the competition of a village wise woman who had never set foot in an institution of higher learning? How abhorrent that must have seemed to the young physician after completing more than a decade of schooling — to compete with a woman living on the fringe of the village who offered cures in exchange for produce or game.
The slightly irreverent tone with which she writes is enjoyably witty, and adds to the education — giving us more to think about when harvesting rosemary or steeping nettle leaves.
Quickly though, we move on. This is, after all, a book to use today, for our children’s ear infections and our partners’ computer-tired eyes. There is a comprehensive discussion of growing herbs, including information on what might be needed in an herb garden tool shed; designing a garden; and harvesting, drying, and storing herbs. The emphasis is on kindness — to the earth, to others, and to the self — so organic gardening is advised, and working with ritual is encouraged. Obviously, anyone uncomfortable with singing gratitude to herbs or calling upon the four directions to aid in their growth can omit these practices!
Then we get to meet the herbs, 40 of them that de la Tour calls the essentials. To the complete newbie, these might be unfamiliar, but most everyone has had peppermint tea at some point in their life, or has smelled the subtle scent of lavender soap, or has added fresh ginger to a stir-fry. In addition to these, de la Tour includes echinacea, ginkgo, plantain, Saint John’s wort, thyme, valerian, and yarrow, among others. Some of the herbs can be harvested in local woods, and others would be best purchased through reputable suppliers. What joins them is their ease of use and their efficacy for day-to-day problems.
Each herb listing is divided into sections: Fact and Folklore, Growing, Harvesting, Uses, and Recipes. Personal stories are shared, as well as tips from the author’s own practice. About lemon balm, de la Tour writes, “I have recommended it with success to chemotherapy patients. I have them make it ahead of time and freeze it into ice cubes. Sipping on the ice chips of lemon balm eases the nausea and keeps the person calm.” Recipes might include teas, salves, oils, and tinctures, as well as pesto, brownies, and egg dishes! There is great variety in this directory, though it is far from being encyclopedic.
Making medicines with Earth Mother Herbal is a simple and straightforward thing, taught with clear, concise directions. De la Tour provides a list of recommended tools, and ideas for setting up an herb room. She explains how to brew teas (there’s more to it than you might think), and shares her methods for formulating tinctures, oils, salves, capsules, pills, lozenges, compresses, poultices, and even suppositories, using dried and fresh herbs. Bath and body care are covered, as is the use of herbs in the kitchen. The book finishes up with a section on celebrating the seasons by enjoying the abundance of herbs year-round. A glossary, a list of resources, and recommended reading list are all provided.
Earth Mother Herbal is a book for all seasons, for those who wish to include herbs in their lives, whether purchased or grown from a seedling they must nurture to a whole plant that will in turn nurture them. It is a simple joy.
(Fair Winds Press, 2002)