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Essential Herbal Wisdom

Essential Herbal Wisdom

3.0 2
by Nancy Arrowsmith

Popular author and healing practitioner Nancy Arrowsmith takes readers on a fascinating in-depth exploration of the herbal arts. Arrowsmith's friendly voice and vast knowledge of herbal applications, history, and folklore shine through in this herbalism reference work.

As entertaining as it is practical, this comprehensive illustrated herb guide covers everything


Popular author and healing practitioner Nancy Arrowsmith takes readers on a fascinating in-depth exploration of the herbal arts. Arrowsmith's friendly voice and vast knowledge of herbal applications, history, and folklore shine through in this herbalism reference work.

As entertaining as it is practical, this comprehensive illustrated herb guide covers everything from herb gathering prayers and charms to signatures for fifty powerful herbs. Each herb is described in detail, with tips on growing, gathering, drying, and storing these marvelous plants, as well as their culinary virtues, cosmetic properties, medicinal merits, veterinary values, and household applications.

Along with thought-provoking bits of folk history and literary and spiritual references to herbs and nature, this directory includes step-by-step instructions on cooking with herbs and preparing herbal remedies, as well as gardening hints and seed-saving tips.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Arrowsmith's modern herbarium, first published in a German edition, draws on decades of personal experience. Working deeply rather than broadly, she focuses on 50 potent, multitasking herbs commonly found in Europe and North America, divided into sacred, solar and lunar categories. Some cultures, Arrowsmith (A Field Guide to the Little People) says, identified herbs as the "little people" of the plant world, and she encourages a similar respect for their medicinal, cosmetic, culinary, household and ritual virtues. She aims, she says, for a unified and balanced understanding against the modern tendency to isolate particular plant compounds for pharmaceutical purposes. She relates hundreds of ways to use herbs in daily life, with tips on planting, gathering, drying and storing; preparing tinctures, teas, salves, beauty treatments and special cures; treating humans and animals; cooking and baking; and creating nurturing environments. She includes recipes (sorrel fritters, marigold cordials, etc.); poems; quotes from the likes of Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton; legends; and describes the magical powers attributed to various herbs. While color photos, rather than the basic line drawings that are here, might better serve aspiring herbalists, this trove of herbal wisdom is a splendid homage to herbariums of the past. (Feb.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Arrowsmith, who holds a master's degree in acupuncture and Chinese medicine, has produced a beautifully written historical almanac of "50 Remarkable Herbs." Separate chapters are devoted to each herb-categorized as sacred, solar, or lunar. Within each chapter, Arrowsmith discusses appearance, gardening hints (including superstitions), herbal poetry, and recipes. The "Pearls of Herbal Wisdom" chapter introduces all things herbal: from the solar and lunar method of classifying herbs; naming conventions; and the gathering, drying, and storing methods to culinary virtues, cosmetic properties, household applications, and herbal folklore, wisdom, magic, and superstition. Those looking for a glossy, oversized coffee-table book might be disappointed; this is an encyclopedia of herbs written by someone with an obvious reverence for her subject. A worthy contribution to reference, alternative health, and even culinary collections.
—Maura Sostack

Product Details

Llewellyn Worldwide, LTD.
Publication date:
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6.90(w) x 9.90(h) x 1.50(d)

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Llewellyn Publications

Copyright © 2009 Nancy Arrowsmith
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-7387-1488-2

Chapter One


The Classification of Herbs

Carl Linnaeus, often heralded as the "Father of Taxonomy," founded our modern method of botanical classification in the last half of the eighteenth century. His system distinguishes plants by their determining external characteristics, dividing them into families, genera, and species according to their means of reproduction, number of leaves or petals, size of seeds, etc. This system enables scientists to classify newly discovered plants easily and accurately, but it does have one drawback. Because of its complexity and the foreign nomenclature used, it denies many laymen access. Without taking a course in botanical Latin, the uninitiated have few means of systematically approaching or naming plants found during a walk or in the garden.

Folk botanists have traditionally taken an eminently practical approach to the classification of herbs. If a plant grows, looks, or smells unusual, it is given a nickname to describe these characteristics. "Dog" or "sow" plants are common weeds, and graphic names such as piss-a-bed or goutweed are used to remind us of the medicinal effects of the plant on man and beast. Because of the numerous folk names developed by folk healers and herbalists, I have included as many as possible, in numerous languages, in each herb chapter. This way, it is easier to trace the plant's most consistent uses and discover new applications. I have also given the etymological derivations for the herb's names, in order to help dispel some of the mystery surrounding the plant's nomenclature.

Above and beyond this, I have employed an unorthodox method of classification in dividing the plants into sacred, solar, and lunar herbs. This will, I hope, serve to simplify categorization for beginners and allow herb enthusiasts to discover new aspects of the herbs they thought they knew so well.

Indeed there is a woundy luck in names, sirs, And a main mystery, an' a man knew where to vind it.

-Ben Johnson, A Tale of a Tub, IV.II

Names and Naming

In scientific circles, the use of the word "plant" (the generic term for members of the vegetable kingdom) has been mainly restricted, since 1550, to denote smaller plants and herbs; it is only rarely applied to trees and shrubs. In the seventeenth century, physician and botanist William Coles defined the word more widely: "By Plants I meane whatsoever the Superficies of the Earth doth put forth, if it be enbued with a vegetative Soule, and that onely."

The word "herb" is derived from the Old French erbe and the Latin herba, which originally meant grass or grasses. In this book, "herb" is used to designate all those plants used in the preparation of food or medicine, or for their scent, flavor, or other useful properties. The term is occasionally combined with a proper name to form herb names, as in Herb Robert, Herb Bennet, etc.

The word "grass" originally had the same meaning as "herb," but has come to refer mostly to those plants pertaining to the botanical family Poaceae or Gramineae. The old meaning is preserved in common herb names such as lemon grass, goose grass, scurvy grass, etc.

An archaic term, "wort," is often used in herb names, although the word itself has long gone out of normal use. St. John's wort, figwort, pennywort, elfwort, and mugwort are all herbs. The Old English word léac or leek is employed in the same manner (as in houseleek). "Wood" is sometimes used to designate a woody herb, as in southernwood and wormwood.

"Weeds" are commonly assumed to be harmful plants of no value whatsoever. But many useful herbs still bear the name "weed"-duckweed, hawkweed, and seaweed, for example. And many plants of great value to humans are classified as weeds, the best example being nettles. Perhaps it would be best, in view of these considerations, to adopt a more charitable definition of the word "weed": a weed is a plant whose virtues we do not know or fully appreciate.

The Botanical Identification of Herbs

The plant descriptions given in this book are often sketchy due to the book's extensive nature. Therefore, a word of warning! If there is a golden rule associated with herb gathering, it is this: if in doubt, do not pick the herb. A good rule of thumb to follow when gathering herbs is to go out and identify the plant, physically, three separate times before picking it. This is not overcautious advice, since many wild herbs, especially the confusing members of the Apiaceae (Umbelliferae) family, can be poisonous. Local variations within a species can also be disconcerting, and it is wise to check a local botanical guide for final identification before harvesting. Herbs found in the Alpine forests will not be identical to the same herbs found in the Colorado Rockies or the Scottish moors. Another cause of confusion is the many folk names that are assigned indiscriminately to plants. In many of these cases, it is easier to learn the correct botanical nomenclature than to torture yourself with misleading folk names.

A good precaution is to learn to identify all the poisonous plants in your neighborhood before progressing to the edible plants. It is easier to avoid picking the ten or twenty poisonous plants than it is to learn to identify hundreds of edible, healing plants, along with their many subspecies and variations.

Science when well digested is nothing but good sense and reason.

-Stanislaus, King of Poland, Maxims, No. 43

A Solar and Lunar Method of Classification

My personal experience with herbs, along with the knowledge I have gleaned from old herbals and folk literature, has suggested a simple system of herbal classification. As mentioned previously, I've categorized the herbs in this book according to how each herb is directly influenced by the sun and the moon-the two most powerful heavenly bodies. This is a highly subjective division, but it can form a basis for further insights into the nature of herbs.

Lunar herbs, strongly influenced by the movement and phases of the moon, tend to be leafy and fleshy and grow close to the ground. Muted colors of red, blue, white, and green predominate. These herbs are primarily tonic in their medicinal action. The effects are often more gradual, and they must often be taken regularly over several days or weeks for their restorative properties to unfold.

Among Solar herbs, bright yellow, orange, and green colors predominate. These tend to grow upward, with thin spiky leaves, and are strongly influenced by the solstices and movements of the sun. Solar herbs have mostly bitter or sharply aromatic medicinal properties.

There are a very small number of herbs that seem to balance, in equal measure, the principles of solar and lunar; these have been considered sacred in many countries. Fern and mistletoe are two of these sacred herbs, and are credited with unusual healing properties.

My solar/lunar classification system evolved from the system often used in the old herbals, in which some plants were considered male, and plants with different characteristics within the same species were considered female. For example, red blossoming yarrows were male, and white-blossoming yarrows were female. The division between the sun and the moon, male and female, and solar and lunar seems self-evident from a passive study and observation of nature. One of the first parallels drawn by children and members of "primitive" societies is the parallel between man and woman on the one hand, and the sun and the moon on the other. The sun's power is direct, warming, strong, and penetrating, with an easily foreseeable daily and yearly increase and decrease, like a man's vigor. The moon is always changing, waxing and waning like a woman's womb with child, growing full and then ebbing. These two opposite poles of authority-solar and lunar, male and female, yin and yang-extend their influence to all living things, down to the smallest herbs.

The Greek theory of the four humors divided people and diseases into four distinct groups, closely related to the four elements and the four temperatures (hot, cold, moist, dry). The humors were considered to be opposing pairs rather than a cycle, as is the case in Chinese medicine. Similar to the Chinese system, each humor was related to a season, to an element, and to temperature, moisture, or dryness. Diseases were classified as being hot, cold, moist, or dry to a certain degree and treated accordingly, either by giving herbs and medicines that counteracted that specific humor (such as cold and dry herbs to treat a moist fever), or by purging and bleeding the victim to try to reduce the influence of the offending humor. One of the seminal books of Western medicine, Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, written in 1621, spends a thousand pages documenting the learned discussions of the time for the treatment of just one humor, melancholy.

The complex classification system of the four humors was then modified and simplified until herbs in herbals came to be grouped simply as male or female. It seems incongruous that the four humors has been mostly forgotten today-few people even know how important it once was in the history of Western medicines. Rudolf Steiner tried to reinstate it in his philosophy of anthroposophy, and Hildegard Medicine (based on the teachings of the medieval abbess Hildegard von Bingen) still makes use of it, but there is little popular understanding of how herbs can be male or female in their natures.


Herbs definitely have their seasons. The most easily recognizable are those related to the reproductive process: germination, budding, blossoming, seeding, hibernation, and death. These seasons are closely related to the temporal seasons. But herbs also follow other natural patterns and seasonal rhythms. They are extremely sensitive to the movements of the moon, the sun, and the stars. The fact that the growth of herbs waxes and wanes with the moon and the lunar cycle was once considered self-evident. Astrological influences were also studied to determine the best sowing, planting, and harvesting procedures. A glimpse into almost any herbal written before the eighteenth century will support this. The procedures used to discover optimal magical, astrological, and botanical seasons of plants were often amazingly complex, as were the rituals used to gather the herbs. These teachings have since fallen into disrepute, although not in some rural areas where the ancient traditions still live on. There, plants are still sown "by the signs," and locals instinctively know the best time to harvest.

Given that the growth of plants corresponds to the waxing and the waning of the moon, most plants have more sap and more juice during the three days before the full moon. This should be taken into account when gathering herbs: oily, juicy, or fleshy plants you plan to use immediately should be gathered shortly before the full moon. If they are to be dried, however, these same plants should be gathered while the moon is on the wane. This helps to avoid spoilage during the drying process. Basket makers and carpenters know that dry, fibrous, or brittle plants will be suppler before the full moon. Leaf growth is greater before the full moon, and root growth after the full moon. There is also often a change in the weather around the time of the full moon. Most plants have a growth spurt during the May full moon, and the fall harvest moon once told farmers when to harvest various crops.

The sun influences all plants. Aside from the fact that herbs are traditionally considered most potent at the time of the solstices (mugwort and St. John' s wort at the summer solstice, mistletoe at the winter solstice), plants respond directly to the rising and setting of the sun. Many flowers close in the evening with the sun, only to reopen at the first rays of dawn. Heliotropic plants such as the sunflower follow the sun in its travels across the sky, twisting around to catch the last rays with their heads. Indeed, most plants grow toward sunlight, craning their necks to get at the light. Ivy, however, turns away from direct light. All this has a practical bearing on herb harvesting: leafy and flowering parts should always be collected in the morning, just after the plants have awakened and the dew has dried. They are then under the beneficial influence of the sun, and at their freshest and strongest.

Herbal harvests should, if at all possible, be attuned to natural seasonal influences, and lunar and solar influences should also be taken into account. In most cases, leaves should be gathered when the plants are blooming or shortly before they blossom. Flowers are generally cut in the bloom and sometimes in the bud. Seeds and nuts are harvested at maturity. Roots are dug in the evening or early morning, and in fall or early spring when the juices return to the roots, or have not yet surged upward into the leafy parts.

Herbs should be gathered in quantities sufficient to last one year-and one year only, with a few exceptions. New, fresh plants will usually have grown to maturity during that year and can be gathered anew. One-year-old dried herbs usually have little medicinal value and should be disposed of quickly. Large amounts of leftover herbs can be boiled down with water and used as a cosmetic, as refreshing bath additives, or as warming foot and hand baths, or they can be thrown onto the compost heap. If larger amounts are needed for the winter, tinctures, oils, or salves can be prepared from the herbs while they are still fresh. Roots often keep longer than fresh plant parts.

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted, A time to kill, and a time to heal ...

-Ecclesiastes 3:1-3


An old Austrian peasant saying claims that the herbs needed to cure the major diseases of people living in a house will be found growing within a few yards of that house. This may seem fanciful, but there is a kernel of truth in it. It has something to do with the universal nature of the plants that grow near human habitations. Certain climactic situations and soil types will produce plants with the medicinal properties needed to treat the diseases caused by those same situations. For example, goutweed usually grows in damp places, where joint complaints are a widespread problem. Red, white, and yellow dead nettles proliferate where urinary problems or chronic infections abound. Nettles thrive where animals are raised and meat is a principal part of the human diet; nettles are a healthy addition to such diets. Pulmonary herbs often grow in places where allergies are a big problem. And so on. Plants are often trying to tell us something about the situation we are living in, and can point out remedies to the sensitive herbalist.

The strength, aroma, and taste of herbs vary considerably from place to place and from season to season. The nature of the soil, the sun, the precipitation or shade available, the altitude, the latitude, and the presence or absence of certain plant neighbors all exert their influence. As a result, the active ingredients of plants grown in different places may vary surprisingly. Mountain plants tend to be more potent, and wild plants are usually stronger in flavor than cultivated herbs. Plants that receive more sun tend to be sturdier and have higher ethereal oil contents. Herbs grown in the dark or the damp are often medicinally worthless. Plants grown in small, tight places near city air and exhaust fumes should not be used for cookery, medicine, or cosmetics. Observation and experience teaches the herbalist about the conditions needed to produce optimal results for each herb. Until one has fully mastered the secrets of a plant's growing preferences and its varying strengths, I advise picking several examples of the same species, from different areas and growing conditions, and mixing them well. This will avoid, for example, subjecting a patient to large fluctuations in the medicinal potency of the drug.


Excerpted from ESSENTIAL HERBAL WISDOM by NANCY ARROWSMITH Copyright © 2009 by Nancy Arrowsmith. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Nancy Arrowsmith (Arizona) is the founder and former editor-in-chief of Kraut & Rüben, Germany’s first organic gardening magazine. She also founded the international seed organization Arche Noah, with the mission to preserve endangered plants. Arrowsmith has a master’s degree in acupuncture and runs her own healing practice in Arizona. She is also the author of the classic A Field Guide to the Little People (Farrar Straus & Giroux).

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Essential Herbal Wisdom 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
AnnAJ More than 1 year ago
This is not just another dry how-to book on making herbal preparations, but an in-depth stroll through the history of how we have used and looked at the marvelous plants called herbs.Wonderful stories and recipes , which keep you reading . Readable for those who know little about herbs, but also a source book for those who know more about them.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago