New handbook makes herbal knowledge easy

It seems that every year Michael Balick, of the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, comes out with a new book. I have no idea how he does it, but have concluded that the man doesn’t sleep. As vice president for botanical science and director of economic botany at the garden, Balick is a world class expert on medicinal plants. And as a seasoned field researcher, he has scoured the globe in search of herbal medicines from many traditions.

I have come to expect excellence from Balick’s books, even as I am amazed by his prolific output. And while some of his previous works speak primarily to botanical professionals and scholars, his latest work, Rodale's 21st Century Herbal: A Practical Guide for Healthy Living Using Nature’s Most Powerful Plants, makes herbal knowledge accessible to everyone.

The book, published by Rodale, covers 180 botanicals, including information on what they are, where they come from, what they do, how to use them, and how to grow them.

Rodale's 21st Century Herbal offers three sections on herbs:

The World of Herbs: This section includes a global history of herbs, the basics of herbal botany, how herbs work, and why they have an effect on the body, palate, mind and mood.

Herbs to Know: An A-Z encyclopedia of over 180 of the world’s most useful herbs, this section includes instructions on how to grow herbs as well as suggestions for culinary, medicinal and ornamental uses for herbs.

Herbs for Life: This section details how to use and enjoy herbs in beauty and bath, for cleaning, scenting and decorating the home, in cooking and to achieve better health, energy and relaxation, and finally, how to design your own herb garden.

The book is rich with vivid photographs, not just of herbs themselves, but of various concoctions that can be made from them, and of images of garden design. Numerous charts bring together interesting bits of information on herbs used as dyes, herbs that may be useful for pets and herbs used as scents for potpourri.

If you are new to herbs, you will find in the first section of the book a crash course in what herbs are, their history, and the various cultural traditions from which herbal medicines derive. Balick packs in lively bits of information, describing ancient herbal texts and the most widely used botanicals in various traditions.

If there is anything missing in Rodale's 21st Century Herbal, it is a lack of specificity regarding the quantities in which different herbs should be used. I would expect the book to provide that information, but it doesn’t, so you must go elsewhere for that. In this regard, there is a disconnect between the author and the end user, who will want more clear instruction on incorporating herbal remedies into everyday life.

Aside from that sole complaint, Rodale's 21st Century Herbal is a lot of fun to leaf through. And while you will clearly derive far more from giving the book a serious read, the book delivers informative and entertaining information to even a casual reader. When I first picked up a copy, I learned several new things in just a few short minutes of browsing.

One of the most commonly asked questions I get is how to find good information on herbs. As a rapidly growing category, herbs are re-emerging as remedies that deserve a place in every home – not unlike the role they used to play in society, prior to the advent of synthetic pharmaceuticals. Today, we have more science supporting the benefits of herbs than ever before, much of which is neatly distilled into easy language in Rodale's 21st Century Herbal. This is one of Balick’s gifts: the ability to turn complex matter into easy information.

With this book, I have a new desk reference, and enthusiasts have a new guide to the vast, colorful, and rich world of herbals, from every continent. Whether you want to ogle beautiful, color pictures of herbs, sort out which herbs to keep in your kitchen, develop a home herbal pharmacy for everyday health needs or get valuable ideas for a home herbal garden, Rodale's 21st Century Herbal has come along at just the right time.