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American Household Botany by Judith Sumner

American Household Botany by Judith Sumner. Portland, OR: Timber Press; 2004. 396 pp. ISBN 0-88192-652-3. $27.95

The plant kingdom is at present, and probably always will be, the principal biological resource that sustains humankind. Much too often we equivocally view plants as if they were “inanimate,” mostly for decorative purposes, silently present as part of the landscape, easily forgetting that plants have always been a vital source of food, medicine, fodder, fiber, dyes, fragrances, and fuel.

In comparison to the common usage of plants in many other countries, little is known about the use of economically important plants in the United States from the beginning of the Colonial period to the start of the twentieth century. Since the vast majority of this country’s population currently resides in urban areas, much of the history of how the Pilgrims and other European settlers brought plants from their homeland, as well as how they got acquainted with the plants used by the North American natives, has been lost or simply forgotten.

Judith Sumner’s book, American Household Botany: A History of Useful Plants 1620-1900, is clear evidence of the wide use and importance that a great variety of plants, both native and introduced, have had throughout this country’s history.

Currently, many books are available on the subject of economic botany, which is the study of useful plants, particularly those which have economic importance. But there are very few that specifically cover the domestic or household uses of plants in the United States. This book covers topics missing or only slightly touched upon by other authors, such as the various methods of canning and preserving different plant products for their use as food or drink, as well as the use of plants for landscaping by the Americans of yesteryear.

The book illustrates the rich diversity of plants used by farmers in New Hampshire; for example, 32 different varieties of beans (Phaseolus spp.) from diverse areas of origin were extensively cultivated there. Within that topic, the author points out the toxicological aspects of certain types of beans, known as fava beans, which are still cultivated and consumed in various parts of the world today. The chronic consumption of fava beans (Vicia fava) leads to a debilitating (and possibly fatal in children) condition known as “favism,” which is a genetic abnormality that results in hemolytic anemia and occurs most commonly among people of Mediterranean descent. Fortunately, this type of bean was substituted for American varieties long ago in the United States.

Dr. Sumner, who is professor of medicinal botany at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, presents a unique and enjoyable introduction to the domestic uses of various plants. One need only leaf through any one of the book’s ten chapters to receive a wealth of information accompanied by interesting bits of scientific data written in an amenable style.

Chapter One introduces the reader to the plants used by Native American agriculture such as corn (maize), as well as various other plants the Europeans tasted for the first time like pecans (Carya illinoensis) and black walnuts (Juglans nigra), to name just two. This chapter also addresses the introduction of various species of plants brought from various parts of the globe into the American continent by the European settlers, such as hemp (Cannabis sativa) and flax (Linum usitatissimum).

Chapter Two includes information about grain crops and their uses, principally for food and fodder, but also for the brewing and distillation of beverages. A brief mention is made of the hallucinogenic effects of the ergot fungus that infects rye, which may explain the bizarre behavior of some people who, after presumably consuming bread contaminated with ergot, were mistakenly accused of witchcraft in Salem during 1692.

Chapter Three mentions the use of various seeds and tubers and includes an interesting account of Thomas Jefferson’s keen scientific interest in botany and how he grew an astounding variety of garden plants at his home in Monticello.

Chapter Four is devoted to the different varieties of fruits and their diverse uses by Native Americans, and it features little-known anecdotes related to the importance placed on certain fruits by personalities such as Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, and John Adams.

Chapters Five and Six mention the use of plants for preserving foods, as well as their role as beverages, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. Once again, curious anecdotes are included in the text, such as the origin of the commonly used word “punch” to denote a drink served during certain festivities. The author mentions that this word is a corruption of the Hindi word panch meaning five, alluding to the use of five different ingredients originally used in its preparation.

The importance of tea (Camellia sinensis) is highlighted not only as a drink during colonial times, but also because of its relation to politics, since the taxation of this commodity is one of the reasons why America sought independence from Great Britain.

Various herbs used as spices are eloquently covered, especially chili peppers (Capsicum spp.), nutmeg (Myristica fragrans), and ginger (Zingiber officinale). These spices were particularly important, then as now, not only for scents and flavorings, but also as therapeutic agents, thanks to their phytochemical content.

Chapter Seven describes the medicinal use of both native and introduced plants. This is an especially interesting account of how, at a time when pharmacies were few or simply nonexistent, Americans had to rely on herbs stored in the pantry or cultivated in the domestic garden, as well as those they foraged from their environs such as prairies and forests. Various species of healing plants are well covered, along with a brief, yet technically complete description of their main active constituents. Also included are notes on interesting facts about the herbs’ history, use, and origin, including the use of the ginsengs (both the Asian Panax ginseng and American P. quinquefolius), as well as the contributions of Asian and African medicinal plants introduced to American medical botany.

Chapter Eight covers the use of plants for textiles, wood, and fiber. The importance of various species of trees and other plants for timber, basketry, and furniture is amply covered in this section. Flax and hemp (which also have nutritional or medicinal properties) are mentioned here due to their importance as fiber plants. Plants used for dyes, such as Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) and galls from oak trees (Quercus spp.), which are rich in tannins, are featured in depth.

The importance of plants for landscaping in American history is the subject of Chapter Nine. Here we learn about the influence that English gardening had on the lavish landscaping in the new republic undertaken by notable personalities of the time, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Hancock.

Chapter Ten describes publications and academic courses devoted to botany in the United States, as well as the influence plants have had on decoration, art, and festive occasions, such as the role played by holly (Illex spp.) and European mistletoe (Viscum album) during Christmas.

This book not only includes information about plants, but is also a rich compendium of history and a vivid description of American life during a span of almost three centuries. It provides a window into the past, describing the hardships as well as the simple pleasures associated with the societal framework of that era. The work is enhanced by many line drawings of various plants as well as beautiful color photographs of many important species.>

American Household Botany is a landmark book, replete with interesting facts and anecdotes, including pertinent and well researched technical details. This book is highly recommended for both scientists and lay readers for its rich account of the great importance plants have had, and undoubtedly will continue to have, within this country’s history.

—Armando González Stuart, PhD Cooperative Pharmacy Program University of Texas at El Paso