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Hidden Natural Histories: Herbs: The Secret Properties of 150 Plants & Hidden Natural Histories: Trees: The Secret Properties of 150 Species

Hidden Natural Histories: Herbs: The Secret Properties of 150 Plants by Kim Hurst. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press; 2015. Paperback; 224 pages. ISBN: 978-0-226-27117-0. $25.00.

This book sets out to reveal the hidden histories of 150 herbs, telling stories of their usage for culinary, folkloric, religious, medicinal, cosmetic, craft, and domestic purposes. These histories are not actually hidden except to those who do not know much about herbs. Both the selection of plants and the descriptions of uses and history have a decidedly British orientation. For example, the holly that is described is the English holly (Ilex aquifolium, Aquifoliaceae), but there is no reference to the American holly (I. opaca) or the other Ilex species that have herbal uses. Most recent British plant books have an American authority on the topic to address these sorts of issues and adapt the information for a wider audience. While I recognize that this book is intended to describe only these 150 species, the emphasis on British botanicals is a serious limitation to its usefulness.

The herb information tends to be general and is often incomplete. For example, in reviewing the genus Origanum, there are two species described: sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana, Lamiaceae) and Greek oregano (O. vulgare). Use of the oregano described is not recommended because it has little flavor and fragrance.

Similar limitations exist for many of the big herb groups, such as scented geraniums (Geranium spp., Geraniaceae), thymes (Thymus spp., Lamiaceae), mints (Mentha spp., Lamiaceae), basils (Ocimum spp., Lamiaceae), and others. If the reader wants to learn about lavender, he or she will find just one species described, Lavandula angustifolia (Lamiaceae), which seems extremely limiting in the world as we know it now. Serious advances have been made in knowledge of the species, cultivars, varieties, and even chemotypes of herbal plants, and references are more valuable when incorporating these advances.

Most of the information is not specific and does not seem to be current or come from first-hand experience. Drawings are used rather than photographs, and the drawings do not always capture the plant details or give a real sense of the plant itself.

Perhaps a beginner with interest in herbs would find this book interesting, but for those with some working knowledge, I do not think this book would be worth the investment.

Hidden Natural Histories: Trees: The Secret Properties of 150 Species by Noel Kingsbury. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press; 2015. Paperback; 224 pages. ISBN 978-0-226-28221-3. $25.00.

This book focuses on the various uses of 150 trees that can be found in temperate, subtropical, and tropical regions around the world. Along with a general introduction and horticultural information on the tree, uses described include: construction and industry, drugs and intoxicants, culinary, craft, faith and spirituality, health and medicinal, farm and garden, and domestic.

Many herb books do not include information on trees, and for that reason I think this book is useful. Certain genera are really well-covered. For example, the genus Prunus (Rosaceae) has comprehensive coverage of six important species: apricot (P. armeniaca), sweet cherry (P. avium, plum (P. domestica), ume plum (P. mume), black cherry (P. serotina), and blackthorn (P. spinosa).

Unfortunately, in quite a few cases, the one species listed is the one used more often in Europe, and the American species are not mentioned. For example, the hornbeam described is European hornbeam (Carpinus betulus, Betulaceae), and our native species American hornbeam (C. caroliniana) and hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana, Betulaceae), both of which have uses, are not mentioned. Although in the case of the linden tree the reverse is true. The American linden (Tilia americana, Malvaceae) is described in the book for its use as a fragrance, tea, and medicine, but it is the small-leaved European linden (T. cordata) and the large-leaved linden (T. platyphyllos) that are more often used because of the aromatic volatile oils in the flowers.

In the section on birch (Betula spp., Betulaceae), there are no actual species referred to, and the genus is described in a general fashion. In plant usage, knowing the species is essential since the plant’s characteristics and constituents will vary, as will the horticultural requirements. Some useful trees are missing completely. One that I think should have been included is juneberry (Amelanchier canadensis, Rosaceae), which has uses both as food and as medicine. Also, one of my favorite trees that should have been included is the pawpaw (Asimina triloba, Annonaceae), a tree used for fiber and medicine.

I will use this book because there are so few references on the medicinal uses of trees, but I will be cognizant of its limitations. Perhaps some newcomers to the world of herbs will be surprised to learn and appreciate that there is an entire world of medicinal trees all around us. These trees are both native and introduced, temperate and tropical, common and rare. They deserve further study and recognition as essential and critical resources in herbal usage, as well as greater protections and heightened conservation efforts.

—Holly H. Shimizu
Consultant, Writer, and Lecturer
Former Executive Director, US Botanic Garden
First Curator, The National Herb Garden
Glen Echo, Maryland