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Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland

Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland by David E. Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2004. 431 pp. 31 color photos and 57 B&W illustrations. ISBN 0-88192-638-8. $29.95.

When a book about plants is written by a botanist, there is an expectation that the content will be botanically and scientifically accurate, although the readability may be arid or unattractive to the lay person. In a similar manner, a book about botany written by a historian may well be enjoyable and compelling to read, but from a botanist’s viewpoint it could be imprecise in plant description and lacking in scientific rigor. Fortunately, there is no such dilemma in Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland by David Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield.

Allen is an anthropologist and historian, while Hatfield is a trained botanist. Together, this scholarly pair has produced an excellent work that combines impressive historical erudition with professional botanical expertise. Various books are currently available about the ethnobotany of developing countries, but very few authors have taken the time and effort to recount the traditional medicinal uses of plants from Europe with such detail.

Because the classical British herbals by Gerard and Culpepper date back to the renaissance period, their value as reference works for current therapeutic uses of plants is limited, even though some plants described in the herbals are still used today for various therapeutic applications (e.g., feverfew [Tanacetum parthenium] which is currently used in the treatment of migraines). Accordingly, a modern book that compiles the traditional uses of plants from Britain and Ireland has been long overdue.

With a painstaking effort to weed out myth and lore from fact, Allen and Hatfield cover 400 species of vascular plants, algae, bryophytes (mosses and liverworts), lichens, and fungi, including their history and popular medicinal uses.

The book contains 17 chapters. Chapter 1 serves as an introduction to the study of plants used in traditional medicine in Britain and Ireland. Chapter 2 summarizes the general organization and scope of the book. The remaining chapters cover the most important medicinal species found in Britain and Ireland (both native and introduced), arranged by family. The book includes a profile on the traditional therapeutic uses of each species mentioned as well as commentary by the authors regarding the authenticity of the data on some of the species. The final portion of this work includes an interesting appendix that addresses botanical treatments for animals (a feature not often present in other ethnobotanical texts) and three indexes that address folk uses of medicinal plants, the scientific names of the species covered, and their vernacular or common names.

Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition is well illustrated with 57 line drawings from various earlier herbals and 31 beautiful color photographs by Deni Bown, a renowned British herbalist, photographer, and author.


The historical detail, coupled with the precise technical information, make this book interesting and useful to anyone interested in a serious account of the medicinal flora used in the traditional medicine of the greater part of the United Kingdom. Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland is one of the few modern works that has endeavored to rescue invaluable information about a centuries-old tradition.


—Armando González Stuart, PhD Herbal Research Coordinator University of Texas at El Paso / UT-Austin Cooperative Pharmacy Program