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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

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. ISBN 0-88192-638-8. $29.95.

This book transcends a lost glimpse of British and Irish ethnobotany based on the naïveté of our assumptions. When most American readers think about historical and ethnobotanical use of plants in the British Isles, our minds invariably travel to the Herbal of John Gerarde (1597, and the more widely reprinted Thomas Johnson edition of 1633) and Gerarde’s contemporaries. In Chapter one “Herbs without the Herbals: Retracing a Lost Tradition” Allen and Hatfield reveal that almost half the plants in Gerard are not found wild in Britain and many were probably not found in the best-stocked physic gardens of his day.

They write, “The herbals indeed were trebly misleading. They reflected the general conspiracy of silence among the learned about the extent and efficacy of folk medicine; they gave indiscriminate endorsement to just about every alleged plant virtue that had ever appeared in print; and they were written largely in obliviousness of the differences imposed by geography which make the flora of one region dissimilar from that of another.”

Here, the major revelation for the American reader is that the classic British herbals do not necessarily reflect in anyway British folk or local traditions of herb use. Rather they reflect bibliographical influences from Greek or Latin classics, transformed ad nauseam through the centuries to contemporary languages, speckled with influence left in Britain by the Romans, Germanic immigrants of the post-Roman era, and the herbal repertoire that emerged from ecclesiastical confines, all largely to the neglect of ethnobotany at the local level. “Herbs without Herbals” provides a fascinating journey through the history and development of herbal traditions and influences in the United Kingdom. The authors separate ethnobotanical folk wisdom of the British Isles from the published literature and reveal an expanded horizon of herb use. 

The majority of the book is devoted to a compendium of uses of over 400 plant species, grouped in chapters according to the sequence of superorders, orders, and families in the Cronquist classification system. Since that order of the world brings only a dizzy yawn to most readers, separate indexes covering both scientific and vernacular names quickly lead the reader to individual species. The index is essential to finding information in this work.

Under each plant article, one finds information on both scientific and common names, its general (continental) distribution, followed by commentary on use. All material is referenced to notes at the end of the chapter, which leads to the bibliography of published and unpublished resources. A unique approach is presenting material according to geographical use. For example under dandelion, we learned of its fame throughout Europe as a diuretic, but the geographic approach reveals 333 specific references from Britain and Ireland for additional uses. Approximately one-quarter of those references relate to the common folk use of dandelion as an application for warts, followed in popularity (55 references) to dandelion’s uses for the treatment of coughs, colds, and respiratory troubles. Further analysis of their references helps the authors reveal that there is far greater diversity of additional folk uses in Ireland compared to Britain; some predictable based on the doctrine of signature such as use of the leaves for toothache, and others more arcane, like a belief recorded from a Limerick that for the leaves to be effective as a tonic, those with white veins had to be eaten by a mane, and those with red veins, consumed by a woman.

Based on the weight of several geographical records for a single use, one has to reconsider dandelion and its potential. Uses for cold and respiratory conditions are not what we think of when we think of uses of dandelions. This book uncovers the unexpected. Is the next Digitalis still hidden in British folk traditions awaiting discovery in these pages?

Just another herb book? No! Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland takes a fresh approach to presenting seldom seen data in a single source. Despite its geographical focus, the plants in the book are not limited to the British Isles. At least half are naturalized in North America, and I would bet that more than half of the remaining species are found in American horticulture. 

—Steven Foster