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The Herbal Lore of Wise Women and Wortcunners: The Healing Power of Medicinal Plants


The Herbal Lore of Wise Women and Wortcunners: The Healing Power of Medicinal Plants by Wolf D. Storl. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books; 2012. Softcover, 392 pages. ISBN: 978-1-58394-358-8. $27.95.

The ambitious purpose of anthropologist Wolf D. Storl’s book is to illuminate differences among Western traditions of herbal medicine (which originated in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome) through the rise of Europe and the New World, and to contrast them with traditional Chinese models, Ayurveda, and other systems of healing. In particular, the author seeks to explain the differences between traditional Western herbalists and scientists immersed in only the biomedical model. In this regard, this book may be most successful with a readership comfortable in both science and myth. The title tells the story: Language such as “wortcunners” speaks of old wisdom.

In 15 chapters, Storl spans the underpinnings of Western herbal medicine, explaining astrology without apology, and provides enough detail to empower the novice while surprising the old hand. The first 3 chapters have a leisurely pace, yet they pack in a wealth of historical context enlivened with colorful detail. Herb lore, medical models, and philosophy are made understandable especially when explained in terms of language and cultural movements. Further chapters are devoted to plant qualities; becoming an herbalist; basic descriptions of phytochemicals; how to choose foods; making culinary, medicinal, and external preparations; growing herbs; harvesting in the right mindset; and women’s use of wisdom, magic, and consciousness-changing herbs. The section on growing will appeal to any beginning gardener, self-sufficient homesteader, or urban herbalist with limited space and time. While the discussion of herbal preparations covers familiar methods, the chapter provides enough detail for competent self-care. Storl also includes easily understood directions for dosing herbs with enough of a safety margin to reassure professionals (or even natural products lawyers).

Avoiding the cookbook style of “this herb for that condition,” the lessons on how to understand spinach, for instance, encourage the reader to integrate common knowledge with new facts so that he or she can approach a variety of conditions with different doses, combinations, or cautions. Further, the author provides an abundance of useful examples so that abstract philosophical or astrological ideas become more comprehensible. Storl’s 38 illustrations help make complex concepts easy to grasp visually as well. In the chapters on foods, Storl begins with staples and ends with poisons and includes a concise lexicon of active ingredients. Describing vegetables as medicine reiterates the concept that herbalists treat an individual’s way of life — including diet and mind-body modalities — as part of the prescription.

Because plants remain central to this wide-ranging exploration of healing traditions, the final chapter examines 6 botanical families in detail. These botanical “Family Portraits” provide technical, medical, and relational information that transmits to the reader a sense of the unique characteristics differentiating poppies from peas, and similar-acting herbs from each other. These 6 families include: Euphorbiaceae (spurges), Papaveraceae (poppies), Papilionaceae (aka Fabaceae; peas), Urticaceae (nettles), Rubiaceae (madders), and Ranunculaceae (buttercups).

The dense nature of each chapter may reflect the fact that the manuscript began as class lecture notes for Mr. Storl. Because of his interest in cultural ecology, Storl includes information about relationships among plants, people, culture, and physical matter from the soil to planets. Lest the reader doubt why a man is writing about women’s wisdom, Storl handles this material with the same great respect he affords what he terms “peasant shamanism.” German by birth, he created research opportunities for himself with healers from Switzerland to Benares, India, and Wyoming. When Storl explains the difference between treating herbs as commercial replacements for drugs or healing via relationships with plants, he speaks for holistic clinicians, biodynamic gardeners, and herbal educators who decry the emphasis on chemistry to the exclusion of energetics, or indeed, the attitude of the harvester, songs of the herbalist, and transcendent versus academic reality.

It is in the 5 chapters devoted to arcana, soul, consciousness, and plant drugs that Storl most directly challenges the evidence-based, reductionist model of phytotherapy. Few general herbals today include fly agaric (Amanita muscaria, Amanitaceae) mushroom or talking to plants in such a matter-of-fact manner. Select illustrations seem hand-drawn to express ideas not often found in other herb literature, and the appendix and endnotes make good reading as well. A bibliography includes authors familiar to HerbalGram readers as well as less commonly cited published literature.

I approached the task of reviewing this book with some reserve, never having heard of Wolf D. Storl, which may reflect poorly on my breadth of herbal education. But also I had legitimate concern regarding a title about wise women authored by someone who is not a wise woman. My reserve is dissolved. This is a book I wish I had written. However, I could not have done so, not having had the same earthy experience with plants and plant healers around the world that Storl communicates so generously. I recommend this book to any practicing herbalist and serious researcher who seeks a source of literature previously lacking in our discipline.

—Amanda McQuade Crawford Consultant Medical Herbalist The Ojai Center of Phytotherapy Ojai, California