My Favorite Reference Books for Herbal Practitioners
It's time to pretend I'm a librarian again and roll out my next round of #HerbLibrary recommendations.
These four books are ones that I refer to often in my own practice and I think they suit the needs of many kinds of traditional western herbalists. They are reference-style books, so if you are looking for books that will teach you how to become an herbalist, check out my recommendations on books for beginners.
The Earthwise Herbal Repertory
By Matthew Wood with David Ryan
When I heard that Matthew was working on this book a few years back I could not wait for the day that I would finally have a copy in my Apothecary. While it’s the newest book to my shelves it’s already become a favorite. When I first saw a homeopathic materia medica it was almost enough to convince me to study homeopathy in addition to herbalism because their way of categorizing remedies is so useful and effective. Wood, who comes from a family of homeopaths, realized that such a system was needed for herbalists and set out to create a homeopathic-style repertory for traditional western herbalists.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with what a homeopathic materia medica looks like, it’s a beautiful thing. Say you’re interested in herbs for treating a cough. Looking under the respiratory section and you’ll find “Cough” listed and under that different subsections such as “Acute, Initial Stages,” “Fever with Cough,” or “Dry, Irritable.” Within those sections are listed herbs with further indications. Within the “Dry, Irritable” section, for example, are listed herbs such as “Cimicfuga (whooping cough; stuffy feeling in chest)... Hyssopus (dry skin and lungs; chronic, dried-out)... Plantago (cough as if a fiber is caught in the lung; dry, irritable).” (192)
What The Earthwise Herbal Repertory provides are the details about herbs that help herbalists create super-effective remedies. Of course, there’s a lot that goes into making a good remedy and establishing healing care with a client, but a homeopathic style herbal can help practitioners understand why two herbs are traditional lung tonics, but one works better than the other in different situations.
The Repertory is best used in addition to other materia medicas with full-length plant profiles and a sturdy understanding of traditional western herbalism energetics (The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism by Matthew Wood and Culpeper’s Medicine by Graeme Tobyn are good places to start). As someone who loves the wordiness of Wood and his long stories of the herbs he loves, I’m especially pleased to see that this shorthand of knowledge still translates into profound and useful wisdom.
The Desktop Guide to Herbal Medicine
by Brigitte Mars
Mar’s book is well-worn and loved in my practice. The title is uninspiring but does describe it’s function well - it’s an herbal book that will probably live on your desk most days as you work as an herbalist. Mar’s has written a book that features short, but well-written and interesting plant profiles supported by her warmth and heart. I’ve always liked that she includes energetic correspondences to her herbs including planetary and elemental signatures (which is becoming more common in materia medicas but her book was one of the first I came across outside of magickal materia medicas which included this information). I like, too, that Mar’s includes the etymological origins of the Latin binomials of the herbs, as well as extensive lists of common names, which touch upon important folkloric information about how herbal ancestors approached plants and understood their healing qualities.
The Desktop Guide to Herbal Medicine is a sturdy workhorse of a book and I recommend it to all of my apprentices and students. It gets to the point on what herbs are good for and is an excellent quick reference guide for the practicing herbalist and family herbalist alike.
Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine
by Thomas Bartram
I kept seeing references to Bartram’s Encyclopedia by my herbal friends in the UK. It’s not a book that I had heard referenced of recommended during my studies as a student, nor had I seen it on the shelves of other herbalists I knew. Curious I purchased a used copy and it’s become a well-loved reference. The Bartram’s Encyclopedia is as it suggests - a series of short encyclopedic-style entries on herbs, recipes, technical terms, healing modalities, health complaints, and diseases.
One of the things I like most about Bartram’s Encyclopedia is that it includes recipes from liquid extracts, syrups, teas, and topical applications. It’s a really useful guide and very practical in its tone. I find myself opening this book at random and reading through whatever entries are upon the page because not only do I usually learn about a new use for an herb or way of preparing it, but there are also entries on herbal tradition (such as the origin of the Chelsea Physic Garden) or a term I hadn't known before (for example, “orexigenic” is an herb which increases the appetite).
Here’s a lovely sample passage for “Lips” from Bartram’s Encyclopedia, illustrating the way the book covers a lot of ground within a short summary:
Cold sores, sensitive, cracked, blistered. Not to be confused with herpes simplex.
Causes: lowered resistance, menstrual disorders, constitutional weakness, shock, Vitamin C deficiency, food allergies.
Alternatives. Teas: Singly or in equal parts combination: Red Clover, Gotu Kola, Plantain.
Decoctions: Echinacea, Burdock root, Yellow Dock root, Poke root.
Tablets/capsules: Echinacea. Poke root. Slippery Elm.
TInctures: Formula. Equal parts: Echinacea, Red Clover, Gotu Kola. Dose: 1 - 2 teaspoons thrice daily in water or honey.
Topical. Aloe Vera gel or fresh pulp. Houseleek juice. Chickweed ointment. Jojoba oil. Comfrey (moist). Witch Hazel (dry).
Aromatherapy. 3 - 5 drops of any one of the following oils in a heavy carrier oil (Avocado) to ensure penetration: Chamomile, Jasmine, Orange Blossom, Patchouli, Sandalwood.
Diet. See: DIET - SKIN DISORDERS.
Supplements. Vitamin A, B-complex, C (3 - 6g daily). Vitamin E (400iu morning and evening). Calcium, Biochemical silica, Zinc.
Short and sweet but with a lot of information and options for care provided. With over 900 entries Bartram’s Encyclopedia is one of the most broad-ranging reference guides on herbal care that I have in my apothecary.
The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook
by James Green
Green’s book on making herbal remedies is the most extensive that I have come across while still remaining accessible to herbal practitioner and home herbalists alike. And Green has a sense of humor which shows up throughout the guide in addition to his illustrated guides to making herbal medicine. He covers both measured formulation and folk techniques for making herbal remedies in his guide as well as information on shelf-life and the cons and pros of different techniques. Again, this is a book that I recommend my students and apprentices to get.
The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook nurtured my inherent love of making herbal remedies as a student and has grown with me as a practitioner which speaks to the book’s usefulness and longevity. Also, for those of you who like me who do not use a lot of alcohol-based remedies in their practice, you’ll love that the vast majority of techniques covered in this book move beyond the standard alcohol extract.
Those are my recommendations of useful books for the practicing herbalist!
What books are essential to your practice? Let me know in the comments below. I always love getting to meet the book companions of herbalists and healers.