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A Short History of Medicine
2000 B.C. - "Here, eat this root."
1000 B.C. - "That root is heathen, say this prayer."
1850 A.D. - "That prayer is superstition, drink this potion."
1940 A.D. - "That potion is snake oil, swallow this pill."
1985 A.D. - "That pill is ineffective, take this antibiotic."
2000 A.D. - "That antibiotic is artificial. Here, eat this root."
I have always had a passing interest in plant properties and their benefits, and as such tend to avoid vitamin supplements by trying to eat a balanced diet, although the chocolate section of my diet is a little top heavy, ok very top heavy. So I was very interested to watch the BBC series with ethno botanist James Wong, and as I enjoyed it so much I bought the book.
James Wong trained at Kew Gardens and is often popping up on country type programmes on the BBC particularly where they need more than a 'this plant will die if you plant it here' kind of input. He also has a degree in ethno botany and for those of you whose first reaction to that word was 'what?' the dictionary definition is: The scientific study of the traditional knowledge and customs of people concerning plants and their medical uses.
The title of the book is almost a stroke of genius, anyone who hasn't previously heard of it can't resist picking it up and flicking through, although you would have thought that the pictures of pansies and daisies on the cover would have been a pretty big clue, unless they thought it was a front and the cannabis plants were all inside. I'm sorry to disappoint, they are not. The book is a recipe book for natural remedies for common ailments, I would like to say that our ancestors used, and they would have some, but in some cases the ingredients are a little too diverse for that. It also covers beauty treatments, and the bit that interests me the most, the natural properties of the plants.
As with any recipe book once you've got beyond the introduction and welcome you have a list of store cupboard basics that you need: Olive oil, Sea Salt, honey etc, so nothing too odd there, then it continues with Beeswax and Emulsifying Wax! Ok, oddly I do actually have a small bar of beeswax that I use occasionally for sewing, but really? The reason behind this is if you are wanting to make lotions and creams is that oil and water doesn't mix. So you need the emulsifier to bind it all together, Beeswax apparently is also anti-bacterial. He also uses a number of essential oils in some of the recipes of which I do have a small supply, having dabbled in aromatherapy room burners in the past, however they are old - so I'm not sure I'd want to put them in a lotion that was destined for my skin and if you didn't have them this could get expensive.
You then have a section on growing your own plants entitled outdoor pharmacy, and to be fair as I do love my garden there are a number of the items that can already be found there, of course there are a far greater number that are not - marshmallow or liquorice anyone! You then also have some basic rules on foraging in the wild. I am always a bit nervous about foraging anything other than blackberries so not a good starting point.
Then we get to the remedies.
The remedies within the book cover all sorts of minor complaints like water retention,
Cystitis, PMS, immune boosters, memory booster (wine infused with rosemary) and then fun beauty things like hand care and a bath bomb.
However, the problems with the recipes in this book are many and varied:
Problem 1: Seasonality
It's winter, I've been out for a walk, my hands are dry and chapped - There's a nice looking Jelly Balm in the book I'll try that
20g Calendula flowers - mine are still in the seed packet in the cupboard, won't be flowering until at least june.
25g St John's wort flowers - those are still in the seed packet in the garden centre
Olive oil - Hooray, I've got one
White petroleum jelly - Well if you're going to buy that you might as well just buy a hand cream
Now even our local Waitrose doesn't stock out of season, or in season for that matter Calendula flowers, so Tesco certainly won't have it.
Problem 2: Time required
So say I've been suffering from athletes foot just recently (for example purposes only I'm not going to turn this into the spa of embarrassing illnesses) and really need something now to relieve the itching - yes, there's a foot bath let's give it a try:
10 bulbs garlic finely chopped - Ok I've got that, maybe not quite 10 bulbs but I could do a smaller amount
100g fresh sage leaves - Sage is hardy all year so I've got that
500ml cider vinegar - got that, we're doing well here.
Place in a jar, add vinegar. Seal and leave to infuse for 1 month shaking occasionally. But my feet itch NOW!
Problem 3: Odd ingredients from specialist stockists
This speaks for itself really but for example, the Heartburn remedy requires 2 cups of Irish moss, and I'm sure even our Irish neighbours can't just go out and pull it off a wall it has to be a special sort of Irish moss. There is also a Hops Pillow as a cure for Insomnia - you can get Hops, but in bulk so unless you have a friendly neighbourhood brewery near you that could spare you a handful it's not really practical, although it's a shame because it does look like a good remedy.
Problem 4: Gardening and the great outdoors
The first problem here is the foraging thing, now this is something I would love to have the knowledge and feel confident enough to do. However my confidence stops at Blackberries and Sloes. Many of the recipes use a common garden weed called Plantain - now I Know what it is. I am 100% certain I know what it is; would I pick it out of the garden and use it? No! I always have that nagging little doubt that it's not the right thing and we'll all die of food poisoning and as anyone who has ever watched the River Cottage foragers will know - if you aren't sure don't try it, unless you have an expert with you.
The second problem here is the actual growing of things. After I had read the book I thought Echinacea root would be a useful thing to have in the garden, it is used in a number of cold remedies, so I bought a packet of seeds, out of which 3 germinated so I planted them out and 2 survived. Echinacea is a perennial which means it comes back each year, the first year they grew to about 6 cms so they would certainly not have enough root to use. Last year it was larger and we had a flower but it still isn't large enough to use. The other issue is last year my husband wasn't very impressed with it aesthetically so it was lucky to survive the summer, this year it may not be so lucky, mind you as yet there is no sign of it at all so it may not have survived the winter. The chamomile met a similar end, but I'm going to try that one again.
So in light of all these problems, you would think I didn't like the book, but I do. Despite the issues there is a lot of really useful information in here and even though I haven't made any of the recipes completely there are a couple that I would, and there are things that we have incorporated into our daily lives. One was the discovery of Goji Berries that the Chinese have been using for centuries as immune boosters and in various remedies, my husband has them daily on his cereal and has been since the series came out in 2009 and he hasn't has any colds or anything since with one exception when he couldn't get them for a month due to a shortage. I put it down to coincidence but it's a good one. Chillies are also used in many of these recipes as cold relief and immune booster and they can act as an antiseptic. I have never been a huge fan of chillies but they have crept into our diet more, particularly when colds are threatening. You can also easily adapt many of the ideas within the book, using the ingredients that are readily available.
The last section of the book is really excellent it gives details of all the plants, flowers, berries and roots used in the book. Says where to find them and what their properties are with pictures.
I do think many of these recipes have a few too many obstacles to making them, but they do look lovely and if Mr Wong were to bring out a range of products I would definitely give them a try.
As for the buying options, the current price on Amazon is £9.99 with used options from £3.10 through the marketplace. However it is a couple of years old now and it was a popular book so I am sure you will be able to pick it up cheaply in charity shops.
Thank you for reading and if you chose to buy the book I hope you get as much pleasure out of it as I have, or even better, actually make something in its entirety.
Thank you for reading
MaryanneH - also on ciao under Digbycat
Firstly let me inform you that this book has nothing to do with illegal drugs. Originally a BBC TV series (which I did not see), this book guides you through the myriad of plants which can contribute to better health. According to the forward, the Western World has largely forgotten that plants have plenty of medicinal uses, whereas the rest of the world rely heavily on knowledge of what's what. Most of us just see plants as purely decorative, but this book will get us thinking about how we can make more use of them, and be less reliant on the drug store, the beauty counter and the health food shop.
Released in 2009, this desk diary sized 224 page hardback is written by James Wong. I bought mine from www.thebookdepository.co.uk priced at £11.37, not bad it's also delivered for free. My intentions were aimed at making more use of my garden, as well as tackling problems which have bugged me for years, such as insomnia. If I can avoid a trip or two to the docs and a couple of bottles of pills or potions, the book easily pays for itself. Plus I like to make use of what's around me if I can.
The book has a number of sections under remedies as follows: Digestive Disorders, Skin Complaints, Kids, Aches & Pains, Women's Stuff, Under The Weather, Mind and Face & Body. Then there's a selection entitled Top 100 Plants which is broken down into Fruit, Veg, Trees, Roots, Herbs & Flowers & Leaves. First though, there's an important section on getting started which guides you through some of the extras you might need to add to your potions - beeswax for instance which is essential for creams to bond properly, and Vitamin C which acts as a natural preservative. This section also talks about drying techniques, tips for harvesting, tools you might need and so on.
So onto the remedies themselves, starting with a couple obvious ones for bad breath and heartburn followed by IBS, digestion, constipation, flatulence, diarrhoea and athletes foot. Some of the remedies are very simple and require little ingredients and preparation. An example is the garlic, sage and cider vinegar foot bath mixture which basically requires just the chopping of the two first ingredients, adding to the liquid and putting in a jar for a month. This supposedly is good for athletes foot - it can also be used in salad dressings so you can kill two birds with one stone with this particular remedy.
The summer months are almost over but come next summer you might want to stock up on your home made insect bite and sting cream, the book contains a great recipe for this too. Spots, sunburn, chapped hands, insect repellant, even head lice (nits) can all be treated by following the step by step guides. Run of the mill colds and flu treatments, coughs and sore throats, hangovers, mouth ulcers and more can be tackled without a trip to Boots.
Insomnia is dealt with by using a pillow full of dried hops and lavender flowers alternatively a bath soak with hops and chamomile. As both lavender and chamomile are easy to grow almost anywhere, there's no excuse to try these easy recipes to get you off to sleep at night.. If anxiety is ruining your life, why not have a go at a natural alternative to what your docs will prescribe you.
It's not all about ailments, there are some recipes designed purely for relaxation and beauty, bath bombs, hand care oil, fask masks and exfoliators are all here amongst others.
The top 100 plants is a seperate section alphabetically arranged for ease of use. The section is subdivided as already explained above, starting with fruit (bilberry, blackcurrant etc). Each plant is described, it's uses and where to find it as well as quick recipes which require little explanation. Each plant also has a small photograph to aid recognition, although this should not be treated as a definitive guide to identification.
Finally the book devotes a page to useful resources, stockists of plants as well as plant information available on the web. A helpful index completes this book.
The recipes so far that I have tried have been fun to do, and the results mixed. I'm not ready to open my own pharmacy just yet, but hope to learn a wealth of information to guide me towards my target of purely natural remedies for myself and family.