By Regina Cole
If you are a gardener or a cook devoted to flavor and variety, or if you take a feverfew infusion to fend off migraines, use essential oils to create an individualized scent, or study the ancient art of healing, you will want a copy of Stephen Orr’s The New American Herbal.
Gorgeously illustrated with Orr’s photographs, most of them full page, this new book will delight anyone fascinated by the immense world of plants used for flavor, food, medicines or perfumes. The lore is ancient and fraught, bringing to mind Snow White’s stepmother, Macbeth’s weird sisters, or the neighbors with designs on Rosemary’s Baby. Herbs can be as innocuous as the sprig of curly parsley on the side of the restaurant plate, or as ominous as monkshood, convenient to domestic killers since prehistory.
Orr, previously editorial director for gardening at Martha Stewart Living and the garden editor for House & Garden and Domino magazines (he is now the executive editor of Condé Nast Traveler), is also the author of Tomorrow’s Garden and several books on cooking and landscape design. Thus, the garden and the kitchen get the lion’s share of his attention and this new book is a superb guide to growing herbs with the horticultural information interspersed with recipes. (Personally, I can’t wait to try the Salt-baked New Potatoes with Rosemary.)
Starting with Agrimony and ending with Yarrow, Orr leads us from herb to herb, pausing at each to spell out its properties in a sidebar listing its category, origin, type, height, other names and varieties, how to grow, season, and safety. The last is a constant concern: Who knew that chamomile, the tiny daisy-like flower with the gentle reputation, should be avoided by people with severe ragweed allergies? Or that many otherwise safe herbs have a stimulating effect on the uterus and should thus be avoided by pregnant women? Orr’s research is extensive, giving us the information we need to grow and use herbs without contracting dermatitis, staining our carpet, giving ourselves a nasty stomachache, or endangering the lives of those we feed.
That may be what fascinates us about this green, woody, flowery, and fragrant world: herbs are powerful. Yet, while they heal us, kill us, alleviate our suffering, or make us insane, most of them are easy to grow, in conditions ranging from moist shade gardens to sunny city windowsills. “… herbs will thrive without too much fuss and provide a valuable harvest,” says Orr in the book’s foreword. “All it takes is a snip here or a snip there and you’ve spiced up a stew, soup, tea, or cocktail.”
He devotes the front of the book to botanical, biological, and chemical information including herbal properties (analgesics, emetics, vulnerary, etc.); major herb families (mint, deadnettle, nightshade, etc.); elements that give herbs their flavor (anethole, menthol, thymol, etc.). Pages and pictures spell out growing, harvesting, and drying techniques; suggest garden and kitchen projects; list salad, specialty, and controversial herbs, and otherwise entertain us.
The New American Herbal by Stephen Orr (Clarkson Potter, ©2014, softbound $27.50).
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