An historical herbalism treatise with practical contemporary utility, A Modern Herbal is a “must-have” for any serious herbalist’s library.
A Modern Herbal is a set of two books subtitled: The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with Their Modern Scientific Uses. In this case, the “Modern” that Mrs. Maud Grieve is referring to passed about a century ago. Originally published in 1931 by Harcourt, Brace & Company, and then first reprinted by Dover Publications in 1971, the best feature is that these books are not contemporary!
Little is known about Englishwoman Mrs. M. Grieve, with the most robust biography I have found available here, and another bit here. Her vast knowledge of plants was memorialized with the help of an editor, Hilda Leyel, an herbal expert who sought to modernize the Herbals of Dioscorides (40-90 AD, English translation of De Materia Medica available here), Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), John Parkinson (1567-1650), and John Gerard (1545-1612). An online version of A Modern Herbal is available. Apparently Ms. Leyel constructed A Modern Herbal from a notes that Mrs. Grieve had maintained.
These soft-covered books consist of 800 or so plant monographs alphabetically arranged by common name. A notation of the scientific name, synonyms of the common name, plant family, parts used, and geographic location make up the header. A brief description is then followed by discussions of the history, uses, chemical constituents, medicinal action and uses, preparations, dosages, and poison and antidotes for each plant. Recipes and pictures are sprinkled throughout the volumes.
Conversational in tone, and dense in information, A Modern Herbal is in many ways more enlightening than the often water-downed materia medica found in so many of today’s books–a probable product of the current omnipresent threat of litigation. The strength in this herbal is that Mrs. Grieve has explicit instructions of how exactly to use each herb, rather than simply presenting a laundry list of things it potentially amerliorates without clarification. In my mind, it shares many similar features with the tome of the U.S. Eclectic medical practitioners of the 19th century, King’s American Dispensatory (and noteworthy, my personal favorite historic herbal given its American-centric focus). Furthermore, if interested in a discussion on the history of Western Herbalism and some insight into the suppression of herbalism, this one is succinct.
Of course, all historical herbals have the major flaw that science has evolved whereas they have not. Do not rely on a historical herbalism text (or perhaps any single information source at all regardless of era!) without cross-checking it with a reliable updated resource including verifying that indeed the same plant is being discussed.
In summary, Mrs. M. Grieve and Ms. Leyel’s contribution to herbalism is enduring and signficant, despite their relative obscurity. Succeeding with their goal of updating the Anglican herbals to the twentieth century, the ongoing publication of their work is testimony to its continued relevance. Preserving medicinal plant knowledge is a empassioned pursuit of mine, and A Modern Herbal is integral to my collection. Not to mention, it is quite fun to flip through and randomly read a plant monograph (well, if you are into that kind of thing!)
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The Walking Herbalist has no affiliation of the authors or the publishers of this book at the time of the writing of this review. We purchased our own copy of this book for our own private use. This review is simply here to help our readers put together their own herbalism library, and other than possible commissions as an Amazon.com affiliate, we receive no compensation for this.