A 21st century Herbarium

A couple of weeks ago, after looking at two Chinese manuscripts on botany in the Wellcome Library (more on that shortly), I found a contemporary English-language „Herbarium“ in the bookshop downstairs. Other than the early modern herbals I usually work with, which had been motivated by the spice trade and the interest in other commodifiable plants independent of their category, this one is focused exclusively on herbs. Still, the author Caz Hildebrand can place her work “in a long tradition of books that combine words and illustrations to illuminate the beauty and the uses of herbaceous plants” (p.7). She chose 100 plants that “are all fascinating each with their own stories to tell […]” (p. 6).

To me it seems that the book jumps over the “Linnaean divide” of the 18th century, when the strict categories of taxonomy within the various disciplines of biology parted ways with the narrative approach inherent in many of the earlier works in natural history. Here, the author wants to “encourage their appropriate use” (p. 7) in different “aspects of life” and therefore interweaves the different strands of cultivation in the garden and uses in the kitchen, of eating and healing, of taxonomy and gastronomy, of image and text. For example, the book contains both the current binomials for the herbs and sketches of recipes, so it is as usable as it is readable. And not to forget leafable with its beautiful illustrations.

Because of its global approach to herbs – concerning “their varyingly medicinal, culinary, spiritual, cultural and magical qualities and histories” (p. 6) as well as their availability in the “supermarkets and nurseries” of a globalised world – stories of voyages are scattered throughout the book. Here are some bits from the poetic to the informative:

Chicory – Cichorium intybus: The woody herb chicory has bright blue flowers that – legend has it – are the metamorphosed eyes of a young woman, weeping for the loss of her lover’s ship.” (p. 63)

Culantro: Named Eryngium – Greek for ‘sea holly’ – on account of its spikiness, and foetidum – ‘stinky odour’ – because of its smell, this is a native of many Caribbean islands and Southeast Asia. (p. 85)

Scented Geranium (Pelargonium species) – Scented geraniums were discovered at the Cape of Good Hope in the 1620s by John Tradescant, the English kin Charles I’s chief botanist. The Victorians went crazy for them in England and grew them in heated greenhouses until 1914, when the practice was stopped in order to conserve energy for the war effort.

Caz Hildebrand. Herbarium. London: Thames & Hudson 2016.