Many years ago, Montana resident Thomas J. Elpel dropped off a manuscript entitled Botany in a Day at my office. Over the years many people have submitted manuscript copies of their book to me in the hopes that I would provide some sort of endorsement that could be used for future marketing. Unfortunately, not all were worthy of my endorsement, but this one caught my eye for several reasons.
As the founder and director of the most successful herb course in North America – in terms of numbers of enrolled students and numbers of students who have distinguished themselves professionally in the growing field of herbal medicine, I immediately recognized that Botany in a Day was perfect for herbalists and new students of herbalism.
I contacted Elpel and told him so, and further, that I wanted to make it one of the core textbooks of the East West Herb Course. I think it was 1996-98 or so when this occurred and the first edition of this remarkable book was published. Since that time to the present the book has gone through a total of six editions and has sold over 50,000 copies. Not bad for a self-published and self-distributed book, I’d say. While this is impressive it hardly reflects the true value of such a book to anyone who has an interest in plant identification. The book covers a comprehensive description of plant families of the northern latitudes, especially North America and Canada, but is applicable to most parts of the world above the equator as well as plants on every continent.
It starts out identifying the various parts and patterns of plants with a tutorial on plant names and a section on the evolution of plants that allows one to understand the big picture of plant botany. Following is a segment on "Learning Plants by Families" that teaches the reader to recognize the basic characteristics of the eight most common plant families (Mint, Mustard, Parsley, Pea, Lily, Grass, Rose, and Aster). This covers 45,000 common medicinal herbs and plants one is likely to encounter most frequently. With a basic understanding of these, one is ready to go on to learn the many other families one is likely to encounter.
While not intended as a medicinal herb book, perhaps it is my bias to see it as preeminently a book intended for herbalists, herb students and wild food foragers. As such, it references common biochemical, medicinal and nutritional characteristics.
For most of us, a lengthier and more formal training in botany would promise a long, perhaps dull study with no intended practical application other than learning to identify and classify plants. But Thomas Elpel’s book is a painless approach to the same subject specially tailored to the needs of herbalists and lovers of plants. It approaches the otherwise heady subject of botany on a somewhat limited but totally useful scale with the same sense of satisfaction and fun one might expect from working and solving a crossword puzzle. The end result is a deeper relationship with the plants we know and the possibility of making new plant friends.
Earlier editions of this book were printed in black and white. For the same price, the newly expanded sixth edition has a colorful cover and color depictions of the plants throughout the book.
Click here to purchase the new edition on the Botany in a Day page on Elpel’s website, and don’t forget to check out his other works.
I think climate change is affecting my garden in Ben Lomond, California (a section of which shown at right). It is situated along a narrow strip in the Santa Cruz Mountains which lie some 2,500 feet above sea level and in close proximity to the San Lorenzo River watershed.
We’ve lived in this same spot where we raised our family for 30 years. For all those years, I indulged my gardening passion. I noticed that while my friends in Santa Cruz mightily contended with gophers in their gardens, the rodents never were a problem for me. Eventually I realized that our high, ground-level water table made an environment inhospitable to gophers.
Then things began to change within the last four or five years: advancing climate change and increased dryness brought the first signs of mole and gopher depredation. It is further added to by the fact that as my neighbors go the route of building wire cages around their fruit trees and planting boxes, it seems that their gopher problem is importing itself into my yard.
But so far, the situation is still manageable. The problem seems to be controlled by the fact that I don’t make it easy for underground critters to set up residence under a pure patch of carrots, corn, broccoli or some other gopher-delectable item. Overplanting too many different things too close seems to be both a virtue as well as a problem with my ‘jungle-styled’ gardening. I tend to have a diversity of vegetables, flowers and what I imagine to be non-delectable herbs growing all together. This happens to be a virtue in terms of controlling a variety of underground pests but not sufficiently thinning to allow for maximum yield and size can also be a problem, which I haven’t yet been able to reconcile with denser, diverse planting.
The second sign of climate change has been the lack of sufficient consecutive sunny, hot growing days. The flavor and sweetness that we enjoy in plants is the taste of sunlight – biochemically transposed into plants. If the weather is inconsistent as it has been (in my opinion because of variable jet stream patterns), the effect on my favorite strawberry patch has been a single modest yield and prolonged dormancy. Tomatoes tend to stay green on the plant too long and when they ripen are less sweet; corn may not ripen at all or yield partially filled ears. The honeysuckle blossoms, which are usually in full bloom by the end of June, have barely opened.
The lack of rainfall has caused a corresponding increase of pollens in the air, making this a particularly bad year for allergies. I’m sure there are many other effects that I haven’t definitively recognized. My small garden nestled in the mountains of Ben Lomond can only join with the ‘non-alleluia’ chorus of humanity around the world, at the mercy of the forces of unrelenting greed to say, "Where is it all leading, when will it ever end?"
Evidently by the sign of things, not anytime soon. With all of this quiet panic in the garden, I read how the US is finding more available oil from fracking and other previously untapped sources. The once lesser populated state of Wyoming is experiencing an oil boom compared to the 1849 Gold Rush in the mountains of California. As in California, this has the potential of wreaking devastation on the pristine nature of the surrounding open-sky plains and rivers.
An article published by Earth Justice says:
Thanks to a drilling boom, air quality on the plains of Wyoming is now worse than the car-choked megalopolis of Los Angeles. In the drilling rig-studded Upper Green River Basin, levels of ozone - the main component of smog - have reached 124 parts per billion - well over the federal safety standard and worse than the worst day in Los Angeles in 2010. There are some bright spots, though: in 2010, the Wyoming Oil & Gas Conservation Commission passed some of the strongest rules in the country requiring oil and gas companies to disclose the secret chemicals they use in fracking – a big step forward for the state and leading the way for reform at the national level.
I have deep misgivings as to what such a disturbance of "The Peace of Wild Things" (referring to the famous poem by Wendell Berry) means to the world, its rivers, plains, forests, plants, creatures, and how what has occurred has already impacted my garden.
Above: Richo Cech in Zanzibar
Just as a horse whisperer understands the particular needs and psychology of horses, a plant whisperer is one who can receive the subtle communications from plants revealing their special needs for successful cultivation.
In both instances, only someone with a unique aptitude who is willing to invest years of patient observation and trial and error may attain such a gift. I would certainly designate Richo Cech, herbalist, horticulturist, world traveler, archaeologist, linguist, author, founder and owner of Horizon Herbs, as just such a 'plant whisperer.' He has patiently mastered the secrets of cultivating wild medicinal herbs, some of which have never been successfully cultivated before, such as Osha (Ligusticum porteri) and Mandrake (Mandragora species) to name only two.
Simply put, Richo is an herbalist who knows plants from the ground up '" and that is very rare.
Richo recently spoke at our annual East West Herb School Spring seminar. Students had an opportunity on two occasions to appreciate Richo's profound wisdom and understanding regarding the cultivation of wild medicinal herbs. His second presentation focused on his recent trip to Zanzibar where his ability to speak Swahili allowed him to converse with natives of the region.
Richo works with an incredibly diverse range of medicinal, edible, rare, and all organic plants at his farm located in a small temperate region of Southern Oregon where he lives with his family and associates. Horizon Herb Farm has grown to become the country's leading source for hard-to-find medicinal herbs. He is occasionally smitten with the passion of wanderlust that, besides seasonal appearances at various herb conferences around the country, includes forays into exotic distant lands in search of medicinal plants and the people of those regions who know how to use them.
As a master herb gardener, Richo knows the optimal placing, sun exposure, watering, soil conditions and other requirements that go into successfully cultivating plants, especially non-cultivar species of wild medicinal herbs. Many of us whose focus has been in other areas of involvement with herbs such as education, clinical practice, research and product development, have only limited time for such gardening ventures. The result is that each year we expend considerable time and money to purchase and attempt to grow the same plants or seeds that we were unsuccessful cultivating in previous years. Fortunately, Richo's new book,The Medicinal Herb Grower: A Guide for Cultivating Plants that Heal (Volume 1), is the next best thing to having a master gardener like Richo by your side.
In The Medicinal Herb Grower, Richo describes how food crops called cultivars are loaded with nutritious and tasty primary compounds, such as starch, sugar and proteins. But in the case of medicinal herbs, their desired properties mostly come from secondary compounds consisting of aromatic, acrid, bitter or even toxic compounds such as alkaloids, terpenoids, saponins and glycosides in relatively low concentration. These secondary compounds arise as part of the process of "attracting pollinators, repelling browsers, defending themselves, or communicating with other plants, insects, and vertebrates - including humans."
What distinguishes plants used for food from those used for medicine is food plants' comparative lack of secondary compounds as compared to medicinal herbs. It is these secondary compounds evolving out of the stress and struggle for a plant's existence that make them useful for treating imbalances and diseases within our own psycho-physiological systems.
Richo declares himself "leery of hybridization, tissue culture, and genetic modification of medicinal plants" because they alter the concentration of naturally evolved secondary plant compounds. He asserts that these practices render an herb "less predictable and less dependable for medicinal use" and consequently diminish our ability to rely on traditional wisdom to inform us of its use.
Personally, I don't think this is a sufficient reason to not avail ourselves of the ability to alter plants to suit our perceived needs. In fact, through selective cultivation, hybridization and other methods, people have always altered plants to suit their needs. Even Richo points out how certain strains of medicinal plants such as German chamomile, garden sage and valerian have been selected for higher levels of those secondary compounds associated with medicinal properties. Just as the greatest horticultural advance in history has been the cultivation of cannabis over the last 40 years, from a weed during the late 1960s to a plant today that literally reeks of mind-altering tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), similarly there is a long history of intentional cultivation to produce the most effective medicinal plants.
Richo's book reminds us of how to work with, rather than against, nature; and it reminds us that this practice is best both for medicinal plant cultivation as well as a strategy for healing. Both healer and plant whisperer must first acknowledge the need inherent in any cultivation or healing problem. It is out of that need, based on passive observation, that one can plot a strategy to work with the life force. It is always a task best done with humility and respect, and as such may require a considerable amount of patience.
Two stories from The Medicinal Herb Grower illustrate the patience it takes to make a plant thrive. One is the author's attempt to cultivate eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), considered an adaptogen tonic in the ginseng family. Richo describes how, after getting off to a good start in his open garden area, by midsummer in hot and dry southern Oregon "the leaves crisped on the plant like bread left too long in the toaster." He considered how the plant grows in Siberia, "flourishing in thick stands around the margins of cold lakes." So in the Fall he decided to transplant the suffering plants into a tree-shaded area near the creek. In subsequent years "the ants danced on the eleuthero flowers, and the branches grew heavy with fruit." From this he learned how the placement of plants can be critical to successfully growing them.
Another story relates how he was able to fulfill a perhaps ancestral yearning to grow mandrake. This rare plant of European origin has a long history dating back to biblical times for use in magic and medicine. It is considered rare and difficult to grow. At first, Richo planted the seeds in gallon containers and set them in the best spot in his shadehouse. Each year the sprouts would appear in the early spring and mysteriously die back in a couple of months. By the third year this was still happening! He asked a friend who had lived in the Middle East about their native habitat, who said they grew "out in the open, among the rocks, in alkaline soil," without much rain. Richo placed his seeds accordingly, and now is the proud steward of thriving five year-old mandrakes.
The Medicinal Herb Grower is no dry manual; Richo's prosaic flair makes reading the book a delight. In a section entitled 'A Tour of the Horizon Herbs Seed Farm,' he writes, "The creek flows through the year, in the summer slurring over slimy boulders, in the winter chattering whitewater, boulders scrubbed clean, periwinkles holding on beneath for dear life. There's a secret western garden under the shade of a maple that reaches her arms up from the yin-soaked streamside to clasp to her breast, like a yearning mother, a shade garden of her own making."
From a practical standpoint, I particularly loved Chapter 5, 'Rules of Green Thumb.' I think if someone who sincerely believes that they don't have the ability to grow things reads and follows all or some of the 17 suggestions (by my count) of this chapter they can't fail.
There is something so universal about this book that it is destined to become a real classic for anyone interested in cultivating medicinal herbs. It offers everything one needs to grow a successful garden, whether it be of flowers, vegetables, fruit trees, medicinal herbs, or a mixture of all of the above. Richo flat out states that the best protection against pests is diversity.
The Medicinal Herb Grower is chock full of practical information about every aspect of gardening, from seed preparation, to building a green house or a shade house, to various methods for making compost, to proper plant positioning, watering and drainage, along with more advanced methods for growing. All of it is drawn from the author's personal experience which, in my opinion, is the secret of a good book. It's hard to believe that so much practical information can be presented in such a short space and still have room for the author to express his poetic and philosophical life views and even tell stories of his working as an archaeologist where he explored the early roots of gardening at the Koster site in southern Illinois which dates back to 7500 B.C.E.
Richo's book has been celebrated and recognized by other prominent herbalists and horticulturists. Jim Duke, PhD, herbalist, botanist, formerly with the Department of Agriculture, and author of 20 books on herbal medicine, says The Medicinal Herb Grower is "a very different book, no bibliographic echoes, all good gardening and nature first hand. This book is a pleasure to read, and a treasure of valuable cultural information."
Christopher Hobbs, renowned herbalist and botanist, himself an author of dozens of books and articles on herbs, describes Richo's book as "the most definitive herb grower's guide on the planet, a book that breathes with aliveness, humor, and how to really do it!"
I recall my first childhood attempts at gardening on small a plot my mother gave me to 'grow things.' Each day I would lovingly return to my small plot and fuss with the plants, instinctively digging and loosening the soil around their bases (a technique called 'Rubber Fingers' by Richo in Chapter 13, which goes to show that if we want to acquire a green thumb, we must first be willing to have dirty thumbs!). I seem to remember how wonderfully everything grew without the addition of soil nutrients.
I've been gardening ever since that boyhood plot and couldn't stop even if I wanted to. Through The Medicinal Herb Grower and his visit to my home and as a guest teacher to our seminar I personally find Richo to be rich source of useful information and inspiration that has made a positive difference in my gardening this year.