discovering dr. michael balick’s new 21st-century herbal

Dr. Michael Balick botanizingGOOD NEWS: Chocolate is an herb (not just an indulgence!); jewelweed can be stashed as ice cubes for year-round skin relief, and yarrow still offers the styptic qualities that probably landed it as a treasured possession in the 60,000-year-old grave of a Neanderthal man. Dr. Michael Balick, the renown scientist and author of a new reference, “Rodale’s 21st Century Herbal,” shared such herbal history and practice in my latest radio show. Plus: Get a chance to win a copy. 

Balick has spent more than 30 years learning how indigenous and ancient cultures have used herbs in health and healing, and the book’s subtitle, “A Practical Guide for Healthy Living Using Nature’s Most Powerful Plants,” speaks to that, as does the foreword by Dr. Andrew Weil. But it is also a book on how to identify, grow and even cook with them.

Balick is an ethnobotanist (“a person who studies the relationship between plants, people and culture”). He is also Vice President for Botanical Science at The New York Botanical Garden, and has undertaken more than 75 expeditions as diverse as Micronesia, Belize and the Bronx, where he also directs a research program, studying traditional healing practices in ethnic urban communities.

“I trade in my passport for a subway token, and go into the markets of New York City and look at how people relate to plants, and what they eat, what their primary healthcare issues are that they resolve with plants,” he says.

“Rodale’s 21st Century Herbal” is a culmination of all of it, and even earlier:

“I started taking notes on herbs back in 1970, when I gave my first lecture on them as a freshman,” Balick recalls. “I had these boxes of notes, and my field work since mid-1970s–and it was time to put it all down.”

On the radio show (listen in now), I learned the best herbs for repelling insects, two used traditionally for relaxation, and more. For instance: Wonder why taxonomists keep changing the name of some of your favorite plants, using DNA? Be sure to scroll down to find out. (Hint: It’s not to drive us gardeners crazy; there’s a “why” with a higher purpose).

my herb q&a with mike balick

Q. To start: What is an herb?

A. Herb means different things to different people. As a botanist, I think of an herb as a plant that doesn’t produce woody tissue—herbaceous. To a chef, it’s one of hundreds of savory or aromatic plant that are used to spice food. To a gardener, it’s maybe a showy and often easy-to-grow addition to the landscape, valued for smell, or color. To an herbalist or medical professional, it’s a plant that’s used to promote health; we could take it internally or use it externally.

Q. Most of those definitions are about the use of the plant—so how long have humans been using herbs?

Public domain illustration via WikipediaA. There was an excavation of a 60,000-year-old grave of a Neanderthal man in an area that is currently Iraq, and yarrow (Achillea millefolium) was found in that grave. We know yarrow [above] is good for staunching the flow of blood, healing a cut or wound—sort of a styptic.

The conclusion of that study, that dig, was that people valued these plants and perhaps wanted to take them with them to the next life.

The tradition of herbal use continues: The first books were actually clay tablets from the Sumerian area, and they had hundreds of [herbal] recipes, and these were from 4,000 years ago.

And then of course there were the Egyptian papyri, made from strips of the papyrus plant, and laid on a stone and crossed with each other, and add a little Nile mud—and 3,500 years ago they were complete recipe books for the uses of herbs.

Q. So what about the tradition of “herbals”—since this new book is called a “21st Century Herbal.”

A. The oldest one is from the 12th century. My personal favorite is Gerard’s Herbal, or a General History of Plants. A good friend got it for me from Europe, and it was published in 1597.

Some of those uses in it are still uses that we think about today: Calendula, for example, as healing the skin. Verbascum for irritations of the skin. Ginger, for settling the stomach.

These ancient books have beautiful illustrations—woodcuts—that seek to convey to the reader what the plant looked like. One difficulty was that you could confuse things, like a plantain for a foxglove. If you were out there looking for something to settle your stomach and chewed on a foxglove leaf, your heart would go into a racing mode, and you might expire.

So building on herbals were the first European botanical gardens, which actually displayed the medicinal plants, so that physicians and surgeons and botanists could really learn them.

Cacao plant with chocolate pods ripening, from WikipediaQ. Speaking of plant ID: There’s a whole chapter in the new book on it, and a fascinating section about plant ID 21st-century style, using DNA. As a gardener, I am often aggravated when names are changed of my familiar plants—but now I understand why.

A. You’ve seen those TV show where DNA solves the crime? Well, botanists are doing the same thing. You can classify plants using DNA.

In the late 1990s, the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group was formed—angiosperms being flowering plants—and their goal is to produce a more precise classification system for the flowering plants.

Their system is based on groupings of plants by their descendence from a common ancestor. So imagine grouping plants by your family–your father, grandfather, great-grandfather—in a more natural system, to see who you are related to.

So for example chocolate [above], one of my favorite herbs for its cardiovascular benefits…

Q. [Interrupting.] …Oh, thank you so much for saying chocolate is an herb—so I can say I am having herbal medicine every afternoon!

A. [Laughter.] Every morning!

So chocolate is in the genus Theobroma—meaning “food of the gods”—but it used to be in the family called Sterculiaceae. Now, through the work of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group, it’s in the Mallow family, the Malvaceae [which includes cola, cotton, and okra, among other plants].

This is really important work because if you know where these plants are positioned, in sort of the tree of life, then you can understand how to work with them, say, as a breeder. Or if you have a plant medicine that’s in short supply, you can look at the relatives of that plant and maybe find the compounds that are responsible for the activity there.

Q. When I read that last part in your book, I was no longer angry with taxonomists for changing “my” plant names. I started to understand the higher purpose.

A. Yes, for example that’s why we have an adequate supply of taxol, for the treatment of cancer—because someone looked at the plant “next door” and said, “Gosh, maybe we can use the precursors or forebears of this molecule and tweak it a little bit and come up with the taxol that we need.”

Q. The new herbal includes some native North American herbs, but also ones from around the world among the 180 plants profiled. How did you decide what made the list?

A. We chose them with a single criterion: That people in the United States, including the temperate region and the tropical region, could grow them—and that’s why the book has gardening information, and propagation information, and where to find the seeds or cuttings, for each plant.

Q. Let’s talk about some herbs with specific uses, specifically for repelling insects. What’s in your backpack on that score when you go botanizing?

A. I think lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) is primary—you can get citronella oil from that. But all of these essential oils are distilled from the plants, or otherwise obtained, and are highly concentrated, and you always have to use a carrier oil to dilute them.

Now of course you can take the lemongrass leaves themselves, and chop them up, and put them on your skin and you’ll smell them on you for quite awhile, but if you get the lemongrass oil from the market, you’d have to dilute it.

Scented geraniums–those beautiful Pelargoniums—they have an active compound that actively repels mosquitoes.

Some of the other plants we mention in the book do pretty well. In my backpack I carry two different sets of products. One is the essential oils and such things, in a commercial formula, but when I go into a malarial area or a dengue-fever area, I also have that 100 percent or 95 percent Deet, that I smear all over my clothes, of course.

Q. What are the herbs that Mike Balick relies on regularly at home—ones you particularly favor in your life?

A. I love chamomile—I like to drink the tea, and if your eyes are feeling puffy, or you have conjunctivitis, you pull the tea bag out of the cup, wait a minute till it cools down slightly, and put it on the eye.

Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) is an adaptogen, which means it conveys resilience in this crazy life we all live in. They call it Indian ginseng, but it’s more closely related to a tomato. Chewing those roots, or making a tea of those roots, is quite good for relaxing at night—as are the leaves of passionflower (Passiflora incarnate), a very good sedative.

Growing up in the Northeast, when I’d get stung by nettles, the jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is always growing nearby. What I do, since it’s only available for two or three months: I grind it up in the blender and put it in an ice cube tray, and have some iced cubed jewelweed to rub on my skin for rashes or irritations at other times.

how to win the book

012070_21stCenturyHerbal Cover FINALI’VE GOT TWO COPIES of “Rodale’s 21st Century Herbal” by Dr. Michael Balick to share with you. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the bottom of the page, below the last comment.

What is an herb that you rely on in your life regularly? Do you grow it, or purchase it?

No answer? Just say, “Count me in” or some such, and I will—but I’d enjoy your answer.

Two winners will be chosen after entries close at midnight Sunday, May 18. Good luck to all. U.S. and Canada winners only.

(Yarrow print in the public domain, and chocolate pods ripening in Creative Commons license, via Wikipedia. Other photos courtesy of Rodale Press. Disclosure: Amazon affiliate links tyield a small commission.)

prefer the podcast?

DR. MICHAEL BALICK and I talked herbs on the latest radio podcast. You can listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The May 12, 2014 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marks the start of its fifth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.

  1. Elaine Campbell says:

    Basil is my favorite herb for savory or sweet recipes (strawberry basil pie is delicious. Mint for stomach upsets. Lavender for it’s soothing scent.

  2. Susan says:

    Ginger, I love the zing and heat it gives to various vegetable/ chicken stews. For healing it’s very soothing and takes away a feeling of nausea very quickly.

  3. Julie Jones says:

    The herb that I rely on the most is basil. I have grown it for about 8 years now and am recognized in the Cul de Sac as the neighbor with the best pesto recipe on earth (or maybe the Cul de Sac?…) either way. Last year I made the biggest batch ever growing 22 basil plants. I made several different kinds, it is really fun and a great easy herb to grow. Last year was the first time I ever grew it from seed (hence the 22 plants). It was magical to watch the little stems come up in the tray. Silly I know, but I was pretty proud. I had 2 trays catching the best light in the house… on my sons desk in his bed room. I couldn’t negotiate the desk this year, production has moved to the garage and I bought a grow light ;). My plants are looking good and about ready for the great outdoors!

  4. Sheila Birney says:

    Basil and chives are my go to herbs! And I love to use thyme and pineapple sage and lemonverbena in my summer containers! So fragrant!

  5. Renee B says:

    Immediately after reading this article I requested that the local library order Rodale’s 21st Century Herbal by Dr. Michael Balick. A library aide emailed back to confirm it had been ordered and thanked me for the request. I picked it up yesterday. Wow, what a spectacular book! Hefty too. Checking it out from the library is a great way to see how wonderful it is but to be truly useful you need your own copy. It’s a valuable reference book that will be most useful when easily within reach. I’ll be ordering my own.

  6. margaret says:

    And the winners (who have been notified by email) are: Thandi and Laura Timmerman.

    Great conversation — so interesting to hear the range of herbs that matter in your lives, thank you all.

    1. Ewa Adamczyk says:

      I am very late answering the question, I just happen to come across your question on the web site. For me it is very hard to answer the question which is one of my favorite herb because I love all the herbs. I read , search and learn about herbs since I was a little girl and still do. I have a passion and desire to grow my own herbs and all kinds of different plants that could heal from inside out. In fact I DO GROW MY HERBS and vegetables and fruit trees .

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