A very good book about herbs has been published recently: "The Herb Book -- The Complete Guide to Herbs for Health and Cookery," by Arabella Boxer and Phillipa Back (Mayflower-Octopus, 224 pp., well illustrated $9.95 paperback, $19.95 cloth).
Lady Arabella Boxer and Phillipa Back contribute frequently to a number of magazines including Vogue. Both live in England. Gary Lincoff who served as consultant is with the New York Botanical Gardens.
Actually it is four books in one: a medical guide, with directions for treating sprains, insect bites, indigestion, etc. with herbal extracts; a cookbook with 300 recipes for cooking with herbs; a beauty guide for use of herbs; and a gardening book with instructions on how to grow a successful herb garden.
A glossary to 50 popular herbs with their uses, color illustrations (225 full color photographs and drawings) for identification, and a list of herb suppliers is included.
The Industrial Revolution brought people flocking into towns in search of work, the authors say. "Small terraced houses in the quickly growing towns offered no space for gardens. Much of the knowledge of the uses of herbs in cooking and for simple remedies declined as patent medicines and table condiments rose in popularity.
"The advance in scientific knowledge made during the 20th century enabled scientists to isolate the chemical substances of a plant and to synthesize its properties. This means that accurate doses of a drug could be administered, and instant medicine from the drug store became available to all. a
"Synthetic flavorings sold in little bottles were easy to use in the kitchen. Modern manufacturing techniques means that there was no longer any commercial viability for an ailing and expensive herb industry to continue in Britain. In the countryside, however, and particularly in Mediterranean countries, knowledge of the uses of herbs has survived.
"During the last 20 years there has been a dramatic revival of interest in herbs on both sides of the Atlantic. Bulk processing and the addition of preservatives to food has resulted in loss of natural flavor, color and aroma. The palate is dulled by these artificial agents. Many people anxious to use herbs again in order to taste the delicious natural flavorings, and to benefit from their nutritional value, are seeking out recipes for meals which include herbs. Others, sensitive to the possibility of dangerous side effects from certain synthetic products, are looking for ways of using herbs in cosmetics and in the treatment of minor ailments."
In the past it was customary for the woman of the household to look after the herb garden, the authors say, and it was she who decided which herbs to be grown and where to place them.
"She weeded the beds and harvested the herbs; she added herbs to her cooking, and made wines, cordials and simple medicines. She dried the herbs for pot-pourris and perfume sachets to keep the house smelling sweet. Since most of her work was done in the kitchen, the herb bed was invariably sited as near to it as possible.
"There are several important factors to be considered when deciding where it is best to grow herbs. Most herbs need the maximum amount of sunshine during the growing season. Many of them have their origins in the warmer climates of the world. In order to produce the full flavor and fragrance, you need to reproduce as nearly as you can the conditions of the natural habitat.
"Where instructions state that a herb should be planted in a sunny position, they imply that ideally the plant should get about 7 hours of sunshine a day. A plant requiring partial shade needs up to 4 hours of sunshine a day. There are few plants which need to grow in total shade.
"Herbs need protection from cold winds, which often do more damage to a plant than low temperatures. A wall, hedge or natural slope can provide a good shelter, but if these are not available then a fence of some kind should be erected when the herb garden is first planted. Once the garden is established the larger herbs will provide partial protection, but a background or screen will ensure good sturdy growth.
"No herb garden need be very large, for a surprising number of plants can be grown in a relatively small plot. Whatever you decide upon, remember that accessibility is important. You do not want to go far to collect a few herb leaves, neither do you want to walk through wet grass."