Book of the week
Dara Saville’s new book, “The Ecology of Herbal Medicine: A Guide to Plants and Living Landscapes of the American Southwest,” is a revelation of connections – the land, the plants that grow on it, the herbs that humans produce from the plants, and the animals that find nourishment in those plants. It’s loaded with information that can at times be overwhelming.
Saville, a longtime Albuquerque herbalist, says the book is in part a manual to develop a relationship with the natural world that she’s been developing for 25 years. Saville wants “to explain tools for reconnecting with the natural world because for me that is the foundation of herbal medicine. … That relationship has brought me a lot of joy and well-being and I want to share that with other people.”
The photographs on the front cover preview the 39 plants Saville profiles in detail on the inside.
• Snakeweed. A field of the plant is seen on the bottom third of the book’s cover. Snakeweed, she writes, is a “common and wide-ranging plant in the high mesas, grassland and other dry, sandy or overgrazed areas of the Mountain West and Great Plains.” It’s valued as medicinal in many herbal traditions, treating arthritis, inflammation, joint soreness and musculoskeletal pain. Mule deer, bison and bighorn sheep browse it. And it’s a major food source for black-tailed jackrabbits, Saville writes.
Across the top of the cover, from left, are images of four other plants.
• Verbena. The author writes that its leaves and flowering stalks have been gathered for teas, tinctures and elixirs. Some tribes, including the Navajo, have described local species in treating fever, coughs and colds and other ailments, according to research she cites.
• Prickly pear cactus. Its fruit and pads are considered nutritious and health-promoting, and its juice can flavor herbal teas, Saville writes. A range of Indigenous groups have documented traditional medicinal uses.
• Sage. The lore of this plant goes back to ancient Greece and, under the name wormwood, to the Garden of Eden, Saville writes. She cites research that sage has been an antidote to poisons, as a digestive tonic and other uses.
• Globemallow. Native desert bees gather its nectar to aid in pollination, she writes. It’s an important forage for many animals. It is useful in restoring arid and semiarid habitats and areas that have experienced wildfires. Navajos have used the roots to stop bleeding, to treat skin ailments, for indigestion and poor appetite.
Chapter 5 may hold a surprise: It recognizes the benefits of weeds.
“Some of those pesky, weedy plants growing in your yard, garden and woodlands actually make good medicine,” Saville writes. Among those mentioned are dandelion, clover, burdock, wild lettuce and nettles.
Another surprise is in the book’s concluding segment – positives in four non-native invasive trees. One of them, Russian olive, has a misunderstood role in riparian ecosystems, Saville writes. Its range and numbers are growing and it should be a botanical medicine source.
Another tree in this quartet is Siberian elm. It has what she says is “a very useful and abundant medicine as well as a wild edible.” The other two invasive trees are salt cedar and Tree of Heaven.
There are 39 plant profiles in the 125-page Materia Medica chapter, which Saville thinks of as a reference book to learn about specific species.
Saville teaches two 17-week classes a year in a bioregional herbal studies program. The next one starts in August. To find out more go to albuquerqueherbalism.com. She also directs the Yerba Mansa Project that partners with Albuquerque’s Open Space program. The project offers free programs for classrooms and the general public about native medicinal plant communities, native plant restoration and bosque landscape history. Go to yerbamansaproject.org.