This lively reference by veteran permaculture designer and eco-forester Joshua Smith looks at a variety of remarkable plant species. In the process, it offers great insights and practical advice for those striving to embrace sustainable, nature-based ways of living—and to liberate themselves from the pernicious, ailing technosphere that dictates life for most people in the industrial world. The blessings that these plants could confer on future human and ecological well-being are legion, and Smith covers them comprehensively and engagingly.
For each plant it profiles, Botanical Treasures supplies a detailed physical description, followed by a handsome black-and-white illustration, and then by sections on cultivation, varieties, habitat, culinary uses and medicinal properties. There’s also a “Warnings and Considerations” statement for plants that can be harmful to people with certain sensitivities, or toxic if improperly prepared or consumed in excess. And since many of the plants are useful for things beyond food and medicine, numerous entries also contain an “Other Uses” section. These additional uses range from erosion control to all-natural rubber to fuel for heating and cooking.
In selecting plants to include in the book, Smith put a premium on those that are hardy and easy to grow and maintain. The ones he chose are generally adaptable to a range of soil types and are at least somewhat drought-tolerant. A few of them are also noted for their ability to withstand extreme temperature fluctuations and to thrive on land unsuitable for ordinary agricultural uses. One plant, yarrow (Achillea lanulosa), even helps other plants around it to weather adverse conditions; while two others, showy milkweed and common milkweed (Asclepias speciosa and Asclepias syriaca), are pioneer species that build habitat for subsequent plants. There’s even one plant that can potentially do the same for humans: because of how well it absorbs toxins from water, common reed (Phragmites communis) could be used to clean up polluted lands.
The maladies that these plants can treat are many, and Smith enumerates them at length. By far the most medicinally versatile plants are oregano, yarrow and garlic. Oregano (Origanum vulgare) is analgesic, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, anti-asthmatic, anti-carcinogenic, carminative and antioxidant-rich—and research suggests that it may also prevent the onset of AIDS in those with HIV. Yarrow holds great benefits for the liver, circulatory and gastrointestinal systems, mucus membranes and joints, in addition to being a potent astringent and antibiotic. Garlic (Allium sativum) is awesome for the cardiovascular, circulatory, respiratory, gastrointestinal, nervous, endocrine and immune systems, and is also the richest known source of the potent antioxidant selenium. Some other medicinal powerhouses include roses, elderberry, milkweed and Chinese jujube.
Besides having the potential to reduce one’s reliance on modern, high-tech medicine, the plants featured here can all be eaten as well. Yarrow’s flowers and seeds make a fantastic tea; its leaves a tasty, nutritious addition to salads; and its foliage a more than passable substitute for hops in beer brewing. The seeds of the candlenut tree (Aleurites moluccana) can be used to flavor sauces and thicken curries, and they can also keep for years. Milkweed, honey locust pods and buffalo gourd seeds all make great eating. Garlic is, of course, a staple ingredient in many cuisines; and those concerned about the unfortunate body odor that accompanies eating a lot of it will be glad to know that this can be mitigated by eating chlorophyll-rich greens like parsley and nettles.
While Botanical Treasures doesn’t contain recipes, it does provide basic preparation and cooking instructions. For instance, it details the various stages of cooking common or showy milkweed—plants whose shoots make a delightful, and to some a superior, substitute for asparagus—so that their bitterness and toxic cardiac glycosides are eliminated. The book goes on to describe how the milkweed’s nectar-rich flower clusters can be further boiled down into a thick, sweet syrup much like brown sugar.
More than a few of the plants Smith examines have the misfortune of being commonly regarded as weeds. As one can tell from his use of the word “treasures,” Smith rejects this label. Still, he cautions that certain species should be cultivated with care due to their invasive potential. He advises, for example, against planting yarrow next to young trees, since it will tend to outcompete saplings for nutrients; and he suggests that when pruning mesquite trees (Prosopis spp.), one be mindful of how invasive their roots can be.
In addition to these sorts of tips, the book contains two other things of great practical value: a glossary and a hardiness map for the United States and Canada. The map is divided into 10 zones each representing a range of average annual minimum temperatures, so that readers can quickly tell whether a given plant will grow where they live. The glossary is extensive and contains a section on medical terms in addition to one on general botanical terminology.
For me, the chief joy in reading Botanical Treasures was learning of all the ingenious uses to which common plants have been put since time immemorial. For example, until now I was unaware that garlic juices are superb for gluing broken glass and ceramic back together (though this makes perfect sense given how tenaciously garlic sticks to your fingers as you’re chopping it). I also had no idea that some Native American tribes used the seed pods of milkweed as a meat tenderizer and its sap as chewing gum. Nor did I know how durable mesquite wood blocks are as a form of pavement (in the early days of road transport, mesquite-paved streets lasted for well over 25 years), or what a fine black hair dye mesquite tree sap makes (an interesting factoid for those thinking of doing the goth look during the post-industrial age).
Joshua Smith certainly has the proper credentials for writing a book like this. With more than 45 years of study into organic and sustainable practices, he has long been an eminent expert in the field. He has practiced permaculture throughout the American West and has taught alongside no less an authority than the late Bill Mollison (generally regarded as the father of permaculture). The author’s passion for and immense knowledge of his calling shine through in every anecdote, practical tip and suggestion for further reading.