Essential Books for the New Mexican Herbalist
The wooden bookshelf in our den where I work everyday is filled to the brim by my favorite field guides, ethnobotany texts and herb books, topped by a hand carved bear drum and precious pieces of bones, crystals and potsherds. The Medicine Lodge houses yet more, the bookshelves there full and overflowing now into piles on the floor. I try to only keep what is most useful to me, but find the allure of beautiful plant photos and drawings too hard to resist at times. I’ve been a bibliophile my whole life, and when I lived on the streets as a teenager, my small backpack was full of books and CDs rather than clothes. And even as a very small child, I naturally gravitated towards those books that contained drawings or photos of flowers, herbs and trees. From well illustrated storybooks to the Rodale encyclopedia of herbs that my mother gave me, I treasured them all.
In recent history though, I blame it all on Wolf… he began my now bountiful plant library years ago by gifting me with one huge hardback tome filled with gorgeous pictures from all over the country called Botanica North America. It’s been downhill ever since, with his most recent contribution being a another huge book, this one the infinitely useful Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel Moerman. If anyone has supported me and rooted me on in my journey through herbalism, it’s Wolf. The large herbal library being only one small part of that.
One of these days I’ll get around to writing a more general version of this, but for now even herbalists in other regions of N. America or the world may really enjoy and benefit by some of these books (especially Michael Moore’s). By way of introduction, you should realize I’m a bit of a book snob so there’s a lot of books that are available on this subject that I won’t include here. I’m only listing the ones that I have found useful and practical (and hopefully beautiful too). Feel free to recommend additional titles in the comments, I’m always excited to hear about new plant books, especially bioregional ones.
Although I specify New Mexico in my post title, herbalists from Arizona, southern Cali., Texas, Colorado and other SW and Rocky Mt. states will likely find all of my suggestions quite useful.
Flowering Plants of New Mexico, fourth edition by Robert DeWitt Ivey – Vinyl cover, spiral bound. THE field guide for NM and a refreshingly comprehensive look into a region and subject that is extremely neglected (which is WHY I’m writing a field guide of the Gila after all). Black and white drawings grouped by family, with a good botany intro and key in the beginning. If you’re not familiar with plant families and are addicted to color pictures, you could find this book to be a bit frustrating. However, if you can handle the plant families and have a basic grasp of botany, you’ll appreciate this monumental contribution. It doesn’t include every spp. in NM (I think that might be impossible), but covers a very broad range and the drawings are very accurate. They also purposely exagerate the defining characteristics of the plant which can be a real boon when IDing. Also provides maps of the state to give you a good idea of where the plant will likely be found in NM. I love the vinyl cover and spiral binding because it allows it to lie flat and the cover is easy to clean with water and a rag. The new edition is a significant improvement over the last. It can be purchased for somewhere between $50-$100 usually, and if you’re a member of the Native Plant Society of NM, you can get a discount on it through them.
Plants of the Rocky Mountans by Linda Kershaw – Divided by tree, shrub, herbacious plant, lichens etc and then arranged by plant family with a flower color key at the front of the book. Pictures are a bit on the tiny size for in depth IDing, but useful nonetheless and the book is conveniently small, tough and light for backpacking. Large number of sp. but rather restricted in its listing of subspecies, and definitely biased towards the northern range of the Rockies. Despite my criticisms, it is one of my favorited field guides for the high country around here. Recommended for those living in the higher elevations of the SW or in the Rockies proper.
Medicinal and Edible Plants of the Rocky Mountains by Linda Kershaw – Similar to the above listing with an emphasis on edible and medicinal plants. Surprisingly good, and beautifully designed with larger pictures than her larger field guide and gorgeous color drawings. Solid info for the most part and she has obviously done her homework with references to Michael Moore, Terry Willard and the like. As per usual, the cautions are a bit on the extreme side (although better than Tilford, in my opinion). I would keep this book just to look at the pictures even if it sucked as a field guide (which it certainly does not). I’ve found it very useful and it’s small and tough enough to carry just about anywhere.
Plants of Arizona by Anne Epple – Huge variety of plants found throughout the SW, especially NM and AZ and therefore exceedingly useful. Arranged by color of flowers, which is annoying on many levels and the book would be greatly improved by being redone according to plant family and including more than just pictures of the flowers. The front half of the book is all color photos, one for each flower, by color. The second half is the text, which you reference either by the index or by the number next to the plant picture. Included basic botanical info. I’ve keyed out a lot of plants with this book and am very fond of it, but it would be SO much better if arranged just a little differently.
Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, revised edition by Michael Moore – THE book to have if you live anywhere in the SW mountains. It’s the first real herb book I ever owned and I was on a mountain and could only have ONE herb book, this would be it. I love Michael’s no BS writing and I love the fact that it’s all based on personal experience even more. There’s many hidden gems in his work, little comments that often seem to go unnoticed, but in reality, EVERYTHING herbal the man say should be paid close attention to. While he occasionally misses significant uses in his profiles of plants (Elderberry and Alder spring to mind), in general he’s so right on it’s scary. I love Mimi Kamp’s drawings too, they’re clear, easy to recognize and pretty. As with most of Michael’s books, basic instructions for standard preparations are given. He also lists other very important info such as where habitat the plant migh be found in, how stable the herb is once gathered, how to gather it, ecologic status, distribution maps, primary constituents, best preparations, contraindications and even cultivation tips. The herb book standard by which all others should be measured.
Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West by Michael Moore – Another great book, though it will be even better when and if it gets revised in the same manner as the Mountain West book. Interesting tidbits abound, much of which I really wish would be expanded upon or clarified. I do especially love his Milky Oats profile, especially in the context of the era in which the book came out.
Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West by Michael Moore – Rivals the Mountain West book for my favorite, and despite the title, has many of the plants found in the intermountain West as well. Great stories, great plants, great info and great drawings (by Mimi again) with pretty much all the same features as the Mountain West book, with less emphasis on cultivation. I like to read Michael’s books just for pure entertainment and find myself marking new finds every time I re-read. As with the other books, I would have liked more photographs but they’re really not necessary for anything besides aethetic pleasure since we have Mimi’s great drawings.
Herbal Medicine of the American Southwest by Charles Kane – This Tucson herbalist and former student of Michael Moore has made a great contribution to SW herbal literature with this book. It’s clear, concise, practical and right on. Its focus tends to be more around desert level plants but does include some specifically mountain type plants like Wild Peony. There’s a center section of full color photographs and paintings of every single plant that’s very helpful. While I find some of his profiles to be a limited in their understanding of the plant, what’s there is extremely accurate and often unusual info. Clearly influence by the structure of Michael’s books, much to my joy. Highly recommended.
Healing Plants of the Rocky Mountains by Darcy Williamson – This is the book that confirmed my experiences with Alder and got me to work with the tree further and deeper. While Darcy is from Idaho, many of the Rocky Mt plants she covers are also common plants in the mountains of the SW (American Pennyroyal, Alder, Horsetail, Chokecherry, Elder etc) and beyond. She’s had some unusual teachers (many indigenous) and therefore has some really interesting insights into plants you won’t hear much elsewhere. While it does have lovely painting of the plants, it doesn’t have a lot of use for IDing so bring a field guide too. Her pamphlets (sold on her From the Forest website) also contain some totally unique and fascinating insights that I’ve found quite helpful.
Infusions of Healing: A Treasury of Mexican-American Herbal Remedies by Joie Davidow – A great look in traditional Hispanic uses of herbs, especially in the Southern Cali tradition. It also offers a fairly accurate history of Hispanic and pre-Hispanic herbalism, along with interviews and profiles of current traditional healers in the SW. I really like the book and reference it on a fairly regular basis. That said, the woman who wrote the book is not an herbalist but a journalist who dabbles in herbs and has spent a lot of time with traditional healers. This means you should already know your plants when you use this book and take everything said with a grain of salt. There’s some very glaring errors included, and a lot of places where there’s a clear misunderstanding of the traditional usage of the plant. Worth having if you’re in the SW, but it shouldn’t be used by a complete beginner or without other, more dependable backup references.
Bioregional Ethnobotany Texts
Los Remedios: Traditional Herbal Remedies of the Southwest by Michael Moore – Michael’s very first book, a sweet little volume listing the most commonly used herbs in the New Mexico Spanish tradition. Traditional uses are given, as well as Michael’s comments upon how useful or safe the plant has been in his experience. A great book that gives brief overviews of many common herbs, both native and imported, including Lavender, Garlic, Corn Silk, Coriander and many, many others. Understandable, straight-forward, and written from experience.
Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande: Traditional Medicine of the Southwest by L. S. M. Curtin, edited by Michael Moore – The classic NM ethnobotany text, with many exciting comments on very unused plants as well as some very strange medicinal practices with animal parts and excretions that I have yet to try. As with most ethnobotany books, it wasn’t written by an herbalist, but by a curious researcher. There’s much to be learned here but don’t use it as an encyclopedia of plants and their uses (actually, don’t use any book that way, get to know your plants personally instead). Be sure to get the edition edited and annotated by Michael Moore, he’s corrected some important errors and his notes often make things much more sensible and understandable.
By the Prophet of the Earth: Ethnobotany of the Pima by L. S. M. Curtin – A small book giving a rare overview the many ways in which the Pima interacted and worked with their native plants. It’s out of print as far as I know and can be found for free online right here.
At The Desert’s Green Edge: An Ethnobotany of the Gila River Pima by Amadeo M. Rea – A truly moving and fascinating look at the plants and people of the Gila River in Arizona. Not only a thorough compendium a traditional herbal uses, but a great exploration of the way in which this group of indigenous people classified plants (in a detailed and incredibly accurate manner generally only credited to the Aztecs and modern botany) and the way their language and stories intertwine with their experiences and knowledge of the plants. Written by a man who spent much of his life working with the Gila River Pima, and knew them intimately. Beautifully complemented by the Sumi-e brush paintings of Takashi Ijichi. While not written by a practicing herbalist, and drawn from a culture that is very quickly forgetting its relationship wiht the plants, it is an extraordinary opportunity to take a glimpse into the relationship traditional peoples had with the herbs. Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in herbal medicine and ethnobotany, even if you don’t live in the SW.