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Review: Matt Wood, Earthwise herbal, old world plants.

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It's both a gem and a stinker.

Matthew Wood has published a pair'o books called "The Earthwise Herbal"; one being of Old World Medicinal Plants (Europe, Asia &c.), and one being of New World Medicinal Plants (North America, mainly).

As I'm in Europe, I grabbed the Old World tome first.

First off, the layout sucks, grand time.

  • Minor headings should be just that, minor. Not almost as large as the main headings ... as is, you have to really apply yourself to find a given herb, cos all the "Taste" "Tissue State" "Specific Indications" "Preparation" "Literature" and so on get in the way.
  • It's also always a nice touch to have the plant you're talking about in either the top or bottom part of the page, so that you can find things just by flipping the pages. As is, all that's written up on top is "Earthwise herbal" and "Materia medica". That's sort of kind of really very much less than helpful.

Secondly, it's a book for herbalists, but the rank beginner has no clue that this is the case.
For example, Matt Wood seems to use elderly (and extremely confusing) terminology, when there's clear modern equivalents.

  • Like, a "green" tincture is made of the fresh herb,
  • but a "fresh" tincture is made of the recently dried herb.
  • (In fact, I have no idea what the "fresh" tincture means throughout the book ... is this one fresh herb, or recently dried? A good editor would have spotted that one, straight off.)

Thirdly, it's silly to assume that rampantly abundant plants, when transplanted to other continents, are as abundant where they're at home.
For instance, the entry for Lycopus europaeus (Gypsywort) says (and that's ALL the entry):

    "This plant is used in Europe as a substitute for the American bugleweed (Lycopus virginicus), on the same indications. It is one of the most invasive plants I have ever come across. The association with gypsies should probably be considered a racial slur."
  • It's entirely possible that the substitution is the other way around: the mercadian species is used as a substitute for ours.
  • Not everybody will buy both books, so it's smart to either leave such entries out altogether (if that's all you have to say) or to be more expansive in both works.
  • And it's not invasive - in fact, it's crowded out by grasses, irises and the like, so a largish patch of Lycopus is a real find. Also, I do believe that Mr. Wood himself was politically incorrect with his insinuation that gypsies are invasive. They're not, at least not over here. They keep to themselves, they're great horsepeople, they make very good music, and the ladies have absolutely stunning dresses.

Fourthly, and this is a major blunder: why oh why would you give numbers in the "Literature" part, pointing to the "Specific Indications" part, and then NOT number those same specific indications?

  • I quite like to know if any given indication was noted by, say, Kloss, rather than Michael Moore ... now, if I want to find out, I have to number those indications myself. That makes for a messy book, but it's entirely possible that the resale value in fact goes up, with such an enhancement.

Fifthly, why not give both name and year, when quoting somebody? The "Reference" section at the back of the book is both extensive and divided into at least half a dozen different headings, so finding out when, say, "Hill" (or even "Hall") wrote something, is a bitch.

Matt has obviously been diving into the past, and has neglected modern uses: under "Carrot seed" there's no mention about its use as a contraceptive (brought into current use by Robin Rose Bennett), and under "Nettle seed" there's no mention of its use as an adrenal tonic (yet, puzzlingly, here he mentions a case history by - Robin Rose Bennett).

Under Tussilago farfara (Coltsfoot) Wood says that the plant contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which aren't soluble in water. Check the facts - PAs are unsoluble in oil, but they're quite happily extracted into water ...

The good parts, then: there are quite a lot of very good hints'n'tips for the practising herbalist. It's a nice herbal, pulling together a lot of elderly and more recent literature, blended with some experience by Matt himself.

Would I recommend the set, based on my own experience with those same old world herbs? Yep, but be prepared to be frustrated, again and again, as you read his plant entries. A good editor (and layout specialist) would have made this into an outstanding work, instead of the merely very good one it is now.


:-) my pleasure.

Actually, Matt's book reminds me a little of Back to Eden, similarly difficult to find what you are looking for, and in Kloss's case, not everything necessarily in alphabetical order, few if any formal references, and you just have to keep reading and re-reading the book to really get it. Thank you for your clarification on the PA's; I'm a beginner, and would have taken that as gospel. Except that I'm finding lots of contradictions over the wide span of herbals, so taking that in stride, I learn what I can and keep my ears up. Matt's sense of wonder and his humor, and his wonderful case histories are what catapaulted me into a formal study of herbalism after a lifetime of casual dalliance. I'm very grateful to be a part of this great, green, nettle-stung tribe and feel quite at home. Thanks Henriette, for your review and for your AWESOME website which totally ROCKS. --Yours in the Fellowship of the Greens.

I thought I already responded to S. Barthell’s comments earlier but don't see my response, so I may not know how this system works. Here are some additions.

I got some of my history of lycopus mixed up with scutellaria lat. in my original response (where are you?), but now am at home and have the references right.

The history is clear. We owe the introduction of lycopus into Western herbalism to Constantine Rafinesque (1829-30). He gives the specific pulse, symptomology, and type of disease (heat agitating the blood, one might say). I am very prickly about giving credit to original research and especially to someone like C. R. who has been so maligned. Also to the American Indians, whom he cites. Lycopus virginicus was latter picked up by British herbalists and has always been the officinal species (see materia medica schedule by Priest and Priest, Herbal Medication, c. 1980); the European species has only recently been introduced as a substitute.

The reference to coltsfoot and PAs comes from Rudolf Weiss but I have it here from Penelope Ody, The Complete Medicinal Herbal (London, New York, Stuttgart: Dorling Kindersley, 1993, p. 107): “The herb contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which have caused liver damage in rats. (The quantities in the plant are, however, minute, and Swedish research also suggests that in coltsfoot they are destroyed when making a decoction).” My statement under coltsfoot wasn’t referring PAs in general or in any other plant and is therefore correct and, I thought, widely known. A critic should never project ideas into the head of an author when they are not there.

Lycopus was invasive my garden, so I was surprised that Barthell would criticize me about this. However, I think the difference is cultural. We take invasive plants very seriously over here. Growing teasel is a $1000 offense in Wisconsin. As I know from customs, bringing in plants are not a big deal in Europe, but all my Canadian and American readers know how big a thing they are over here. We are taught about invasive species in all levels of school in the US. Britain does not have an extant native forest or prairie; we do and we try to protect them. My critic cannot be blamed for a situation that is unimaginable in Britain. I cannot be blamed for assuming the invasive species in my garden would not go berserk outside it---though I am happy to learn that it is ‘controlled by grass.’

Fresh means fresh, and dry means dry. I noticed that Rudolf Weiss uses this terminology. I can't understand how anyone can seriously confuse the two. Is this an Americanism? I have never heard of a 'green tincture.' So we speak a different language, I guess.

Matthew Wood

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Rafinesque, on Lycopus (1830): "The L. virginicus is an excellent sedative, subtonic, subnarcotic, and subastringent. It has only lately been taken notice of, when the L. vulgaris was extolled in Europe for fevers." (I'll be putting Rafinesque and Bigelow online in another month, under the classics on this site). I'll freely admit that I haven't read all major herbals, though.

Penelope Ody defended both comfrey and its pyrrolizidine alkaloids, in 1993. As comfrey clearly is dangerous, at the very least to pregnant ladies and children, I don't think her 1993 book is a very good reference for PA toxicity in general.

?? You do say that pyrrolizidine alkaloids are insoluble in water. They're very soluble in water: "Alkaloid N-oxides, on principle, display the same toxicity. Since they are, in contrast to the bases, extremely water-soluble they are subject to different pharmacokinetics."
Life would be far too easy if livertoxic PA-containing plants were indeed completely nontoxic as teas ...

(Apologies if I misread that.)

Barthell didn't talk about lycopus; I did. I'm not in Britain, I'm in Finland ... the L. europaeus is wild along our shores, and along various ditches, riversides and inland waters here, and I've yet to find a really large stand.

You do use the term "green tincture" every now and then, at least in the old world earthwise herbal (which is the one I reviewed in this blog post). Had you used only "fresh tincture", I wouldn't have commented on that, at all. (I'd give you page and chapter - alas, the old world earthwise herbal is currently unavailable to me.).

kloss is of course of the puke'n'purge school, and rabidly religious to boot ... haven't looked at that particular book for more than a decade.
glad you like the site, and the review!

Why is Robin Rose Bennet given credit for popularizing carrot seed? Didn't Susun Weed or Ryan Drum give this information to her in the 1980's

You might not be aware of this:

Aye, but Hill is, lemmesee, 1740, whereas Hall is, lemme check, 1988. It _should_ be noted, because there _is_ a difference in thinking, between centuries. (Also, pet peeve, Felter + Lloyd is NOT from 1983, it's from 1898, nevermind when they did the reprint ... not in this book, I think, but far too often seen elsewhere.)

I'm totally with you on the layout, the lack of references in the text, and the numbering issue on the indications. I could start a rant about the quaint headline font, but I'll hold off for now. The lack of numbering on the indications is really driving me crazy, tho. And the listing of references divided up as they are in the back just really sucks. Can't find a damn thing. I agree with Jim about the great and inspiring quality of Matt's writing, but being trained as a scientist, I'm used to skipping over the parenthetical references. I always think it's good to have them there in case they are needed.

But then I have read both volumes cover to cover and really enjoy Matt's insights and stories. I agree, I would still recommend them, even with the struggles involved.

I didn't like the layout either, and spoke up about it, but was over ruled by nonherbalists at the publishing house. As to the references, sorry. . . but as far as I know, I am the first person to actually credit historical sources for every single symptom, when possible, and I made up my own system. As the entries got longer it became apparent that it would be difficult to follow and even difficult to maintain, it got out of hand even for me, but this book in two volumes is 1000 pages and took ten years to write. If you need a reference, contact me. Believe me, if I could do it over again, I would have put in numbers.

I was rather perplexed by my critic's comments on Lycopus, but realized that he hadn't read the volume on North American plants. Otherwise, he would have been informed that the Lewis family, of central Westchester Co., N.Y., who actually were neighbors by my family, the Woods, introduced this as a secret remedy in the eighteenth century. They used it for 'rabies.' A customer grew it out from seed, discovered what it was, and it was introduced to the public by Mr. Robert Bowne, of the Bowne house (still standing) in Flushing, NYC, about 1805. He was the older brother of my great-great-great grandmother, Mary Bowne King. I don't know that I mentioned all this in the monograph on Lycopus virg. Subsequently, it was used by allopaths, eclectics, and a little by the physiomedicalists. Rafinesque gives Indian uses and added the pulse and characteristic symptoms used by the eclectics. It was given a proving by homeopaths. The use of Lycopus virg. went across the ocean and was adopted into British herbalism, where Lycopus virg. was officinal, not Lycopus europea.

This is very decidedly an herb whose uses came to Europe from North America. Unfortunately, my critic has not spent ten years reading every major North American and European (English language) herbal, and does not know this. If he had both my volumes on hand he would have a very detailed account of who originated what because that is what I studied.

The original impulse came from the Lewis family and NYC doctors, but the major specific indications were added by Rafinesque, and may reflect American Indian origins. The Lewis family used it for several generations, they said, which brings us back to the original settlement of central Westchester Co. about 1730-40. They said they learned about it from a passing German man, so it is possible that their knowledge reflects European sources, but that is only the 'rabies' use and this is not found in European sources I have ever seen.

As to the invasiveness of Lycopus. . . I presume you are right, it is controlled by grasses, but it is the most invasive plant I have ever had in a garden other than Japanese Knotweed. You don't have the right to say I was wrong about this because I was there and you weren't. This, I thought, was preposterous criticism.

As to gypsywort being a racial slur. . . you may get along with gypsies, but I know that 2 million were killed by Nazis, along with 10 million Jews. I think 'gypsewort' is probably on a par with 'squawvine.'

The reference for the PAs in Coltsfoot comes from Rudolf Weiss, if I remember. Not at home right now to reference it, but he says the PAs are not extractly from Coltsfoot in water, hence the use of the tea is safe.

Is fresh not self-evident? Or is this an Americanism that would not be evident in your neck of the woods? I had a very good editor and she didn't have a problem with that. I never heard or used the term 'green tincture.' Fresh means fresh, dried means dried. How can you get a fresh tincture from a dried herb. Explain.

Matthew Wood


This is probably the equivalent of a nosy stranger putting their piece into a conversation near them, but this book sounds interesting; especially after Matt defended the critique so admirably.

Sorry to hear about the poor design. Asia was mentioned, does this include Australia (I suspect not, otherwise I would have read Australasia)?



While I tend to agree that the formatting is not easy to follow, it is true to the old style of herbal materia medicas that M. Wood is fond of and so excellent at bringing back into the light, as you yourself have done in such a powerful and tangible way. They follow the format of simply flowing one into another, and are not standarized to fit to the top or bottom of a page. It would be nice if the plant heading stood out more and the subheadings less.

However, my concern with your review is the misrepresentation or misunderstanding on your part by your statement that Mr. Wood was "politically incorrect" and insinuated that gypsies are invasive, as you write below, first a quote from the book, then your statement...
" "This plant [Lycopus europaeus (Gypsywort)] is used in Europe as a substitute for the American bugleweed (Lycopus virginicus), on the same indications. It is one of the most invasive plants I have ever come across. The association with gypsies should probably be considered a racial slur." " [M.W.]...

..." * And it's not invasive - in fact, it's crowded out by grasses, irises and the like, so a largish patch of Lycopus is a real find. Also, I do believe that Mr. Wood himself was politically incorrect with his insinuation that gypsies are invasive. They're not, at least not over here. They keep to themselves, they're great horsepeople, they make very good music, and the ladies have absolutely stunning dresses."

In M. Wood's text the reference to the gypsies refers to the common perception and attitude among many Europeans and in stereotypes that the gypsies are/were invasive and unwelcome. This may not in fact be the reason that the plant is called Gypsywort, and it may in fact refer to it's use by gypsies or other, but it is inaccurate to imply M. Wood was making the insulting insinuation rather than criticizing what he perceived as a racial slur against gypsies. Also, it was based on his observation of the plant in his garden.

Thanks for the review, and your virtual "ear".

Cynthia Thomas

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