Elizabeth Blackwell, Botanical Illustrator: A Curious Herbal
Elizabeth Blackwell may seem a fairly ordinary sort of name. However, historically, not one but two dynamic women carried this name. Both were British born.
Elizabeth Blackwell, the first physician
The most recent Elizabeth Blackwell was actually the first female physician. She was born in February 1821 in Bristol in England. The first woman to obtain a medical degree in the United States, in 1849, and the first woman on the UK medical register. Quite a feat. Several educational institutions resisted before one finally admitted her to study.
She wrote a number of books. Furthermore she was instrumental in the education of women in medicine. Incidentally her younger sister Emily was the third female to obtain a medical degree.
Elizabeth Blackwell, the botanical illustrator
An earlier Elizabeth Blackwell born, Elizabeth Blachrie, in Scotland in 1707 was yet another strong female figure.
Her book, A Curious Herbal published in 1737, was designed to aid physicians and apothecaries in plant identification. It contains several beautiful illustrations of medicinal plants. The book is quite beautiful and of particular interest to me.
Her husband, a doctor, was a somewhat lavish spender. In addition, he had accrued a few fines. He ended up in a debtor’s prison. Consequently leaving poor Elizabeth destitute with no income and a child to feed.
Discovering a need for such an illustrated book, Elizabeth relocated to near the Chelsea Physic Garden. From there she was able to draw the plants from life.
Finally she accrued sufficient funds for her husbands release from prison. This was largely due to the income from A Curious Herbal. However, once again he accrued debts. Eventually he left his family for Sweden. He was later executed for conspiracy. Elizabeth died in 1758. She is buried in Chelsea, London.
Although Elizabeth was not a physician her book is a remarkable record of medicinal plants in use during that time period.
Twenty years ago I began reading the Outlander series of books. Helen DuFriend, an American friend and work colleague, was engrossed in the Outlander books. She thought I would be interested in reading them as they are based in Scotland.
Another Scottish friend, Anne McOmish also read the books and we had great deliberations and musings over them. Mainly relating to the rather dashing Jamie.
Of course, one could not help but fall for Jamie Fraser, even from the pages of a book. However, Claire’s interest in healing herbs also sparked my interest. Indeed Claire’s medical and botanical knowledge certainly aided her survival, in more ways than one, at that time in history. And so Outlander Claire Frasers herbal knowledge was an integral part of the story.
Outlander? more books and a TV show…
Recently I discovered there are several more books in the Outlander series and a television production to boot!
My sister-in-law, Shirley and I sat engrossed for several evenings glued to way too many episodes. Yes, we had square eyes. The TV series is fabulous. However, as is often the case with books versus TV shows there are slight changes. Unfortunately it is not possible to include all details. Some things are cut out.
Even with the first books there are differences. In the UK the first book was titled Cross Stitch. Across the pond it was titled Outlander. I first read Outlander when given it by an American friend. I did not know of Cross Stitch at that time.
Cross Stitch, the UK version, is different. Although the main story remains Cross Stitch includes some changes and some deletions from the version across the pond. I believe new prints in the UK still contain the content of Cross Stitch albeit with the name change to Outlander to link with the television series.
Outlander Claire Frasers Herbal Knowledge
Wow, there are so many medicinal plants in Outlander. The TV series unfortunately could not possibly cover all the healing plants included in the corresponding novels. Only a few pages into the first book Claire mentions comfrey as
“good for haemorrhoids”.
after her husband Frank Randall asks about a dried plant in his copy of Tuscum and Banks.
“that horrible crumbly brown stuff”
Personally I’d have to say I would much prefer the crumbly comfrey to what must surely be a thoroughly boring book with such a title of Tuscum and Banks!
This is the first mention of Claire’s interest in healing plants and botany in the book. However, excluded from the TV show.
Furthermore in the book version she first visits Craigh na Dun with Mr Crook, a local herbalist. Her second visit is with Frank. In the television series her first visit is with Frank. Poor Mr Crook doesn’t even get a mention in the TV episode.
After passing through the stones …
At Castle Leoch, comfrey makes a further entrance in the book and a first introduction in the TV show in episode one.
Mrs FitzGibbons brings Claire garlic, witch hazel, comfrey and cherry bark for Jamie’s painful shoulder and gunshot wound. However, in the book the medicinal plants are garlic, thyme, comfrey and willow bark.
Witch hazel is a shrub or small tree. It is not native to Scotland or even the UK. The wild cherry tree would have grown in Scotland but it is rarer in the north of the country and south west. In fact in Highland folklore it was believed a witches tree!
It is possible the medicinal plants were changed for the TV show. Produced by an American cable company, initially for an American audience. However, it is also probable the television series is based on Outlander, the first book. Not the UK version, Cross Stitch.
Garlic is a powerful antiseptic, as is thyme. Chosen, in the book, for wound cleansing. Comfrey aids wound healing. Mrs Fitz brought comfrey and willow bark to ease Jamie’s pain. Willow bark is a source of salicylic acid. Salicylic acid perhaps better known today as the pharmaceutical preparation Aspirin.
Growing in the Castle Leoch Herb Garden
In the herb garden at Castle Leoch Claire finds fennel and mustard on the west side and chamomile on the more sunny south side.
Other medicinal allies growing include foxglove, sweet violet, fumitory, thyme, marigolds and yarrow. If interested click those underscored to learn more about their medicinal uses.
First Meeting with Geillis Duncan
In the UK book version Claire finds wood sorrel beneath roots of an alder. She searches for more. Apparently in the Outlander book she seeks a mushroom that is poisonous if prepared inappropriately. She is looking at mushrooms in the TV series too.
Geillis Duncan, talking of wood sorrel.
“Those are good for helping the monthlies”
Consequently startled Claire stands up and bangs her head on a pine branch.
A Battered and Bruised Jamie
After Jamie takes a punishment for Laoghaire he is once again battered and bruised. Willow bark again makes an appearance. Given as a tea to rinse his mouth and cleanse the cuts and ease the pains.
Claire asks Mrs Fitz about the increased chance of bleeding. Claire, from the future, probably knew about the blood thinning properties of aspirin. Mrs Fitz recommends following the tea rinse with St John’s Wort soaked in vinegar. She stipulates St John’s Wort is ground up well. After gathering under a full moon. St John’s Wort is wound healing and helpful to staunch bleeding.
Choosing a Guidebook to Identify Wildflowers and Medicinal Plants
I have been asked a few times on herb walks for the best guidebook to help identify wildflowers and/or medicinal plants. What a difficult question!
I have accumulated quite a vast array of wildflower guidebooks and identification keys and have to say it would be impossible for me to pin it down to one ‘best guidebook’.
The following is a brief synopsis of a ‘few’ of the books I personally own. I have included some potential positives and some potential negatives. However, this is obviously somewhat subjective. I have finished, each individual review, with a brief summary – in a nutshell.
I hope this will give you some help in your quest to purchase your own wildflower, or herb, identification key or guidebook. The books are alphabetically listed by author, not in order of my personal preference.
Please use the comments below to add your own personal favourites, or even those you would avoid!
BARKER, J., 2001. The Medicinal Flora of Britain and Northwestern Europe. United Kingdom: Winter Press
Positives: I particularly love this book. Written by a medical herbalist and so is entirely based around botanical identification of medicinal plants. If you are a trainee herbalist or a herbalist I would thoroughly recommend this book. Laid out by botanical plant family. Ideal if you have a basic knowledge of key features of botanical families. This is one book I would be quite distraught if I lost.
Negatives: It is somewhat large and heavy for a field guide being about a kilo and a half in weight! Certainly not a book I would choose to take on a walk. It has a few line drawings of plants. If you like colourful photographs or images then it is not for you – not a pictorial book.
In a nutshell: A must have for a trainee herbalist or herbalist. Perhaps not ideal for the layperson looking for a wildflower identification guide. Not a lightweight ‘field guide’.
Positives: If you like photographs then this little book has over 1,500 colour images. Family name, Latin and common names are given. It also lists habitat and the plant parts used. Quite good if you are looking for a book with basic medicinal uses too. Divided into six sections: trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials, annuals and biennials, climbers and other herbs (which includes some fungi). Each individual plant is nicely laid out. It is bright and colourful. It is not expensive.
Negatives: Includes some plants you are unlikely to find growing in nature in Europe e.g. Ananas comosus, better known as pineapple!!! Though, should the Ananas survive, I would be quite happy to have one growing in my garden!
Also, some ‘herbs’ could easily overlap in two sections e.g. Thymus vulgaris is under Shrubs but would also fit into the Herbaceous Perennials section. A little difficult to search through on a walk. Although not the largest book I have, it is perhaps a little large for a field guide.
In a nutshell: Useful information. Nice book. Not an ideal field guide but worth having as an extra.
FIELD STUDIES COUNCIL (FSC)., 2002-2014. FSC Guides – Fold Out Charts. UK: FSC Publishing.
Positives: There are a vast array of fold out charts from the Field Studies Council. They have collections for birds, fish, fungi, habitats and of course, wildflowers!
I don’t own them all, there are many! My personal collection includes Grassland plants and Woodland plants. I think they are great. They are very light, so easily portable on a walk. Lovely and colourful and also because they have a sort of glossy, wipeable surface you can drop them (accidentally, of course) in a muddy puddle and wipe them down easily. Not that I recommend dropping them in muddy puddles! They tend to include the more common plants you are likely to come across. Another nice thing about them is you get a little mini botany lesson. Also they won’t break the bank. They are generally no more than £3 a piece!
Negatives: You’re not going to find everything on them but they don’t claim to be inclusive.
In a nutshell: Easy to take out field guides and you get to learn a little bit of botany too.
Positives: This book works by comparing two similar wildflowers that you may confuse on a field trip. The plants are compared over a double page for ease and the similarities/ differences outlined.
As an example Rosa arvensis (field rose) and Rosa canina (dog rose) are compared. With the field rose the flowers are always white. However with the dog rose flowers are usually, though not always, pink. The dog rose can be found throughout Europe whereas the field rose is usually found in southern and western Europe. The field rose clearly enjoys a slightly warmer climate! He also explains the subtle differences in the rosehips to help identify between the two species.
Negatives: Not enough plants included. Not ideal if you want to focus on learning botanical features within plant families.
In a nutshell: A simple, jargon-free, book. Ideal for the lay person not wishing to get lost in complicated botanical lingo!
HENSEL, W., 2008. Black’s Nature Guides: Medicinal Plants of Britain and Europe. London: A&C Black Publishers Ltd.
Positives: I confess I chose this book because of the title. The positives, for me, medicinal plants and it covers Britain and Europe. It has nice images. Both common and Latin name are included. Habitat and a brief botanical and medicinal description are also included. It is reasonably small (just over 20cm) and could be taken out as a field guide.
Negatives: Colour coded book. I am sorry but this type of book frustrates me! Imagine you see a beautiful little purplish flower out on a walk. So what colour is ‘purplish’ under in the guide? Is it blue or is it red? Half an hour later still flicking through the book and none the wiser what the beautiful little flower actually is!
In a nutshell: Lovely pictures. Nice size for field guide. But, frustratingly colour coded!
KEBLE MARTIN, W., 1969. The Concise British Flora in Colour. Norwich: Jerrold & Sons Ltd.
Positives: This has 100 plates filled with plant images and each plate includes several species within a plant family. Plates are all categorised into botanical family making it easy to navigate if you know the plant family. For example there are approximately ten plates for the Compositae family. So you’ll find the Carduus species next to each other for ease of comparison on one plate. A brief description of each is included and a plant image (see image below for layout).
My own copy was a find in a secondhand bookstore some years ago and the front protective cover was missing. I believe the front cover reads ‘1486 species illustrated’ so lots of plants.
Negatives: Old, you may have already noticed ‘Compositae’ now known as Asteraceae. Large hardback book (nice but not as a field guide). You would want to know botanical families. It could be a long search if you find a plant and have no idea of the botanical family. Particularly based on British flora so, for me personally, not as useful in France.
In a nutshell: I think this is a lovely book and worth having if you can find it cheap enough secondhand. However, it is a bit on the large size for a field guide if that is particularly what you are after. Great for reference.
PODLECH, D., 2001. Herbs and Healing Plants of Britain and Europe. United Kingdom: Harper Collins.
Positives: Really cheap, covers Britain and Europe and medicinal plants. It is small and lightweight and ideal for taking out on a herb walk. Including common and Latin names, habitat and brief uses with nearly 300 plants with images listed. Both inside back and front covers have rulers and drawings of leaf shapes, margins, fruits and flowers.
Negatives: Aaaaggghhh, colour coded! [see Hensel above]. You get what you pay for
In a nutshell: Cheap to buy and ideal size for a field guide. Good as it does cover healing plants. But, colour coded!
ROSE, F., 1978. The Observer’s Book of Wild Flowers. London: Frederick Warne
Positives: I bought this book in a secondhand bookstore so it was cheap. I love secondhand bookstores. I can get lost for hours…. Actually I love ALL bookstores and huge libraries… Okay, I digress…
It is the smallest book I have (huge bonus for a walk). Laid out by botanical family. Each plant includes Common and Latin name, botanical family, distribution and habitat. There is a good botanical description too. Each page has the common and Latin name at the top with an image below and the remaining information at the bottom. I actually really like this little hardback book (picture of book at top of post, one with poppies on front). It pops in a pocket or my herb basket and I find it easy to use.
Negatives: It doesn’t include many plants, perhaps only 150 at most (but then it is really only a pocket book). You would want to have basic knowledge of botanical plant families to use it. It is old so lists older botanical family names; Labiate, Umbelliferae etc.
In a nutshell: What’s not to like if you can find it somewhere secondhand! Cute little pocket book.
ROSE, F., 2006. The Wild Flower Key. Warne New revised and expanded by Clare O’Reilly. England: Frederick Warne.
Positives: The description reads “A guide to over 1,600 wild plants found in Britain and Ireland……The only field guide that combines comprehensive keys and colour illustrations”. It is, unsurprisingly, quite a chunky field guide, but do-able! It certainly does have a range of comprehensive keys and colour illustrations. A useful illustrated glossary of botanical terms is at the back. Much needed for non-botanists! There is a guide to the structure of flowers to aid in use.
A section at the front is laid out with keys to help find the correct plants in the book. Habitat keys include Woodlands, Roadsides, Grasslands, Heathlands etc. Essentially after following these keys you should reach a botanical family and, hopefully, an answer. Remainder laid out by botanical family.
Finally it has a waterproof, wipeable cover – so we’re back to muddy puddles again!
Negatives: The book prides itself on “Designed for beginners, conservation volunteers and amateur wild flower lovers but also invaluable for professional ecologists.” However, you do need to have a decent amount of botanical knowledge to use this book effectively. I would also add, ideally, a hand lens. There are a lot of abbreviations and symbols so I find myself flicking back and forth quite frequently as I am not a botanist and don’t know all the terms. I tend to use it with lots of bookmarks!
Would I agree with “beginners”? Probably not unless you are willing, and have time, to learn a bit of botany first and purchase a hand lens. It is also quite an expensive book. I think I paid £25 for it.
In a nutshell: So Francis Rose to the rescue again! I do like this book. The more I use it the more this book resembles mistletoe. And me, well the host tree. Or perhaps it is the other way round! If you can afford it, go for it.