Mother Nature’s Pharmacy: Folk Remedies | Collection Development

Healer, shaman, medicine man were just some of the titles given to those who practiced folk medicine. Many of these naturally occurring remedies involved the use of plants. The usage came mostly from trial and error, with the remedies then passed down from generation to generation, or from a healer to an apprentice. Other antidotes would target a particular ailment and might include prayer, dancing, sweat baths, massage, hot and cold foods, or other means not practiced in modern medicine. Some of these folk remedies are still in use today, like using aloe to counteract sunburn. As stated in Gabrielle Hatfield’s Encyclopedia of Folk Medicine (o.p. but worth keeping if your library has it), Far from representing an ignorant version of orthodox medicine, [folk medicine] should be regarded as the origin of all types of medical practice.

Of course, not all folk remedies are useful; some are based on superstition and folklore. Some, especially those with their roots in superstition, may be considered quack science, or old wives tales, and possibly dangerous. There are common themes found in many of these types of folk remedies, such as the transference of the disease to an inanimate object, or the idea of like curing like (rub a warty toad on your hands to remove warts), while others have a distinct time or counting element. For an intriguing and unique look at the history and science of plant remedies and ethnobotany (the study of plant lore), patrons should consult J.S. Kidd’s Potent Natural Medicines (Facts On File, 2005). In addition, excellent examples of American folk remedies can be found on UCLA’s online archive of American folk medicine,

Prescription for health

Most folk remedies we use today, as well as most of the books on the subject, focus on medicinal herbs. It is not uncommon for patients to ask doctors about herbal supplements for various ailments, or to use them without a doctor’s recommendation. Libraries, therefore, need to stress caution and have books that thoroughly address the usage of folk remedies. Patrons should, of course, consult a health professional first, particularly when it is a serious medical condition they are seeking to treat.

When purchasing materials, look for books that, along with ailment and accompanying treatment, include possible side effects and/or negative interactions with modern drugs, plus sources or professional references for the treatment. Libraries will need to determine the interests of their respective communities, and it is suggested that libraries include treatments from other cultures. Since there are so many alternative health and folk remedy books that make grandiose claims of healing everything that ails you, it is important to read the reviews carefully.

Noted authors in the herbal field include Rosemary Gladstar, Phyllis Balch, and Matthew Wood. For those patrons looking for historical herbal books, the following are still in print and contain useful and relevant information about herbs, as well as being sources of period history: Margaret Grieve’s A Modern Herbal (1930, available in print and free online at and Nicholas Culpepper’s Complete Herbal (17th century, available in print and free online at www.

Since many of the titles may have information that overlaps with one another, you may only want to retain those that have a more thorough study of the uses and effects, while weeding those that lack a comprehensive analysis and have lower circulation. Make sure the material does not include misleading or dangerous information, unless, of course, it is a study or history of folk remedies in general, rather than a manual advocating for their use. With the many worthwhile books on folk remedies and herbal supplements, a library should not lack for choices in building a solid collection. Starred [starred review star] items are noteworthy core purchases for most collections.

Healing Traditions

Davidow, Joie. Infusions of Healing: A Treasury of Mexican-American Herbal Remedies. Fireside: S. & S. 1999. 369p. illus. index. ISBN 9780684854168.pap. $23.95.

A compendium that traces the history of Aztec medicine to Mexican American healers and families that still use their herbal remedies. Owing to the age of the book, the resource list may be dated. Otherwise, a unique title for any herbal collection.

starred review starThe Foxfire Book: Hog Dressing, Log Cabin Building, Mountain Crafts and Foods, Planting by the Signs, Snake Lore, Hunting Tales, Faith Healing, Moonshining, and Other Affairs of Plain Living. Anchor: Random. 1972. 384p. ed. by Eliot Wigginton. illus. index. ISBN 9780385073530.pap. $19.95.

This classic on folk culture of the Southern Appalachians is not to be missed. This first in the Foxfire series of wisdom and tales from a bygone era.

Kavasch, E. Barrie & Karen Baar. American Indian Healing Arts: Herbs, Rituals, and Remedies for Every Season of Life. Bantam. 1999. 336p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780553378818.pap. $22.

The healing rituals and traditions of various Native American tribes are vividly retold within chapters for every phase of life and beyond.

starred review starLad, Vasant. Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies. Three Rivers: Crown. 1999. 336p. index. ISBN 9780609802861.pap. $15.95.

An introduction to Ayurveda, an ancient healing practice from India, with easy-to-use remedies and practices from the founder of the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico. The resource list may be a bit outdated, but the material makes this a keeper. (LJ 3/1/98)

Taylor, Leslie. The Healing Power of Rainforest Herbs: A Guide to Understanding and Using Herbal Medicinals. Square One. 2005. 535p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780757001444.pap. $23.95.

The uses of herbal medicine among indigenous peoples of rainforest regions are presented here, along with their applicability to Western medicine. (LJ 4/1/05)

Weaver, William Woys. Sauer’s Herbal Cures: America’s First Book of Botanic Healing. Routledge. 2000. 336p. index. ISBN 9780415923606.$39.95.

Described by food historian Weaver as the people’s herbal, this book was originally written in German and assembled by an apothecary in Philadelphia during the mid-1700s. Weaver tempers the herbal advice with current information and provides historical insights throughout. (LJ 11/15/00)

Grow, harvest, prepare herbs

Bellebuono, Holly. The Essential Herbal for Natural Health: How To Transform Easy-To-Find Herbs into Healing Remedies for the Whole Family. Roost: Shambhala, dist. by Random. 2012. 304p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781590309476.pap. $19.95.

For beginners interested in growing herbs and making their own remedies and bath products, this book is filled with recipes, remedies, and decoctions. (LJ 5/1/12)

starred review starBruton-Seal, Julie & Matthew Seal. Backyard Medicine: Harvest and Make Your Own Herbal Remedies. Skyhorse, dist. by Norton. 2009. 208p. photogs. index. ISBN 9781602397019. pap. $14.95.

A great addition to the herbal identification books, with full-color photos of plants, along with usage, dosage, and recipes. One downside: the font is on the small side.

Cech, Richo. The Medicinal Herb Grower: A Guide for Cultivating Plants That Heal. Horizon Herbs. 2009. 160p. illus. ISBN 9780970031228.pap. $19.95.

This very simple guide to growing herbs could be used as a teaching tool for middle schoolers on starting their own garden. With information on soil, climate, germination, watering times, and more, using a personal narrative style.

starred review starHome Herbal: The Ultimate Guide to Cooking, Brewing, and Blending Your Own Herbs. DK. 2011. 352p. ed. by Susannah Steel. photogs. index. ISBN 9780756671839.pap. $22.95.

DK continues to produce high-quality books, including this one all about growing, harvesting, storing, and using herbs. Beautiful photos accompany the alphabetical listing by Latin name (the contents and index help locate by common name). Includes recipes for drinks, tinctures, and body care. (LJ Xpress Reviews, 4/8/11)


starred review starBalch, Phyllis A. Prescription for Herbal Healing: An Easy-To-Use A-to-Z Reference to Hundreds of Common Disorders and Their Herbal Remedies. 2d ed. Avery: Penguin Group (USA). 2012. 656p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781583334522.pap. $30.

This newly revised edition of a classic title includes remedies from various traditions, including Chinese and Ayurvedic. It is divided into three parts: understanding herbal healing; herbs for common disorders, and techniques for healing, such as aromatherapy, teas, and tinctures.

Breverton, Terry. Breverton’s Complete Herbal: A Book of Remarkable Plants and Their Uses. Lyons: Global Pequot. 2011. 383p. illus. index. ISBN 9780762770229.$19.95.

This book was written partly as an homage to 17th-century botanist Nicholas Culpeper and is a useful overview of herbs and spices. It also covers notable herb gardens and gardeners. Each plant is listed alphabetically, and entries feature other names and general descriptions, as well as properties and uses, and ends with its use throughout history. Simple black-and-white drawings accompany the text.

starred review starCulpeper’s Color Herbal. Sterling. 2007. 224p. ed. by David Potterton. illus. index. ISBN 9781402744945.pap. $17.95.

A must for historical and modern comparisons of herbal uses. The beautiful color illustrations of each herb and two indexes‚ one listing herbs recommended in Culpeper’s time versus modern use‚ are handy for beginning herbalists and researchers as well. Based on 17th-century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper’s Complete Herbal.

Von Bingen, Hildegard. Hildegard’s Healing Plants: From Her Medieval Classic Physica. Beacon. 2002. 208p. index. ISBN 9780807021095.pap. $24.

An excellent book for students of folklore, especially from medieval times, when Von Bingen wrote. She will be considered for canonization this year by the Catholic Church, which may bring more interest in her writings.

Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants. 2009. 416p. ISBN 9781556437793. pap. $29.95.
Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. 2008. 592p. ISBN 9781556436925. pap. $32.95.
ea. vol: North Atlantic.illus. bibliog. index.

This set of books about Western herbal medicine (old meaning European, and new meaning North American) is written for a slightly more advanced student of herbal medicine. Each volume contains an encyclopedic listing of herbs by their Latin names, a short introduction to its usage, preparation and dosage, and any contraindications.


Gladstar, Rosemary. Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide; 33 Healing Herbs To Know, Grow, and Use. Storey. 2012. 224p. photogs. index. ISBN 9781612120058.pap. $14.95.

Geared to the home herbal novice, this is just one of many excellent herbal books by renowned herbalist Gladstar. Her series Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Remedies is great for their specificity, like herbs for children; unfortunately not all of them are in print. (LJ 5/1/12)

Graedon, Joe & Terry Graedon. The People’s Pharmacy Quick and Handy Home Remedies: Q&As for Your Common Ailments. National Geographic, dist. by Random. 2011. 256p. index. ISBN 9781426207112.pap. $16.95.

A former pharmacologist and a medical anthropologist, respectively, the Graedons combine their skills as well as their celebrity (they write a syndicated column, The People’s Pharmacy, and cohost a health talk show on public radio) to gather from fans the best Q&As on ailments and proposed remedies. They then provide either scientific evidence to back them up or refute them accordingly. (LJ 5/15/11)

Heinrichs, Jay & Dorothy Behlen Heinrichs. Home Remedies from a Country Doctor: Oatmeal, Cucumbers, Ammonia, Lemon, Gin-Soaked Raisins: Timeless Solutions to More Than 200 Common Aches, Pains, and Illnesses. Skyhorse, dist. by Norton. 2011. 512p. index. illus. ISBN 9781602399730.pap. $14.95.

A resource of remedies from more than 250 rural doctors, nurses, midwives, and herbalists covering common problems from backaches to varicose veins with simple answers and some commonsense solutions.

Mars, Brigitte & Chrystle Fiedler. The Country Almanac of Home Remedies: Time-Tested & Almost Forgotten Wisdom for Treating Hundreds of Common Ailments, Aches & Pains Quickly and Naturally. Fair Winds: Quayside. 2011. 287p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781592334469.$21.99.

This is a guide to common ailments and time-tested remedies with sidebar tips and recommendations. A great book for the home remedy beginner.

starred review starNatural Remedies for Healthy Living: Over 1000 Smart Solutions To Help You Live Better Today. Reader’s Digest, dist. by Penguin. 2012. 360p. photogs. index. ISBN 9781606524220.$15.99.

Home remedies and general healthy living tips for everything from natural cleaners to foot care to picking the right pillow. As far as thoroughness goes, Reader’s Digest can’t be beat!

Reid, Daniel. A Handbook of Chinese Healing Herbs. Shambhala, dist. by Random. 1995. 336p. illus. index. ISBN 9781570620935.pap. $24.95.

A compact guide to herbs found in traditional Chinese medicine alphabetically arranged by the herb’s common name, with an index of ailments with the respective reference for the healing herb. More in-depth study of Chinese medicine can be found in Reid’s Complete Book of Chinese Health & Healing (Shambhala. 1994. ISBN 9781570620713. $24.95).

Storl, Wolf D. The Herbal Lore of Wise Women and Wortcunners: The Healing Power of Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic. 2012. 392p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781583943588.pap. $27.95.

Anthropologist Storl has written an insightful and well-researched study of herbalists, shamans, and others, from ancient Egypt to today. He includes practical advice on herbs and foods for healing and other uses.

The Science

starred review starJohnson, Rebecca L. & others. National Geographic Guide to Medicinal Herbs: The World’s Most Effective Healing Plants. National Geographic, dist. by Random. 2012. 400p. ed. by Stephen Foster. illus. index. ISBN 9781426207006.$40.

A scientist collaborates with physicians and herbalists on a thorough overview of 72 medicinal herbs. (LJ 5/1/12)

Kidd, J.S. & Renee A. Potent Natural Medicines: Mother Nature’s Pharmacy. rev. ed. Chelsea House. (Science & Society). 2006. 212p. index. ISBN 9780816056071.$35.

An excellent introduction to plants, their biology, and historical medical use, as well as to the scientists who introduced them to modern medicine. For high school or college papers on the efficacy of medicinal herbs.

Phaneuf, Holly. Herbs Demystified: A Scientist Explains How the Most Common Herbal Remedies Really Work. Marlowe: Avalon, dist. by Publishers Group West. 2005. 400p. illus. bibliog. ISBN 9781569244081.$21.95.

Phaneuf provides a scientific take on how common herbs work to heal or harm. A unique guide to the world of herbal medicine.



The articles in this no-frills magazine are for those interested in sustainable living. Some of the helpful features on ecofriendly gardening and other home projects are provided with a dose of folk wisdom.

Backwoods Home Magazine

Another wonderful magazine for self-reliant living with plenty of advice and ideas for living off the grid, including articles on herbal and plant remedies, how-to guides, and general advice.

Herb Companion

Whether you are looking for herbs to cure or to cook with, this is the publication that covers it all, using glossy photos and well-written content.

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SELF-e is an innovative collaboration between Library Journal and BiblioBoard® that enables authors and libraries to work together and expose notable self-published ebooks to voracious readers looking to discover something new. Finally, a simple and effective way to catalog and provide access to ebooks by local authors and build a community around indie writing!


  1. A small correction concerning Hildegard of Bingen: she was formally canonized in May of this year and will be declared the thirty-fifth Doctor of the Church in October — only the fourth woman ever to be so honored by the Catholic Church. This marks her as having made an extraordinary contribution to the teaching and theology of the universal church.