Floppy and I have been working through this book, a sort of children’s herbal.
I have mixed feelings about herb books. Part of me loves them, loves the wise-woman magic of making medicines and cosmetics and foods and rituals from plants. One of my failings as a parent is that I don’t do well with Floppy’s little injuries and illnesses. I tend to get irritable with him for having gotten sick or hurt — a blame-the-victim mentality if ever there was one, but to be fair, he usually gets boo boos from doing things like tearing through the house at top speed after having been told 10 times to cut it out. But I think some of the irritability is really just my own frustration with not being able to fix it, not being able to help. I’d like to have a repertoire of wise-woman tricks — even if they are only placebos — at the ready to care for my loves. I love the idea of having a witchy little apothecary of things I’d grown or collected to share in difficult or painful times.
Also, Floppy loves this stuff, in much the same way I did when I was his age. The natural world has magic in it, and making aromatic herbs into mysterious things that you can tell magical stories about is appealing to him as it was to me.
On the other hand, a lot of the medical claims they make in books like these are, you know, pretty much totally unfounded. I get the feeling that most of the adult people who are “into” herbs don’t have a very high standard for scientific rigor of medical claims, you know? And, well, fair enough. Even if you want to be intellectually rigorous about it: There are a lot of legitimate reasons for herbalists to be cynical of science as it is actually practiced, such as the fact that scientific studies of herbal medicine — as with every other kind of medicine — don’t happen unless someone stands to make a lot of money, and are biased in various ways against herbs that cannot be used to make anyone any money. Also, it’s very hard to research herbal medicine and traditional folks beliefs of all kinds, because these things work — if they work — synergistically, embedded into systems that are hard to study. You can’t isolate one active compound from a traditional herbal medicine practice and do a randomized controlled trial on it without feeling like you’re searching for the needle in the haystack. For example: Imagine an herbal compound for blood pressure and cardiac health, let’s say, that works when one part (which part? that’s a whole study right there!) of the whole plant is brewed into a tisane given to you by your herbalist, but does nothing when the compound is isolated from the plant and synthesized into a swallowable pill given to you by your pharmacist. Some plants are perfectly edible, delicious, and nutritious, when consumed by a healthy, non-nutritionally stressed human as part of a balanced diet, and fatally toxic when consumed in quantity by a hungry human. Some medications — not herbs, plain old Western medications — do nothing when the patient doesn’t know s/he’s taken them. This stuff would be terribly difficult to research with enormous resources. But there are very few resources to study herbal medicine traditions, and there never will be.
So I understand why herbalists are cavalier about science. Nevertheless, using a medication — any medication, even one made out of a plant and brewed up into a mild herbal tea or applied as a wise-woman poultice — that I has nothing more than folk wisdom to recommend it, or even ensure its safety, gives me the creeps. And teaching my son to do this strikes me as unscientific, unthoughtful. So I have mixed feelings!
I’m resolving this in the short-term by sticking to those portions of the book that feature food herbs and somewhat schlocky-sweet magical stories. With which we are having an excellent time!
This week, we made marshmallows using real marshmallow root:
I was SO excited for these marshmallows. I’ve always wanted to make marshmallows with the actual botanical, and the recipe had no gelatin in it, which I also liked, because I dislike the fetid smell gelatin gives homemade marshmallows. But, truthfully, these turned out more like meringues than marshmallows — whipped egg white is the main ingredient — and Floppy thought they were disgusting. I think they might be good floating in hot chocolate — but haven’t tried that yet,
After we stuck the marshmallows in the oven, we read a silly little story about two children exploring a garden where the spirits of herbs grow and beg humans to use them. Floppy thought this story was wonderful, magical and inspiring, and after we read it, he wrote a little plants-and-magic tale of his own. A successful evening all around!