A Curious Herbal

I’ve always loved old herbals–illustrated books that describe plants and their uses. I especially  enjoy browsing through my collection of reprints, noticing how our understandings of plants have changed over the centuries.

Take the dandelion, for instance. Every  year, Americans dump over 90 million pounds of herbicides on their lawns, primarily to get rid of a few dandelions. But until the the last couple of centuries, this plant was valued. It was used as an effctive diuretic to reduce swelling in feet and ankles. Its folkname–piss-a-bed–speaks for itself.

This particular drawing of a dandelion is distinguished in a different way, though. It appears in A Curious Herbal, by Elizabeth Blackwell, published as a book in 1739 in London. (The word “curious,” at the time, meant “careful, meticulously detailed, precise.”)

A Curious Herbal is distinguished because Elizabeth drew the plants from life (in the Chelsea Physic Garden), engraved them  and the descriptive text on copper plate, had them printed and hand-colored. She published them in weekly serial “parts,” four plants at a time, over nearly two-and-a-half years (1736-1739). Then, when all the plates (500 of them, plants and the descriptive texts) had been published as individual parts, she had them published in two volumes, as a book.

Elizabeth, a remarkable woman, seems to have managed the whole thing herself, from drawing and engraving to printing and distribution/ She used her earnings, hundreds of pounds, to bail her husband out of debtor’s prison. She appears to have then gone to work as a midwife, while her husband left her and moved to Sweden, where he lost his head (literally) over a political intrigue in the royal court. Isn’t that an incredible story?

Well, I think so, anyway. That’s why Elizabeth’s story forms the backstory of my current China Bayles project, called Hemlock. I’ve been working on it slowly–everything seems to go more slowly in Covid-time–and have about two-thirds of it done. China (of course: who else?) is asked to investigate the theft of an important and unique copy of A Curious Herbal. The book is also about the theft of rare prints and maps from libraries, which has interested me ever since I read Torn from their Bindings: A Story of Art, Science, and the Pillaging of American University Libraries, by Travis McDade, a few years ago. Sometimes a writing project takes a while to mature–the more complex it is, the longer the maturation. In this one, I’m jugglilng two major stories and a new-to-China setting, so it’s taking longer than usual. Or maybe I’m just getting older, or more picky about paragraphs and even sentences. That could be true, too. 🙂

Book report. The ninth Darling Dahlias mystery, The Darling Dahlias and the Voodoo Lily, will be back from the copy editor soon. Its next stop is the layout editor, who converts the finished Word file into files for print and ebook. The cover is finished but the colors need adjustment; that may take a while, because the cover artist had an accident and is recovering from a concussion! Real life has a way of intruding into our projects, doesn’t it? But it will all be done in time for a late October or early November publication. Hemlock will be done before Thanksgiving, I expect. You should have it in March or April.

After that? Another novella, I think. Would you prefer one in Ruby’s Crystal Cave series? Or in Jessica’s Enterprise series? I write for you, you know.

Home/stead report. It’s been a brutal summer, with nearly two months of straight 100-degree-plus days and no rain. Two weeks ago, an inch of rain cooled us off and turned what was left of the summer grass a brighter shade of green. The Girls took heart and began producing again, after their usual hot-weather layoff. The lake is a puddle and the creek is dry, but October is one of our rainiest months. It would be lovely to get a refill before winter.

We’ve been hunkered down here since the pandemic began and don’t expect to be doing any traveling any time soon. The narrowed focus of our lives has been a blessing, actually. The world beyond has become so dark that it is easier to be content with the small, bright bits of life here at home: an email from the kids, a new book to read, a favorite movie to enjoy again, a pair of does and their quartet of fawns drinking from the water tub by the creek.

Wherever you are, I hope you are safe–from the pandemic, from the fires and smoke, from the hurricanes along the coast and the chaos in Washington. I hope that you, too, can be content with your own small, bright bits, including a few dandelions.

Reading note. “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”― Mary Oliver

48 comments on “A Curious Herbal

  1. Your mention of the theft of prints from libraries reminded me of a great book I read a while back: The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime by Miles Harvey. He tracks the story of one prolific map thief and it’s crazy. And the cover is stunning. I agree that the small things, close to home, are worth focusing on. I have become obsessed with the hummingbirds in my yard (just as they are probably about to leave).

    • I’ve read that book too, Raeanne. Excellent. I enjoyed another book along the same lines: The Feather Thief, by Kirk Wallace. I’ve always wondered about those feather boas and the feather-hat craze.

  2. I tried like heck to convince my 95 year old mother to leave those poor dandelions alone. Even invoking the needs of local bees in the spring, she wouldn’t budge. I tried. I love the Ruby trilogy.

  3. Dear Susan! So good to read all these messages from other readers. I feel like I’ve found a whole family of sisters; makes me feel less alone.
    I live in the rural southwest (central Arizona) and am in that age group that remembers parents and grandparents harvesting dandelions! I have a whole backyard of them!
    On another note I vote for a new Ruby novella but but would love a Jessica story. And how about Sheila novellas? I think Shelia is a strong character; so many story possibilities with her as protagonist!

  4. Susan, a bright spot in my days this summer has been the discovery of Kate Ardleigh and Sir Charles Sheridan. The Darling Dahlias is one of my favorite series, with the perfect mix of mystery, engaging characters, and history, and now I have another series to look forward to reading! Thanks to you and your husband!

  5. Oh Susan! You are such a light in all of this darkness. Thank you for sharing your thoughts through your blog, the newsletter and of course, your books. Looking forward to Hemlock!

  6. Hi Susan. What a gift your writings are in these dark times. Such strife and struggle in so many ways. I’m finding it more and more difficult to remain positive. Multiple states on fire with the whole sky ablaze, Covid still spreading, racial discord erupting to a fever pitch, continued denial and lies about climate change and the pandemic from the the non-leadership of this country, not to mention the complete lack of compassion, apology or action. And then along come the Darling Dahlias, China Bayles and Ruby. Thank you! Personally, I would love another novella featuring Ruby and the Crystal Cave.

    I’m so glad you and yours are well and safe. Although Connecticut isn’t in the 100’s, we’ve had an uncomfortably warm spring and summer and drought conditions. The heat and humidity started in early June and continued through August. 90+ temperatures and 70+ dew points don’t usually hit until mid-July. Everything is off. We’ve also had tornadoes again and hurricane season is upon us.

    Thank you for the wonderful stories and I just love this post about the herbal drawings and books. I have several vintage books about herbs, weeds and wildflowers with old world illustrations that I just love. I’m so looking forward to your new writings.

    Yours,
    Linda

    • Linda, I share your frustrations, especially with the denials, bullying, and devisive talk coming out of the White House. Then I look out of my window and take refuge in the sight of our little scrap of woodland. I think that’s why the fires are so frightening. Nature may not be a refuge much longer.

      • I echoed those very thoughts to a friend earlier today. Billions of animals gone. Millions of acres decimated. Unfathomable numbers. That saddens me to my core. I do my best to take pleasure in simple things (like reading a good book and cuddling my sweet dog) and find joy in creating art. I grew up an only child (and a voracious reader) so I’m used to being alone and finding ways to keep myself entertained, which makes me well equipped for periods of isolation. (Gilda Radner’s little girl character, Jennifer was spot on!) Stay well, dear Susan.

  7. What a treasure of a book! When I first saw the name “Elizabeth Blackwell,” I thought of a book I’d purchased when I was 10 or 11. “The First Woman Doctor” Apparently, this is a different Elizabeth Blackwell! And I always have plenty of dandelions that live out their days on the perimeter of the north and west sides out back.
    The new China book is one I’ll be eagerly awaiting. I have a torn-from-its-binding hand-coloured lithograph of apples I bought when I was probably around 19. I need to take a magnifying glass to it as it’s got all the hallmarks that ID it as a litho (which appears in very tiny print at the bottom). And the center apple is marked “Bastard” and then in slightly finer print “Seek No Further.” Now who could resist that, LOL?

  8. I love dandelions, too. Tinctures to making wishes with them. I just finished Fireline, and loved it! Can’t wait to see what happens with Mark. I am now waiting for the next two books. It is to hard to pick from Ruby or Jessie, i’ll take one of each. Thank you for your stories, I have been a fan since China #1. Elaine

  9. I’m so delighted to hear about the progress of the next China and Dahlias books. They will be large, bright bits in my life and it makes me happy to look forward to them.

  10. Susan I enjoy reading your books, novellas, and blog posts. I lived in New Braunfels and worked at Southwest Texas/Texas State in San Marcos, Alamo Community Colleges in San Antonio, and have family in Austin area. So reading your books reminds me so much of my Texas time. I also enjoy learning new things and your writing always gives me something interesting to check out! Elizabeth Blackwell sounds like an amazing and curious person!

    • Elizabeth is truly fascinating, Stella. And I can’t believe that she was (as some historians have said) a “devote, dutiful wife” to that rascally husband!

  11. I’m so excited about your forthcoming books. I am a huge fan of your Darling Dahlias. I hope you take them into WW2. I really love Ruby’s novellas. Although anything you write is excellent. You could rewrite the phone book and make it interesting. Best wishes and good health to you.

    • I’ve been wondering about that, Karen. But I’d have to hop over several years to do it. That might have to be a different series, and I don’t know if there’s room in my life for that! 🙂

  12. I turned a good friend on recently to the first Ruby trilogy and now BOTH of are thirsting for more RUBY STORIES!!! Can’t wait to read the new China Bayles’ book on hemlock when it comes out. Thank you, thank you in advance. Please stay well, Kathleen

      • Dear Susan, I hate reading from a screen…did enough of that before I retired…I hung in there with baited breath waiting for the trilogy to come out…guess I will be waiting a while now until any new Ruby trilogy comes out…that’s OK…it’s worth it. Keep well and keep writing…can’t wait for the newest China! Kathleen Taylor

  13. Bless you in all your writing. We are surviving the pandemic quarantine here in Massachusetts with:
    * a smile,
    * a garden of squashes in uncommon varieties (crookneck summer & honey nut ) that are unavailable for local purchase,
    * a huge bundle of love in the form of an English Mastiff who can’t comprehend and won’t tolerate virtual hugs,
    * and YOUR books.
    Since February Susan Wittig Albert and Robin Paige books have
    * sent us on a virtual trip to the Lake District,
    * walked us into a British time warp,
    * made us glad we live in rural New England despite the winter ice and snow,
    * introduced us to the spectrum of folks, delightful and otherwise, that propagate your pages,
    * instigated kitchen adventures following your recipes or inventing our own to replicate meals from your pages,
    * pushed me into an addiction to “Escape to the Country” on you tube as displacement behavior in the absence of a road trip to the English countryside, the Texas Hill Country, and the small town Southern USA.

    It matters not what you write, we’ve enjoyed them all but our wish would be that paperback versions become available as early as possible.

    • Always happy to hear from a Robin Paige and Cottage Tales reader–good to know that Kate and Charles are keeping you company through this pandemic. A time warp sounds like exactly the right way to go!

  14. Susan, Thank you for this information on dandelions. I was very lucky to be a child in Vermont in the 1950’s. My father’s mother considered dandelions an important part of many spring and early summer meals. They were her spring greens. She happily harvested, cleaned and cooked them. I really don’t remember anyone else in the family eating them. I am guessing she learned to eat them at her parents table. My grandmother was born in 1895. In the early 1970’s my grandparents moved to Florida to be near our family. I remember my grandmother taking a sharp knife out and harvesting dandelions in her lawn. She still loved her spring dandelion greens. I am glad you are both sheltering safely on your property there.

    • My grandmother did this too, Rosemary. It was just part of her life–and she didn’t care that the rest of us didn’t share it with her. I can still see her out there with that knife. Thanks for the reminder!

  15. Susan, you are gracious to ask our preferences. But it is entirely your choice about what to write. I am currently re-visiting the Crystal Cave trilogy. All of the characters and relationships in Pecan Springs are worth reading about. Your plant and herbal lore tie-ins add such richness to the stories too. Thanks for posting about your writing news; we anticipate Hemlock with great joy!

    • Well, I like both of the novella series, Peg, And since I’ve always written for readers (rather than for myself) I’m curious about your preferences.

  16. We love it when dandelions come up in our yard and we let them run their life cycle and then they die back. They are amazing plants. We also are safe in our home since mid march and enjoying the time together. We do only curbside pick up for groceries or household supplies we may need and there is no human contact involved. We bring every thing in to our screened in porch and wipe it all down before it comes in the house. The safest place for all that can do it is your home !!!! We are so looking forward to no more 100 degree days !!!!! Stay safe and well everyone !!!!!

    • Pam, that sounds so sensible! I’m always conscious of the privilege we have–especially those of us who are older–to be able to live safely at home. We depend on so many others to do the hard work out there in the world, keeping us supplied. Just grateful to be able to stay home. . .

  17. I can’t decide which of the two I liked best because I loved them both so much! I agree with the previous commenter that they don’t substitute entirely for China’s full length novels but they are wonderful in their own right. I think I am more drawn to Jessica’s stories. This is most likely because she’s a new character I’m learning about and, through China’s stories, I’ve gotten to know Ruby rather well. It’s hard for me ot say, though. I’M SO CONFUSED!!!!!!!!! I just want more!

    • I’ve enjoyed the shorter length, Phyllis. And as I get older, the novellas seem easier. I’ve noticed how Agatha Christie simplified her plots in her later years. If she’d been able to work in novella formats, she might have done that, too.

  18. Can’t wait for the next Darling Dahlias and China Bayle’s novels. Love these ladies and their stories. Love all your writings!

  19. Since I have not been able to read Jessica’s series yet, I vote for Ruby. As a paper book reader, I will need to wait for Jessica’s stories as they are not yet available on Amazon.

  20. So good to hear that you are well and safe in your beautiful Hill Country. We, too, are hunkered down in KansasCity (as Dr. Fauci puts it) until life finally returns to a near normal.
    Hope your region soon gets some beneficial rain. My heart breaks for the people, livestock and wild animals in the Pacific Northwest! Your latest post cheered me today and I thank you. Looking forward to the next China book. I’ve always believed it’s good exercise to pull some dandelions instead of further poisoning our environment!

    • Caroline, I’m so grateful for Dr. Fauci and the others–including the investigative journalists–who supply us with the facts. With so much denial coming out of the White House, it’s important to listen to the truth-tellers.

    • Thanks, Cathie–Sounds like the overall preference is for Ruby–I’m wondering if that means that readers want more of the paranormal.

I love hearing from readers, so let me hear from YOU!