Interview: Marta McDowell and A Curious Herbal

If you’ve read Hemlock (China Bayles #28, 2021), you’ll remember that China was asked to help find a missing rare book: Elizabeth Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal. This is not a fictional herbal, but a real one, compiled in the 1730s under quite astonishing circumstances by a very real Elizabeth Blackwell. She drew pictures of the plants (from life, in the Chelsea Physic Garden), etched the plates, and arranged for the printing in both serial and book formats–all to raise money to pay the debts of her dead-beat husband who wound up losing his head (literally). In her day, she was a publishing phenomenon.

Imagine my delight, then, when I learned that Marta McDowell had just published a modern edition (the only modern edition!) of Elizabeth’s famous Herbal, with two introductory essays and all 500 gorgeous color plates. I think you’ll see why I immediately asked Marta to share the story of this remarkable work with us.

First, a brief introduction. Marta McDowell writes about writers and their gardens. Her book, Unearthing The Secret Garden, for instance, explores the plants and places that inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett to write the classic children’s novel. Her books about writer/gardeners include Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life, The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life (winner of the Garden Writers Association’s Gold Award) and All the Presidents’ Gardens, a NYT bestseller and winner of the 2017 American Horticultural Society book award. Her shorter work has appeared in such publications as Woman’s Day, Country Gardening, and The New York Times, and the British journal Hortus. She teaches landscape history and horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden. You can read Marta’s full bio here. I’m delighted that she took time out of her very busy life to share some thoughts about Elizabeth and her Herbal.

Susan: I’m always fascinated by the process that leads us into a certain creative area—our gifts, our skill set, luck. What led you to decide to invest time and energy in A Curious Herbal? How long did it take?

Marta. From July-September 2007, I was a volunteer-intern at the Chelsea Physic Garden, part of a very much delayed “gap year”—well, six months— in the UK. My husband and I lived catercorner across the street  in a sublet on Royal Hospital Road.  Chelsea was an incredible neighborhood, oozing with history, and the Physic Garden was magic. I have vivid memories of the plants, the spaces and the people. It was a glorious three months packed with learning and experience. I still visit there every time we are lucky enough to be in London.  So when this project popped up (thanks to a referral from colleagues at the New York Botanical Garden), I jumped at it.

The work took a bit over a year to complete. The first part—research about Blackwell and her book—was super frustrating. The available secondary information was contradictory and I had little access to primary sources. Then, through a contact at Oak Spring Garden Foundation, I learned of Janet Tyson’s recent doctoral work on Blackwell. I got in touch with Janet and she agreed to write a biographical essay based on her latest research.

What a relief! Janet’s focus on Blackwell allowed me to focus on the Herbal’s contexts: the history of gardening, botanical art, and medicine, something I felt comfortable (and qualified) to write.  The last part of the project—working out the modern scientific nomenclature for these 500 plates—was much more time consuming than I expected. Isn’t that always the way?

Susan: Reproducing those 18th-century plates must have been hugely challenging. You chose the two Raven Library volumes for this work. Why those volumes? How difficult was it to get a nearly 300-year-old book to the pages of your new edition?

Marta: Abbeville (my publisher) handled this part of the project. About the access and image quality, Lauren Orthey at Abbeville says this: “The [online] site the images are housed on—the Biodiversity Heritage Library—has generously made their images public domain, so the resource was a treasure trove for us. It can be challenging to work with a book that, due to age, has its own blemishes and natural wear. But two of Abbeville’s designers worked on making the images suitable for printing, while remaining faithful to the original illustrations.”

And Janet Tyson has this to say about the quality of the Raven Library material: “It’s a very high quality copy in terms of the hand-coloring and the evidently fine condition of the plates. It also contains a good selection of dedications that Blackwell composed early on in her process of production. “ [Dedications to prominent people were an important sort of who’s-who element in 18th-century books, showing us who supported the author’s work.]

Susan:  You include Janet’s essay about Elizabeth herself—with a fascinating surprise: the discovery of the very first accurate details about Elizabeth Blackwell’s family and early life! Janet discovered this in her research at the Duke University library. When I was researching Elizabeth, I faced the same dilemma you did: nothing but secondary sources, contradictory and unreliable. But Janet has uncovered Elizabeth’s real story–who she was, where she grew up. How did you feel when you learned this? How does this new information change the way Elizabeth has been viewed?

Marta: I have felt that Blackwell’s achievement has been overshadowed by the tale of her ne’er-do-well spouse.  (My opinion: she should have dumped him early on.)  With Janet’s discovery of the edition at Duke including Blackwell’s in-her-own-words origin story, it was as if Elizabeth was speaking to us directly from the 1730s.  I felt an electric charge.  I can only imagine Janet’s response, sitting in a quiet rare book room in Durham, North Carolina.

Susan: In your edition, Elizabeth’s plates are beautifully reproduced. Do you have a favorite? I noticed some things I couldn’t see in my brief glimpses of the pages online (the “insect” that is “travelling” on the lily of the valley, Plate 70, for instance). Were there any plates that held surprises for you? Any that you especially want readers to look at?

Marta: So hard to choose.  I am especially fond of the first plate, the dandelion.  It is a beautiful image, but also interests me because on my first day at the Chelsea Physic

Pl. 1 Dandelion, “Piss-a-bed”

Garden, one of the gardeners working on the bed for the asters quizzed me on the name of a plant labeled Taraxacum officinale in Latin. Of course, l recognized “dandelion,” but “piss-a-bed”!?! [So called because dandelion is a famous diuretic.]  I loved the cowslip (Plate 226) because Beatrix Potter painted them, and because I grow them myself.  Also the olive (Plate 199) because I sat in the shade of the ancient olive tree still growing inside the walls of the Chelsea Physic Garden.  And yes, the ones with the insects are amazing and reminiscent of Maria Sibylla Merian’s work.  Check out Cross-wort, (Plate 76).  The caterpillar is eating the leaves from the bottom up.

Pl. 76. Cross-wort.

Susan: You’re a wonderfully prolific writer–for which we are all very grateful. What’s next on your horizon? Another book? More than one?

Marta: Yes!  I’ve got a fun new book coming out in September on gardening themes in crime fiction called Gardening Can Be Murder.  Soooo much fun to research and write.  And naturally it features both China Bayles and the Darling Dahlias. Also in September, a book about the gardens of the du Pont family, now public gardens in the Brandywine Valley. And I’m mulling over what’s next.  Beatrix Potter is calling to me again. . .

Susan: Marta, thank you for sharing yourself and your work with us–and especially for this quite remarkable new edition of Elizabeth Blackwell’s landmark book

Readers and friends: Please alert your librarian to this new edition of A Curious Herbal. It deserves a place in every library! And you’ll want to stay tuned to BookScapes for my interview later in June, with Janet Tyson, who turned up the real story of the very real Elizabeth Blackwell. My fictional Elizabeth (in Hemlock) needs an update!


23 comments on “Interview: Marta McDowell and A Curious Herbal

  1. drooling over A Curious Herbal, but can’t afford it. Loving Hemlock and look forward to thee others in the series.

  2. Yes, I read Hemlock while the ink was still wet, and coincidentally, my daughter asked me if I knew of any old herbals I could recommend. Her birthday was coming up so I sent her both your book and the companion herbal. Needles to say, she was delighted!

  3. Wonderful interview with Marta McDowell, I have loved her books and do hope that she revisits Beatrix Potter. Can’t wait for the next China adventure!

  4. Yes! If you love gardens, gardening, and/or books about gardening, you should know Marta’s work.

  5. Thank you! I’ll put the editor info in the notes at the bottom of the request.

  6. Good question, Patricia–others may want to know, too. The author is Elizabeth Blackwell; the editor, Marta McDowell. The herbal is not currently in print in any other edition.

  7. I discovered that my library has 5 Marta McDowell books, so I reserved one for immediate reading. I also put in a purchase request for Gardening Can Be Murder. Given the format of the request form, I’m not sure whether to put Marta McDowell’s name or Elizabeth Blackwell’s name in the author field to request A Curious Herbal. Could someone offer guidance here?

  8. Yes–maybe even put your name on the library’s wait-list now. 🙂 China is eagerly awaiting her copy.

  9. Good news, Peg! Marta’s introductory essay is the first discussion of the book–long overdue, but perhaps not possible (in terms of the attention she gave it) until now.

  10. Thank you so much for introducing us to Marta McDowell and her books! This was an interesting interview. Now I will look through the herbal drawings with a different eye. And now I have more books to find! I’m so excited she’s coming out with “Gardening Can Be Murder” – I’m looking forward to it. Thank you again, Susan!

  11. Susan, my Indianapolis library has A Curious Herbal in house! You always point us in a great direction for reading. Excited to add to my hold list. Thank you so much.

  12. Oh, come on now. Thank you–but just imagine what Agatha (Christie) and Dorothy (Sayers) and Mary (Roberts Rinehart) would have done if they’d had the internet. And we all stand on one another’s shoulders.

  13. Eat your heart out, Agatha and Dorothy and Mary and many more!!
    Susan is THE Best!!
    I love everything you ever wrote and hopefully, there will be many more great books coming!!

  14. Patricia, hold off until you’ve heard more about the real Elizabeth Blackwell from Janet Tyson, coming 6/24 (I think). So nice to hear about that BP lecture and your foray back into the Cottage Tales. Miss Potter was a remarkable Person. Have you read Linda Lear’s biography? It’s the best, IMO.

  15. Now I have to reread Hemlock! Any excuse to pull out one of your books. A recent lecture about Beatrix Potter sent me scurrying to the Cottage tales books.

  16. I agree—the price is really lower than I expected for a book of this quality. Thank you for this delightful interview. I can’t wait to receive my copy of A Curious Herbal with the its additional, informative essays.

  17. And there’s so much to be learned, Sandy–love to see these stories of “hidden women” finally seeing the light of day!

  18. So much to love about this meaty interview! I see my library system has a love of Marta McDowells books and will be encouraging it to include A Curious Herbal as well as Gardening Can Be Murder. I truly enjoyed Hemlock and read it twice last year to savor every bit of it. Will look forward to learning more about Elizabeth Blackwell and your interview with Janet Tyson.

  19. I have enjoyed all of your books, especially the Darling Dahlias Series.

  20. I’m sure we all shivered at the price–but that is actually less than we might expect for that 500-color-plate book. Please do let your library know that you’re interested. Sometimes they need a patron request to prompt the order of a reference book like this one.

  21. Thank you Susan. I love and devour all that you write. I hope I can find a copy of this book on Elizabeth Blackwell and her work. Fascinating

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