By Peggy Riccio, HSA Member and Guest Author
I first heard about Neighboring with Nature on Facebook. Members of the Garden Writers Association (GWA) had just attended their annual symposium and raved about a book on native plants on a GWA Facebook group. I was intrigued—I have an interest in both native plants and herbs. I then discovered that the author, Susan Betz, is both a GWA member and an Herb Society of America (HSA) member. For ten years she has served on the Native Herb Conservation Committee, the Notable Native Herb of the Year Committee, and the Green Bridges Initiative. For more than 30 years she has educated and promoted the use of herbs and has served as a Master Gardener.
Neighboring with Nature: Native Herbs for Purpose and Pleasure is a culmination of Susan’s passions: conservation, herbs, and native plants. Susan begins the book by defining native plants as species growing in the United States before the European settlement and herbs as useful plants found growing the world over, valued for their flavoring, fragrance, medicinal, industrial, culinary, cosmetic, and symbolic uses. In her book she uses the HSA definition of native herbs: “chiefly seed-bearing plants—annuals, biennials, perennials, aromatic or useful shrubs, vines and trees that grew naturally in this country without the interference, accidental or intentional, of man before European settlement. The defining characteristics of these plants are their usefulness, past or present, for flavoring, medicine, ornament, economic, industrial, or cosmetic purposes.”
Often people mentally categorize plants, separating native plants from herbs. Susan has an interest in both groups for their respective qualities as well as the overlapping group of native herbs. “Native plants clean the air, filter water, moderate the climate, and feed the people, birds, insects, and more. Gardening with herbs personalizes people-plant connections and gardening experiences,” explains Susan. “In every backyard and beyond there is a spot just waiting for the right neighborly native herb. With all of the regional native plants available, that spot can be filled easily.”
She demonstrates this by describing 21 native herbs common to the northeastern region of the United States. Divided into three sections, groundcovers, perennials, and shrubs, small trees, and vines, these native herbs are easily recognizable to the average gardener. For each plant she provides the scientific name, common names, native range, hardiness zone, bloom time, height and spread, habitat and cultivation, uses in the garden and landscape, plant pals, special notes, and wild friends. “The defining characteristics of these plants are their past, present, and future usefulness. Native herbs provide a botanical bonanza such as flavoring culinary creations, decorative uses, fragrance and scent, home pharmacy, tasty beverages and teas, etc.”
For some plants, she provided authentic Native American recipes from E. Barrie Kavasch’s Native Harvests, Recipes and Botanicals of the American Indian. For example, one could harvest the fruits from a serviceberry tree to make Indian pudding or one could forage wild grapes to make wild grape butter. Wild bergamot leaves and goldenrod leaves and flowers can be used to make teas. She also provides the technique to make ink from elderberries and a disinfectant from juniper needles. At the end of the book she provides harvesting tips and techniques, a bibliography, a list of useful websites, and recommended books.
Short descriptions of 21 plants is merely an introduction — America has a very rich heritage of native herbs. According to Susan, Daniel E. Moerman’s book, Native American Ethnobotany, list more than 4,000 native herbs with more than 44,000 uses.
This easy-to-read, 140-page paperback is a great introduction to the concept of native herbs and their benefits to the landscape. I highly recommend it to all gardeners. I asked Susan what she would like readers to come away with after they read her book and she said: “The role of the suburban landscape and home garden has become vital to the future health and well-being of our planet. Gardening is no longer just about style or design, the methods we use to manage our landscape is just as important. I hope this book motivates people to learn more and to conserve these native herbs for future generations.”