by Lin Lange and Karen England
Virtual book club groups sprang up a bit like dandelions during the Covid years and have persisted even as pandemic restrictions have eased. The Herb Society of America has at least four groups (possibly more) meeting online monthly to share herbal reading across various genres, including fiction, mysteries, non-fiction, and even science fiction.
The West District club meets on fourth Friday mornings and mixes up fiction and non-fiction choices. Three fiction-focused clubs meet in the afternoons on the second and third Wednesdays of each month, and in the evenings on the fourth Wednesday. The reading lists from the clubs are posted in the Members-Only space on the HSA website. These groups were asked to choose their top favorites from the past year’s reading, using the rating system described at the end of this blog. Although the selection process was somewhat inconsistent, a clear winner emerged.
Top Choice – Fiction
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See (2017): Author Lisa See explores the lives of a Chinese mother and her daughter who has been adopted by an American couple. In a remote village bypassed by the Cultural Revolution, Li-yan and her family align their lives around the seasons and the farming of tea. Their rituals and routines are interrupted by a foreign visitor seeking the special Pu’er tea grown in the region.
Other Favorites – Fiction
A Memory of Violets: A Novel of London’s Flower Sellers by Hazel Gaynor (2015): Step into the world of Victorian London, where wealth and poverty exist side by side. This is the story of two long-lost sisters, whose lives take different paths, and the young woman who will be transformed by their experiences.
The Last Garden in England by Julia Kelly (2021): A poignant and heart wrenching tale of five women in three eras, whose lives are tied together by one very special garden.
Old Herbaceous: A Novel of the Garden by Reginald Arkell (2003): A classic British novel of the garden, with a title character as outsized and unforgettable as P. G. Wodehouse’s immortal butler, Jeeves.
Just as “herbal reading” includes a broadly defined palette that quickly moves beyond specific plants to stories of gardening, botanical exploration, and horticultural history, so also does the reading include memoirs, essays, and various non-fiction categories. The following were favorites from this year’s reading:
The Plant Hunter: A Scientist’s Quest for Nature’s Next Medicines by Cassandra Leah Quave (2022): Dr. Quave weaves together science, botany, and memoir to tell us the extraordinary story of her own journey. A leading medical ethnobotanist tells the story of her quest to develop new ways to fight illness and disease through the healing powers of plants .
American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic by Victoria Johnson (2018): Finalist for the 2018 National Book Award for Nonfiction. The untold story of Hamilton’s—and Burr’s—personal physician, whose dream to build America’s first botanical garden inspired the young republic.
A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup (2015): Investigates the poisons Christie employs in fourteen of her mysteries, discussing why the poisons kill, how they interact, obtainability of such poisons, and which cases may have inspired Christie’s stories.
The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History by Thor Hanson (2015): Despite their importance, seeds are often seen as commonplace, their extraordinary natural and human histories overlooked. A book of knowledge, adventure, and wonder, spun by an award-winning writer with both the charm of a fireside story-teller and the hard-won expertise of a field biologist.
This is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan (2022): Pollan dives deep into three plant drugs—opium, caffeine, and mescaline—and throws the fundamental strangeness, and arbitrariness, of our thinking about them into sharp relief.
Wild Card: Science Fiction
Semiosis: A Novel by Sue Burke (2018): Human survival hinges on a bizarre alliance in this character driven science fiction novel of first contact by debut author Sue Burke. Sentient plants and human space travelers learn to communicate and cooperate. You may never feel the same about pollinators, roots, and chemistry!
The HSA Herbal Book Clubs’ Rating System
It is pretty simple: if you give a book two lavender sprigs, that means you loved it, but if you give it two wormwood sprigs you hated it, with few variations on the theme (see below).
Happy Herbal Reading in 2023!
Linda “Lin” Lange is president of The Herb Society of America, which really cuts into her reading time; but she manages to keep up with two of the clubs mentioned above. She also teaches “Mysterious Places,” a book-clubby class for Osher Life-long Learning Institute (OLLI) at the University of Denver.
Member at Large Karen England lives, works, and gardens on two steeply sloping acres in Vista, a small town in northern San Diego County, California, just nine miles as a crow flies from the Pacific Ocean. When she’s not drinking herbal cocktails, she drinks tea. Find her on Instagram @edgehillherbfarm.