Herbal Botany

Personal reflections on botany for herbalists

I love and teach botany but it hasn’t always been this way. Before attending Lyon’s herbal school as a pupil, although I had always loved plants, herbalism, gardening and nature, I had never dreamt of studying ‘botany’. It seemed to me a bit like ‘train spotting’, groups of people wearing anoraks huddled around a plant and using an old fashioned language to name it…no thank you not for me.

So when I found myself, magnifying glass in one hand, plant key in the other and wearing an anorak, I didn’t think this would be my favourite class. How wrong I was, without trying, without even realising, I was a natural. I didn’t pay attention to the fact that I was going much faster than the rest of the group until my botany teacher and mentor Rita remarked on the fact. What I am trying to convey here is that sometimes we are naturally leant towards something we had never even given thought to before, or not positive thought anyway. So due to Rita’s feedback and a sense of satisfaction in correctly keying in different plants, I quickly became a botany fanatic, its ok I am healed now and a certain equilibrium is in place but at the beginning, I breathed botany, ate botany, slept botany…you get the idea.  

I am naturally someone who sees things globally and goes for a sensitive, energetic approach to a subject before anything else, funnily enough botany is the opposite. Botany is the study of plants and the botany that I am referring to in this article is the identification and classification of plants through the use of a specific key relative to the region being studied. It demands a very close and precise study with the help of a magnifying glass of the sexual organs of the plants (the flower) and also the leaves, stems, habitat etc. A botanical language must be acquired in order to observe and then key in the correct information but above all a certain stubbornness and not wanting to be beaten is vital as there are often moments when without this you will be tempted to give up and go home.

The thrill and pleasure I felt at the beginning of my botanical path at being able to name any plant through correct keying in was enough to push me forward, this autonomy was fantastic, it meant wherever I went in the world, with the correct field guide I could without any help identify the plants around me…wow what freedom!!!

Now that a certain number of years have passed and I regularly teach herbal students field botany, I have had time to reflect on the place and importance botany has within herbalism. I personally believe that wherever we may be, town or countryside it is important as herbalists that we keep up an intimate relationship with nature and plants. We have in my opinion a responsibility to know the plants around us and not just the medicinal ones, as I take time and effort to know my neighbours and integrate into the local community so I should also take time and effort to know the plants that live in the same environment as I do. Knowing a plant is a huge subject in itself and covers a range of spectrums, being able to name a plant and its botanical family is just a tiny element but all the same an important one. Naming a plant isn’t enough to know it but does help when communicating with others and it is on this point that I would stress the importance of learning plants with their Latin names. I am English and live in France, which means that I talk about plants to both English and French speakers, by using the Latin name this is possible as it is the same for everyone, Latin plant names enable us to cross language barriers and still know which plant we are talking about. In France there are often several plants with the same name depending on the region, for example ‘l’herbe de Saint Jean can refer to St-John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), Yarrow (Achilleae Millefolium), Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) and probably others as well, by using the Latin name we can be precise and clear about the plant we are referring to.

France has a rich and varied flora, the herbal school where I teach stresses the importance of botanical identification for herbalists by making botany one of its major classes; one of the main reasons for this is for safe plant identification. Students are taught the importance of correctly identifying a plant before harvesting and using it, this is highly important as badly identified plants can lead people into severe problems. Many confusions are possible for example Ransoms (Allium ursinum) and Lords and ladies (Arum maculatum) both grow in woodlands and an inexperienced harvester could easily mistake one for the other or if not careful, harvest the poisonous arum alongside the ransoms. Fools cicely or Poison parsley (Aethusa cynapium) is well named as this highly toxic plant can be found growing in gardens or vegetable patches and to an undiscerning harvester be mistaken for parsley. If botany is an important part of my practise as a herbalist, this won’t happen as 1) I will have a keen and trained eye at looking closely at plants and their features and 2) any unknown plant in my environment will already have been under the botanists scalpel and identified with magnifying glass and field guide.

Botany also helps us to see links and patterns between plants of the same botanical family, by learning to recognise each families specific criteria we can narrow down our keying in and knowing the main botanical families in ones region will help to know certain things about a plant at first glance. For example many Apiaceae family plants contain furocoumarines that can be phototoxic and cause skin burns when harvesting on a sunny day, plants from this family also tend to have an action on the digestive system but beware as mentioned above with Aethusa cynapium, this family is home to several extremely toxic plants…. So just by recognising a plant’s family can give me interesting and important information before going further and identifying the exact plant.

However personally botany goes beyond all these practical points, as I said above my nature is to approach things on an emotional or sensitive level, a lot of my plant information is gleaned through feeling and intuition, botany grounds me. By knowing intimately all the different parts of each flower, the colour of the stamens, the shape and position of the ovary, the number of styles, whether or not the calyx is hairy, if the hairs have glands or are in a star shape deepens and grounds my relationship with the plants around me and those I use, this information becomes part of my stored data about each plant, it is visual and related to the physical incarnation of the plant. What a delight when as a herbal student I discovered the little spots of colour going from yellow, through orange to red on the petals of Saxifraga rotundifolia, that are only visible with the aid of a magnifying glass. I have since witnessed tears in the eyes of students who with the help of this plant realise the hidden beauty that is visible if we look beyond what we usually see of a flower.

I am not saying that herbalists should also be top-notch botanists as this is a huge field in itself but herbalists should have a notion of botany and at the least be able to use a key, identify the plants around and know their Latin names. My eldest son is a botanist, he spends his time searching the countryside for rare ferns or other taxon’s, he relays his findings to France’s botanical research centres, uses a microscope to be sure of the sub-species and his next idea is to write a key for a certain group of plants. This is beyond me, I am happy to follow the classification that botanists propose in the field guides I use for identifying, I actually enjoy getting to know a key and the way the author thinks as each approach has something of the author in it. However making my brain work in such an organised fashion as to create my own key is another thing and absolutely not necessary for herbalists, who after being grounded by botany can then go beyond the purely physical attributes of a plant and meet it on another level.

I must admit my botanical grounding also serves me sometimes, when I am explaining or describing or working with students on a more subtle level, I may feel that I have gone too far, too quickly for some, at this point I come back down to, pure botanical down to earth knowledge and they are reassured that I am not mad and gradually we can slowly start moving away from physical limitations once again.