Cursing the Basil and other Folklore of the Garden

by Vivian A. Rich

Published by Horsdal and Schubart

224 pages, 1998

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Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


Since people started walking upright -- and maybe even before -- we've been deeply interested in plants and what they can do for us. In fact throughout most of history, the rough equivalent for drugstore might as well have been garden. You couldn't run down to the apothecary's and get what you needed for what ailed you, you just sort of went out and mixed it up yourself.

Of course, we know now that not all of those concoctions our ancestors imbibed in made them better. In fact, some of them probably brought death closer more quickly. Some were just plain silly. Others, however, have even lent themselves to modern medicines and cures. Cursing the Basil looks at all of these and more besides. From the flower markets of Rome -- shipped fresh from Egypt -- to Celtic and Teutonic tribes and right through to almost modern day.

Author Vivian A. Rich earned her Ph.D. from the University of London, England. She currently lives in Victoria, B.C. Canada where she gives the occasional lecture at the University about the history and lore of flowers and herbs. She is also the author of The Medieval Garden and contributed to the Macmillan Dictionary of Art. Clearly, Rich was the one to write this book.

Rich has managed to cram a lot into a slender volume that would have been helped by more and richer illustrations. Rich can write and knows her topic as well as anyone on the planet, but the work is unrelenting and has more the feel of a college level text than the playful, joyous spring romp it might otherwise have been.

Don't get me wrong: Cursing the Basil may just be the definitive work on the topic of garden folklore. Gardeners, folklore enthusiasts and those with an interest in natural herbs and healing will find much to interest and amuse them.

The book is broken into four logical parts: Spells and rituals; Traditional Foods, Hygiene and Medicines; Mythology, Religion and Superstition and Trade and Politics. Within the parts are fascinating chapters that deal with specific topics within that category. Under Spells and Rituals, for instance, there are chapters on Love, Courtship, Weddings and Marriage, Aphrodisiacs, Valentine's Day and so on.

Cursing the Basil is a seminal work. It's not light reading, but is a book that the interested will consult again and again over the years.