Reviewed by Caroline McCullagh
It’s hard to know whether to call Judith Sumner’s American Household Botany a success or a failure as a book. She provides us with a broad survey of the use of plants as food, medicine, clothing material, textiles, building products, and landscaping from colonial American times to 1900. She reminds us that all Americans had to be practical botanists because of the unmediated importance of plants in daily living. People didn’t go to Vons or Home Depot when they needed something. They went to the back yard.
Because she is covering such a broad topic and such a long time span, the book is necessarily a surface treatment. Her general chapter titles include The New World; Grains, Gardens, Seeds and Vegetable Staples; Fruits; The Botanical Pantry; Herbs, Herbalism and the Practice of Domestic Medicine; Wood, Fibers, and Textiles; Domestic Landscapes; and Botanical Lives. Each one of these chapters could be expanded into an entire book, and many, of course, have been.
This means that the book, as written, is so full that a reader goes into information overload after about five pages. This isn’t the book that you want to take with you for a nice relaxed read in the garden. In fact, I found the book difficult to get into, so I used a little trick that often works for me. I started reading at the end and worked backward. I don’t know if this is because by the end of the book the author had found her voice, but I found this much more rewarding.
I found the two chapters on the Pantry, including preservation, wine, vinegar, beverages, herbs, spices and sweets to be especially interesting. You may get a sense of how dense the writing is, however, when I tell you that all that is covered in 65 pages. Of course, the book is full of “gee-wow” facts, but how could it not be, considering the topic.
I would say that this book is essentially a reference book. If you need a reference covering these topics as a jumping off point for a deeper study of any one of them, then I can recommend this book to you as a worthwhile addition to your library. With better editing, this book could have been much more readable, but it is what it is.
American Household Botany is 320 pages with 40 color photos and 113 line drawings. It includes a bibliography and index. Sumner also wrote The Natural History of Medicinal Plants. Her website is www.judithsumner.com