• China Bayles’ Book of Days, by Susan Wittig Albert
• New York: Berkley Prime Crime, 2006
From a favorite mystery novel writer comes this unexpected compilation of all things herbal. It is presented in a daybook format, with one page for each day of the year, and it is chock full of facts and trivia, bits of lore, recipes, projects, quotes and resources, usually related to the herb or herbal topic of the day. It is a wonderful source of inspiration for herb gardeners.
Susan Albert’s book is a trove of ideas for herbal craft projects, gardening information, medicinal herb suggestions and recipes galore—practical information on using and appreciating the herb garden’s bounty. Recipes run the range from sage fritters and marigold custard to Hungarian goulash and sweet violet syrup, but that’s just the beginning. How to root a rose cutting, how to make a tincture, how to make wreaths and topiaries—you’ll find it here. There are gardens to plant, teas to blend and brew, herbal salves to make, herb farms to visit—and many hours of enjoyable reading tucked in these pages.
Albert includes selections from her journal about life on the 31-acre plot in central Texas she shares with her husband, Bill. In one October entry, for example, she writes: “Today is one of those days when the Texas prairies outshine my garden, for the goldenrod is in bloom, its golden glory blazing across the fields.” She discusses this native medicinal plant and recounts the story of Thomas Edison’s discovery that its sap contains a natural latex; he bred the plant for its long-lasting rubber, which Henry Ford made into a set of tires. “Goldenrod rubber. Imagine that,” she writes.
The format reminds me a little of Phyllis Shaudys’ books (The Pleasure of Herbs and Herbal Treasures, first published in the late ’80s and early ’90s), which are arranged by date and offer a similar miscellany of herbal information and projects. Albert has a similar depth of knowledge and interest.
This volume is worth adding to the bookshelf as a reference, as she has further reading suggestions for every topic. She quotes from garden writers and herb lovers through the ages. (In the interest of disclosure, I am listed as a contributor to this book, for some minor suggestions I made in the development process.)
Albert begins the text with this note: “For years now, China Bayles has been nagging me about writing a book primarily about herbs … ” If you don’t read her mystery novels, you might wonder who China Bayles is and where in Texas Pecan Springs is and how you might contact the Myra Merryweather Herb Guild, without realizing these are all fictional names, all concoctions of Albert’s fertile mind.
This kind of clever marketing is one reason Albert’s books are bestsellers (the main reasons being that China is a captivating heroine, and the mysteries are well-plotted, entertaining and oh-so-herbal). The ties to the mystery novels are not just in the title, but throughout the book, in almost every entry, and there are some entries that are a bit too promotional for my comfort, even given the fact that I’m a fan.
But, setting that aside, I enjoyed the hours I spent with China, Ruby, McQuaid and other friends, when we dispensed with the mystery plots and just talked herbs.
Herb lover Kathleen Halloran loves picking up new herbal tips, trivia and lore in her Austin, Texas, home.