Herbs on Adventure

Useful plants promenade through popular novels.

| December/January 2005

Transporting us back to specific times and locales, historical novels place fictional characters against a real-world backdrop. The author must convince the reader of the authenticity of this setting, and if she’s good enough, that fictional world becomes real for a time.

Social customs, language, ways of dress, the homes they live in, how they interact with other people as well as the natural world around them, and yes, even the herbs they use in their daily lives — these are the details that convince us to believe these characters are real, even though we know they aren’t.

Herbs in large doses find their way into popular, mainstream historical fiction. We’re talking here not only about Jane Austen’s swooning Victorian heroines in need of revival with a splash of lavender water, or Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, sent to bed with chamomile tea: Herbs and herbalists have taken some big-budget adventures through bestseller lists in recent years.

Civil War Days

Before there was a hit movie with Nicole Kidman and Renée Zellweger, there was a book called Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier. Set near the end of the Civil War, a Confederate soldier named Inman is walking home to a woman he loves in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, wounded and disillusioned as his world disintegrates around him.

“Inman put the dawn to his back and set out walking west. All that morning he felt stunned and wrenched. His head ached in accordance with the beat of his pulse and felt as if his skull was about to fall into a great number of pieces at his feet. From a fencerow he gathered a wad of the feathery leaves of yarrow and tied it to his head with the stripped stem of the plant. The power of yarrow is to draw out pain, which to an extent it did. The leaves wagged in time with his tired walk, and he spent the morning watching the shadows of them move before him down the road.”

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