Handbook of African Medicinal Plants, 2nd ed., by Maurice M. Iwu. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press; 2014. Hardcover, 506 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4665-7197-6. $139.95.
African traditional medicine has been studied and documented during colonial times; two outstanding examples of books published on this subject in the last century include The Useful Plants of West Tropical Africa by Burkill (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 1937) and Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of Southern and Eastern Africa by Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk (E & S Livingstone, 1962). The few, more recent publications, such as Medicinal Plants in Tropical West Africa by Oliver-Bever (Cambridge University Press, 1986), Medicinal Plants of West Africa by Ayensu (Reference Publications, 1978), Medicinal Plants of East Africa by Kokwaro (University of Nairobi Press, 1976), and the unfortunately hapless attempt to create an African pharmacopoeia (the first volume of the Pharmacopée Africaine was published by the Organization of African Unity in 1985 and the project was subsequently abandoned) remain local or hard to find.
The first edition of the Handbook of African Medicinal Plants, published by CRC Press in 1993, constituted a milestone and caused something of a paradigm shift, as it was one of the first publications to expose African traditional medicine to a mainstream academic audience, establish interest, and trigger research for decades to come. Others with similar impacts followed closely on its heels: Neuwinger’s Afrikanische Arzneipflanzen und Jagdgifte (Scientific Publishing Company, 1994), African Traditional Medicine (Medpharm Scientific Publishers, 2000), Medicinal Plants of Southern Africa by Van Wyk (Briza Publicaitons, 1997), Plant Resources of Tropical Africa (CTA Publishing, 2000), and the African Herbal Pharmacopoeia (Association for African Medicinal Plants Standards, 2010), to name just a few.
Twenty years later we are looking at a totally different picture. A Google Scholar search for “African medicinal plants” yielded just under 7,000 hits for the years 1900 to 1993, and just over 44,000 hits for the years 1994 to 2015. The search term “African herbal medicine” retrieved 3,600 results for the years 1900 to 1993 and just over 19,000 for the years 1994 to 2015. While this search strategy could be deemed overly simplistic, it does suggest a trend. The first edition of Iwu’s Handbook is highly cited and scored about 1,000 hits alone.
Thus, it seems timely that CRC Press decided to publish a second edition of the Handbook in 2014. This second edition is not a mere reprint of an older classic; it has been thoroughly updated and expanded. The new edition adds around 30 plant profiles to the original 150, reflecting research trends as well as commercial relevance. The number of references cited increased from 873 to 1,150, including some as recent as 2013. An introductory chapter is followed by a table more than 100 pages long cataloging major African medicinal plants, followed by more in-depth pharmacognostical profiles and rounded off with chapters on African healing cultures, paradigms, healers, and methods of diagnosis and treatment of typical ailments, malaria, sexually transmitted diseases, gastrointestinal issues, and psychiatric disorders, as well as skin diseases and poisonings. Two indices, a subject index and one of species, genera, and plant families, along with detailed contents pages make navigation through the 506 pages quite easy. Sixteen pages of color plant images follow the catalog section, and more can be found throughout the detailed profiles.
Trying to assess completeness and accuracy of the information presented, I searched for entries on particular research interests. Alas, Pelargonium sidoides (Geraniaceae) — the primary component of a popular, clinically tested remedy for respiratory tract infections (Umckaloabo®;Dr. Willmar Schwabe GmbH & Co. KG; Karlsruhe, Germany) — is curiously and tragically absent from both the catalog and the profile section; Harpagophytum procumbens (Pedaliaceae), commonly known as devil’s claw, receives an adequate but insufficiently referenced treatment. However, the coverage of Sceletium tortuosum (Aizoaceae) is adequate and up-to-date; the same is true for Cyclopia spp. (Fabaceae), or honeybush, except for citations. If this publication wants to raise the claim of being an academic textbook, all facts presented need to be referenced. The purpose of a profile of Echinacea purpurea (Compositae [sic!]) appears out of place as it is not an African medicinal plant; rather, the herb was merely introduced for cultivation. More thorough editing would have picked up on the numerous typos and misspellings of plant names and thus further increased the overall appeal. Nonetheless, this volume presents a valuable cross-section of the African medicinal flora and useful summaries of largely up-to-date knowledge.
All in all, this second edition is a worthy successor to the 1993 edition. Even with the numerous typos and misspellings, the Handbook of African Medicinal Plants deserves shelf-space in every textbook library, public or private, of those with an interest in African herbal medicine.
Founder and CEO, Plantaphile
Co-editor, African Herbal Pharmacopoeia
Collingswood, New Jersey