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Phytomedicines, Herbal Drugs, and Poisons

Phytomedicines, Herbal Drugs, and Poisons by Ben-Erik van Wyk and Michael Wink, eds. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press; 2014. Hardcover, 304 pages. ISBN: 978-0-226-20491-8. $45.00.

This is a lovely reference book that is great fun to just browse through. The first third of the book is, in effect, a quick course in “Ethnobotany 101.” These chapters contain discussions of traditional medical systems, phytomedicines, mind-altering drugs, plant poisons, extraction methods, quality control, and regulatory matters, among other topics.

The most interesting and unusual chapter (and longest, at 44 pages) is a quick course in phytochemistry titled “Overview of secondary metabolites.” This chapter discusses eight categories of chemicals, including phenolics, organic acids, and amino acids. The only thing missing here, from my perspective, is any account of what functions these chemicals have for the plants that produce them. Nevertheless, it remains a rich and interesting account of the subject.

This precedes the core of the book, which consists of brief, half-page illustrated descriptions of 360 plants, arranged alphabetically by genus from the highly toxic precatory (Abrus precatorius, Fabaceae) to jujube (Ziziphus jujuba, Rhamnaceae). According to the authors, these plants are commercially relevant and well-known species, but it is not clear to me just how they chose what to include. I imagine that everyone will be disappointed by not finding particular favorites: I missed my old friends cranesbill (Geranium maculatum, Geraniaceae) and southern prickly ash (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis, Rutaceae). But I was pleased to find other friends, such as mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum, Berberidaceae) and uva-ursi, also known as kinnickinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, Ericaceae). Any such selection inevitably would both include and exclude someone’s favorites.

The included plants are handled in a remarkably concise, but rich way. Each entry contains two photographs: one of the flowering or fruiting plant and one of the material as it is often found in commerce. The latter image is overlain by a chemical diagram of one of the most important chemicals found in the plant, such as arbutin in kinnickinnick, podophyllotoxin in mayapple, hypericin in St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum, Hypericaceae), and caffeine in coffee (Coffea arabica, Rubiaceae).

Each monograph includes sections on classification (where and how it is used, where it is cited), uses and properties, origin, botany, chemistry, pharmacology, and toxicology. It’s amazing what they can get on half a page!

The photographs are worth the price of the book. Such fine photography is a hallmark of van Wyk’s books. The photographs in his classic People’s Plants: A Guide to Useful Plants of Southern Africa (Briza Publications, 2000) and in my wife’s favorite, The Garden Succulents Primer (Briza Publications, 2008), are all marvelous. Though perhaps not quite as artistic as Steven Foster’s, they are at least as informative.

There is also a glossary of botanical, chemical, and other terms; several pages of further reading; and a very detailed index.

The editors say the book is “to be a handy desktop reference book.” I recommend the book for casual, enlightening daily reading, two or three pages a day, with reference to the front matter, especially the chemistry. Anyone who cares about plants will deeply enjoy this book, a wonderful one-volume reference to hundreds of fascinating plants.

—Dan Moerman, PhDWilliam E. Stirton Professor Emeritus of AnthropologyUniversity of Michigan – DearbornYpsilanti, Michigan