Our cover story this issue spotlights the relationship between the majestic monarch butterfly and milkweeds — monarch larvae’s only source of food. This is former Associate Editor Lindsay Stafford Mader’s final contribution to HerbalGram, a crowning conclusion to her five-year career with ABC. This subject is of interest not only to entomologists, botanists, and herbalists, but also to laypeople intrigued by the migratory patterns of these beautiful butterflies, of which four generations pass as they complete their long journey from Central Mexico to California and the Northeastern United States, and back. Reductions in wild milkweed populations put these insects at risk. The article also covers traditional medicinal uses and modern research on various milkweeds.
In my early days of herbal studies, I recall the story of Aristotle’s advising Alexander the Great to invade the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean for access to its abundant aloes as a remedy for his men’s arrow and spear wounds. This was an alluring introduction to the world of warfare and the interrelationship that plants have had with humans over the millennia as people learned to make plant-based weaponry and remedies to treat war-inflicted wounds. Renowned ethnobotanist and author Mark Plotkin, founder of the Amazon Conservation Team and a member of the ABC Advisory Board, has contributed “Notes on the Ethnobotany of Warfare,” a compelling primer on the subject, in which he presents a fascinating array of information.
When my mentor and ABC co-founder the late, great Prof. Norman R. Farnsworth and I used to discuss clinical trials published on various phytomedicines, he’d often say that while many of them were suggestive, promising, and often consistent with various plants’ traditionally documented uses, many of these trials bordered on being almost “useless!” Initially, I was shocked to hear him say this, especially as he was a man who dedicated his entire professional life to the scientific study of medicinal plants. What Prof. Farnsworth was referring to was the lack of adequate descriptions of the medicinal plant preparations used in pharmacological animal studies and human clinical trials — a significant oversight for which he scolded the study authors, journal editors, and even the peer reviewers of the articles. Stating that a study used a “ginger extract” or “ginger powder” was simply not enough. Detailed information on the extract, solvent type and concentration, and methods of authentication and analysis are essential. Without such information, it is difficult, if not impossible, to retrospectively review a group of clinical trials on a particular herb and make any meaningful sense out of them, as the botanical preparations are seldom homogeneous and often vary significantly.
In this issue, a feature article — from longtime ABC Advisory Board members Joseph Betz, PhD, of the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health, and Mary Hardy, MD, a widely respected family practice physician and expert on herb clinical trials — discusses such challenges associated with evaluating herbal clinical trials. Their advice, originally presented at the annual Scripps Conference on Evidence-Based Natural Supplements and then in print as a chapter in Dr. Robert Bonakdar’s book on herbs for professionals (The H.E.R.B.A.L. Guide), is strongly consistent with the intention of ABC’s longstanding editorial policy in HerbalGram and HerbClip, and the CONSORT guidelines for reporting on herbal clinical trials, which were introduced in 2006.
One of the areas of herbal medicine that continually fascinates me is how new research brings to the modern market plants that may have a history of traditional use as foods and/or medicines, but which are not well known by most herbalists, researchers, and consumers. ABC Special Projects Director Gayle Engels and herbal industry veteran Josef Brinckmann offer in these pages a comprehensive review of black chokeberry, a fruit whose antioxidant activity and cardiovascular benefits are being researched, driving its use as a dietary ingredient in foods and supplements. This is evidence of the growing dynamism of the botanicals market — one that will probably continue well into the future as new research opens up opportunities for many other lesser-known plants.
And, finally, speaking of lesser-known plants, HerbalEGram Managing Editor Tyler Smith explores the ongoing controversy surrounding sports supplements alleged to contain extracts of the dendrobium orchid. Recent studies have found unlabeled synthetic stimulant compounds in some such “botanical-based” products, bringing into question their safety and status as legal dietary supplements. Researchers, regulatory officials, and analytical experts share their concerns over these supplements with so-called “dendrobium extract,” which some are calling the new DMAA, in reference to the recently controversial stimulant chemical that was falsely touted as being derived from rose geranium oil, which we covered in a previous issue.