The Essential Guide to Western Botanical Medicine by Christa Sinadinos. Fieldbrook, CA: Christa Sinadinos; 2020. Hardcover, 780 pages. ISBN:978-0-692-78807-3. $179.95.
By Gayle Engels
I looked forward to this book for quite a few years, and I planned on taking my time exploring it. I am glad I did because, at 780 pages, it is both physically and informationally dense. I am not disappointed, as it exceeds expectations.
Christa Sinadinos has been a clinical herbal practitioner and teacher for more than 25 years, and she is the founder and director of the Northwest School for Botanical Studies in Fieldbrook, California. Sinadinos devoted eight years to producing this monumental book and drew from her extensive background in botany, biochemistry, medicine, and history. Her goal was to provide a reference for clinical herbalists that is as comprehensive as possible and covers all the bases — from providing the necessary information about the plants, to counseling patients, to formulating and making medicines that would help them heal. This marvelous book is a resounding success and a testament to the author’s knowledge, insight, and attention to detail.
However, this book is not only for clinicians. It is also an important reference for researchers, writers, teachers, and students of Western herbalism, whether they are just beginning or are well into their studies. With monographs on 129 plants, fungi, and sea vegetables, Sinadinos addresses many widely used Western medicinal plants in the “Materia Medica” section (which is more than 550 pages), along with some lesser-known plants, bioregional favorites, and species that are popular in other herbal medicine paradigms, such as Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
As a proponent of using what grows close to home, I was excited by the coverage of North American plants, many of which are not top sellers in the herbal market. Some of the bioregional plants addressed are Aralia species (Araliaceae), Berberis species (Berberidaceae), cleavers (Galium aparine, Rubiaceae), couch grass (Agropyron spp., Poaceae), Ephedra species (Ephedraceae) native to the western United States, Lomatium dissectum (Apiaceae), and partridge berry (Mitchella repens, Rubiaceae). There are many more, including not only native plants but also ones that have naturalized in North America.
Each monograph specifies which plant parts are used and includes a botanical description and the specific habitat in which it can be found; the Latin binomial, family, and common names around the world; a section on the derivation of the Latin and common names; historical uses; active chemical constituents; nutritional properties when applicable; medicinal properties, temperature (how it affects the body [e.g., heating, cooling]) and flavor; medicinal uses supported by tradition and scientific studies (with references); contraindications; and preparation and dosage. Almost every page is adorned with at least one beautiful photograph of the plant.
While all the monographs are thorough and well-written, a few stood out for me. One is the author’s choice to include various Berberis species rather than goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis, Ranunculaceae), which is threatened. Goldenseal and Berberis species, as well as several other plants, contain the alkaloid berberine as one of their primary active chemical constituents. Berberine has a wide range of actions, including anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antiseptic, antioxidant, and blood glucose-lowering, and, thus, a wide variety of medicinal uses. Goldenseal, as one of the most widely known herbal sources of berberine, is in high economic demand and has been overharvested in the wild for decades, if not centuries. It is not easily cultivated and, according to the United Plant Savers, is one of the most “at risk” native US plants. Hence, it made this reviewer happy to see Sinadinos educate about various alternatives to goldenseal that are more widespread, less commercially popular, less overharvested, more easily cultivated, and whose berberine-containing stems and leaves can be harvested without killing the plant, unlike goldenseal, which is harvested for its roots.
Of my own plant allies, I especially enjoyed reading about tulsi (holy basil; Ocimum tenuiflorum syn. O. sanctum and O. gratissimum, Lamiaceae), with its rich medicinal and spiritual history, wide range of uses, and many ways of being prepared. Just reading about it brought the fragrance of eugenol to mind and inspired me to make a cup of tulsi tea with tulsi honey.
The “Medicine Making” section covers a variety of preparation methods, including teas (with discussion of cold infusions, hot infusions, decoctions, and the preferred infusion type for certain herbs); extracts made with alcohol, glycerin, or vinegar; herbal honeys and syrups; and medicinal oils and salves. Each extraction and preparation method is accompanied by clear, concise, and complete instructions on how to make it. There are sidebars for calculating the volume of the menstruum (solvent), a tincture worksheet, examples of which herbs work best with which extraction methods, and recipes. If I could have only one book to help me navigate making herbal preparations, I think it would be this one (with no disrespect to any of the wonderful medicine makers whose books I have been using for years).
The next section comprises 38 pages of specific therapeutic formulas with notes and instructions. Many books in this area offer little to no formulating advice, so this is a major contribution. From adrenal and immune support to cardiovascular, digestive, nervous, reproductive (female and male), respiratory, lymphatic, thyroid, and urinary system support, plus topical formulas, this section provides more than 100 formulas, including ingredients, directions, actions, and applicable conditions. For both beginning and experienced formulators, there is much of value in these pages.
The “Appendices and Indexes” section includes a useful “Compendium of Herbal Therapeutic Uses and Conditions” with more than 200 entries; an “Herbal Therapeutic Glossary” and a “Botany Glossary”; an index of “Plants by Family or Group”; an “Index of Alternative Names (both Common and Latin)”; “Endnotes” (references) by common plant name for the materia medica; and, finally, as one would expect for a work of this magnitude, a complete index. Each one of these lists is valuable in its own right. As a collector and frequent user of herbal reference books, I appreciate every extra tool a reference provides. To have it all in one place, rather than having to sift through my many books or accumulated internet sources, is still my favorite way to work.
I will keep this book close at hand for many years (or until the author publishes a new edition), so that I can revisit it often when I am writing, teaching, or relaxing with a cup of herbal tea. It is a book from which one can always learn something new, and I will recommend it to anyone who is looking for a reference on Western herbalism. If not comprehensive (a term I do not use often), it is definitely essential.
Gayle Engels is the special projects director of the American Botanical Council (ABC), where she has worked since 1995. She coordinates the development and maintenance of ABC’s website, manages special projects, writes for ABC’s publications, and supervises the organization’s educational efforts (including pharmacy and dietetic interns) and garden development.