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A Dictionary of Natural Products.
by George M.Hocking, Ph. D. Plexus Publishing, Inc. 1997. 994 pp. Hardcover, b/w illustrations. $139.50. ISBN 0-937548-31-6. ABC Bookstore #B300.

The increased growth of the herbal movement is evident almost everywhere, especially in the sales of herbal products and the proliferation of books and articles dealing with herbs, phytomedicines, medicinal plants, and related topics. With more and more literature being published in this field, one of the most important aspects of the "new herbalism" is the need to be able to understand the language used to describe the plants, their chemistry, their actions, and so on. Consequently, access to a concise yet comprehensive dictionary becomes all the more valuable. The problem that most people have had for many years is that they have usually had to look up terms in several dictionaries and reference books. Botanical terms in a book about botany (or, occasionally in a good general dictionary), chemical terms in The Merck Index or similar reference, and terms describing physiological actions in a general or medical dictionary. Wouldn't it be great to find most of these terms in one comprehensive book?

For years, I have had access to several books that certainly helped me in my research. One book I have relied on has been J. C. T. Uphof's Dictionary of Economic Plants, published in 1968, a most useful book that was previously out-of-print and then reprinted about 10 years ago in a limited edition. Uphof is one of the classic quick references that gives authoritative information on plant names (arranged by Latin binomial), their geographical origin, and various economic uses.

Over the past few years, I have occasionally toyed with the idea of putting together a group of herbalists and medicinal plant scholars to produce a similar publication -- a dictionary of terms used in modem herbal medicine, ethnobotany, and pharmacognosy -- a book that would meet all, or at least many, of the needs of people dealing with the realities of herbal medicine in the late 1990s. However, fortunately for all of us, Professor Hocking has done that.

A Dictionary of Natural Products has recently been published and it is a most welcome addition to the growing field of botanical publications. The sub-title of the book provides insight into the scope and range of this work: "Terms in the Field of Pharmacognosy Relating to Natural Medicinal and Pharmaceutical Materials and the Plants, Animals, and Minerals from Which They Are Derived."

This book is certainly a welcome and necessary addition to the library of anyone interested in herbs and phytomedicines, medicinal plants, drug discovery from natural sources, ethnobotany, phytochemistry, and all related disciplines. As such it becomes a valuable tool for members of the herb, dietary supplement, and pharmaceutical industries, researchers, writers and journalists, health professionals, libraries, even regulators and public health officials -- in short, the entire gamut of those interested in natural products.

This massive tome has almost 888 pages of definitions plus additional pages of appendices and related references; the total of the entire volume is 994 pages. This compares with the 284 pages of the 1955 edition, which now enjoys an honorable place next to the new book -- a place almost within reach of my desk, although I suspect I will no longer have much use for this longtime bibliographic companion.

The range and scope of definitions in the new volume is staggering. Prof. Hocking has included terms from almost every conceivable area of pharmacognosy and medical botany -- over 18,000 entries in all. For example, these include, but are not limited to, the following types of terms: English common name; Latin binomials; German common names of both plants, substances, and common items used in pharmacy; colloquial names; chemical compounds found in many plants; and related medicinal plant miscellanea.

The definitions are complete yet concise. Often, the derivation of the word is given. Examples of definitions: "drug: crude medicinal substance; usually appl. to dried crude drags (plant & animal); prob. f. Dutch droog (=to dry); to the layman, usually the term means addictive narcotic - d. fiend (Americanism): narcotic addict."

The word "coon" is included, short for puccoon, root, referring to the genera Sanguinaria (bloodroot) or possibly Hepatica triloba. Under puccoon one finds the following entry: "term appl. by NA [North American] Indians to pls. [plants] furnishing yellow or red dyes or to pigment; also med.; specif. Sanguinaria and Hydrastis [Goldenseal]." Some definitions are extensive; for example, Eupatorium requires three entire columns (one-and-a-half pages). Most of the brief information on the herbs is listed under the Latin name; if the reader keys in to the common name, it is usually given with reference to the Latin binomial, to which one should refer for data.

I tried an exercise to see how relevant the Dictionary is to the field of modern herbalism in the U.S. First, the herb test. I looked up the top twelve herbs sold in the U.S. market according to the annual survey published by Whole Foods magazine. I wanted to check whether Hocking included herbs commonly sold in the market or if his book dealt merely with those botanicals from which conventional drugs are derived. After all, if one were to look at some of the old textbooks in pharmacognosy, the classic plant drugs are always mentioned (belladonna, digitalis, colchicum, etc.) but the herbs of the marketplace used in "folk medicine" were usually not included (garlic, ginseng, ginger, etc.).

Here is what I found: Echinacea is listed, with the three species found in commerce, angustifolia, pallida, and purpurea. There were definitions for garlic, ginseng, ginkgo, St. John's wort (listed as a synonym for St. John's blood in the common name listing; noted under Hypericum perforatum mainly as a pesky weed, a.k.a. Klamath weed). Saw palmetto is there. Also listed are goldenseal and information under its Latin name, Hydrastis canadensis. So is aloe, astragalus, and cayenne. Siberian ginseng is not found but its Latin name Eleutherococcus senticosus is listed and defined. Bilberry is referenced deaf only). There were no definitions for cat's claw or its Latin name Uncaria tomentosum; U. gaianensis is listed. In short, the book passes this test. I could try the next most popular herbs, but I suspect Hocking would still easily pass.

The book passes the herb test. But how about the chemical test? Although I was reluctant to test a master like Hocking, for the sake of the reader of this review I gave it a go anyway. As can be expected, the book is replete with information on naturally occurring plant compounds. I looked up chemicals found in the above-mentioned herbs.

I looked up these compounds found in echinacea: cichoric acid (no), echinacoside (no), isobutylamide (no). Garlic: ajoene (yes), allicin (no), alliin (no), diallyl disulfide (no). Ginseng: ginsenosides (no). Ginkgo: ginkgolides (no), bilobalide (no). St. John's Wart: hypericin (yes). Goldenseal: hydrastine (yes), berberine (yes), canadine (yes). Aloe: aloin (yes). Siberian ginseng: eleutherosides (no). So, this book gives only some key compounds in some of the plants listed. This book is clearly not meant to be a comprehensive dictionary of plant chemicals and probably for an understandable reason: the chemistry of plants is so varied and complex that to provide a systematic listing of phytochemistry of medicinal plants belongs to the domain of a separate dictionary of phytochemistry.

The plant chemistry test was a challenge. How about analytical methods, an increasingly important area in the maturing herb market? Here's the scorecard on the following methods: Thin layer chromatography (TLC), no; gas chromatography (GC), no; high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), no; high performance thin-layer chromatography (HPTLC), no; mass spectronomy (MS), no; nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), yes! The book does not cover many of the analytical techniques increasingly prevalent in the field of botanical documentation.

This book is authoritative. The author has gone to considerable lengths to document all sources of information from which the information is derived. Appendix A deals with 2,798 specific references used to produce the definitions. Appendix B contains about 130 general references used throughout the dictionary. Appendix C provides a list of "important serials in the field of pharmacognosy and related areas, including both continuing and discontinued titles." This includes what most readers might consider some of the most arcane references in the literature; to the inquisitive and comprehensive Professor Hocking this is just business as usual. Related Appendix C-1 lists periodicals devoted to certain economic plants or special plant products (e.g., references on sugar, cotton, chocolate, citrus, tobacco, cinchona, and miscellaneous). Appendix D lists terms describing properties and therapeutic uses of drugs, pesticides, and some pathologies. Appendix E provides diagrams of types of inflorescences and flowers (as per the previous edition). Appendix F gives examples of plant and animal classification schemes according to modern taxonomic systems. Finally, Appendix G lists plants yielding natural rubber (also found in the first edition).

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By Mark Blumenthal