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CRC Handbook of Medicinal Spices
CRC Handbook of Medicinal SpicesCRC Handbook of Medicinal Spices by James A. Duke with Mary Jo Bogenshutz-Godwin, Judi duCellier, and Peggy-Ann K. Duke. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2003. 360 pp., hardcover. ISBN 0-8893-1279-5. $139.95. ABC Item#B532

Jim Duke has a remarkable ability to take volumes, reams, and gigabytes of information, distill the method and madness down to keywords, and transform the essence of the information into short abstracts peppered with observations or opinions that bring flavor to what otherwise might be boring scientific diatribes. This guide by Emeritus ABC Board of Trustees member and ethnobotanist elite Jim Duke and colleagues covers 60 popular spices, organized by scientific name. It includes sections on common name, medicinal activities and indications, multiple activities, other uses (particularly culinary uses), cultivation, phytochemistry and constituents, and compound activity. Duke cooks phytochemistry down to its practical potential and pulls pertinent ethnobotanical facts to the surface like a gardener pulls weeds.

After a lifetime of Duke’s cajoling and massaging of the vast scientific literature on medicinal plants and what makes them tick, we are the beneficiaries of the morsels of information that have risen to the surface. Duke and his colleagues create a rich stew of information on each of the 60 spices treated in this book. In a single sentence, one can find humor, home remedies, and research leads. For example, the author points out that greater galangal (Alpinia galanga [L.] Sw., Zingiberaceae) is “useful in pediatric respiratory problems. I would not hesitate to mix it with those [anise and dill] for my grandchildren during flu season [if only your children would let you, Jim] . . . . . As a paste, with a little garlic and vinegar (red wine vinegar is better), it is a last resort drastic remedy for herpes.” And on it goes.

You have to learn how to read Duke’s various CRC Handbooks, including this one. His comments, beliefs, and opinions can be found at any point in the text. He doesn’t need to be convinced by a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study that garlic (which he calls “Russian penicillin”) is a drug of choice to “prevent or reduce the likelihood of getting anthrax if you have been hit with 8000 spores.” What is not opinion is referenced, either using the author-date system or with 3-letter abbreviations for books and journals, which he cites on a regular basis. It looks cumbersome on the printed page, but if you keep a finger stuck in the abbreviations keys and refer to them while reading, the embedded codes soon make good sense. If a phytochemical is listed for a plant, information on its bioactivity or toxicity with citation is also included. Duke suggests that myrtle (Myrtus communis L., Myrtaceae) may be useful for infections. He then enumerates 15 biologic activities that lead him to his conclusion, each followed by a list of phytochemicals in the plant to which that pharmacologic activity has been attributed. I had for the most part dismissed my myrtle plant as nothing more than an evergreen ornamental taking up room in a plant pot, but in these pages I find it is a veritable pharmacopeia used for more medicinal, culinary, and ornamental uses than any collection of books has ever before revealed to me. Here we find food and flavoring uses from Sardinia, Jerusalem, Damascus, Italy, Corsica, and Crete. We find uses by Jews, Arabs, Turks, Russians, and Greeks. “The leaves are used for massage to work up a glowing skin.” Where else are you going to find this kind of information except in a book by Duke? As for cultivating the plant, you will learn its best horticultural uses, soil type, pH, propagation methods, how to get it through the winter in the North, and when it should be pruned. The horticultural information is detailed and valuable.

Throughout the book one finds cross-referencing to other Duke CRC handbooks and his always-expanding USDA database (one of the most widely used databases of that behemoth government agency, available at “I’m not going to pay nearly $140 for a 348 page book!” you might say. How much did you spend on dinner last night for you and your dinner companion? For me the choice is easy. If a book has Jim Duke’s name on it, I buy it—simple as that. The hard choice is whether to keep it on the shelf with medicinal plant reference books, or have it at home next to the spice shelf as an inspiration for new ideas and new uses for favorite spices. You will discover more within these pages than Columbus ever did by sailing west.

—Steven Foster, President of Steven Foster Group, Inc., Eureka Springs, AR