Get Involved
About Us
Our Members
The Identification of Medicinal Plants: A Handbook of the Morphology of Botanicals in Commerce

The Identification of Medicinal Plants: A Handbook of the Morphology of Botanicals in Commerce by Wendy Applequist. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; 2006. Hardback; 209 pages; black & white illustrations. ISBN-13: 978-0-9655555-1-7. $89.95 (20% discount for ABC members).

The Identification of Medicinal Plants represents a unique contribution to the modern herbal literature, continuing a long history of pharmacognostic studies with a focus on the macroscopic assessment of medicinal plants. This text was co-published by the American Botanical Council and Missouri Botanical Garden (MoBot). The macroscopic characterization of medicinal plants has always been integral to classical botanical pharmacognosy as a complementary and often standalone means of medicinal plant part identification. While botanical identification remains the primary form of plant identification, those in the trade of medicinal plant parts seldom have access to the whole plant and are thus unable to make such an identification.

The text is divided into three primary sections: basics of plant morphology, botanical characterizations, and appendices. Part 1 provides a brief but sufficiently detailed practical overview of the primary morphological characteristics associated with medicinal plant parts. This section is of value to all quality control personnel involved in the qualitative assessment of medicinal plants. Part 2 provides detailed macroscopic characterizations of 124 of the most common, and some uncommon, medicinal plants used in North America and Europe. Listed according to botanical nomenclature, each entry provides the standardized common name according to Herbs of Commerce (published by the American Herbal Products Association), along with additional common names, a brief taxonomic treatment of the plant, its morphological description, key morphological identification characteristics, organoleptic characteristics, characteristic fracture when appropriate, and specific details for the identification of potential adulterants. Each entry also contains original, beautifully rendered figures by MoBot botanical illustrator, Barbara Alongi. The appendices include the general references used, a glossary of terminology, and an extremely informative illustrative guide to leaf and flower morphology.

The use of macroscopic characterizations for the identification of plant parts was a prominent part of medicinal plant quality control in former centuries, and for many, mostly smaller herb companies, it remains so. Many herbalists believe that macroscopic assessment is one of the best evaluation techniques for determining medicinal plant quality. In relatively recent years, the trading of herbal powders has predominated in the American herbal products market. Once powdered, it is impossible to determine the identity of many medicinal plants with a high level of certainty; qualitative characteristics (e.g., size, shape, and form) are gone, color and texture are less prominent, contaminants can blend in and are unremovable, adulterants can go undetected, and the plant part’s phytochemical constituents are subject to relatively rapid degradation. In contrast, macroscopically, the identity of many plants can be accurately ascertained, many contaminants and adulterants can easily be detected and removed, and herbs in their crude macroscopic forms maintain their levels of phytochemicals, and thus their potency, longer than powders. For these reasons, maintaining herbs in as relatively whole condition as is possible will greatly increase the overall quality of medicinal raw materials. This text provides a valuable tool for those who depend on macroscopic assessment techniques and hopefully will encourage others to incorporate this simple, yet highly effective technique.

There are also minor limitations of this work that can be noted. An introductory chapter on the proper manner in which to perform a macroscopic assessment, as well as discussing some of the advantages of the technique, would have been valuable. The text would have benefited greatly from photographs, even if black and white (even though, admittedly, botanical illustrations allow for the potential emphasis of certain morphological characteristics which can be more useful than reliance solely on a photograph). Many of the entries could have benefited from either different (more specific) or additional illustrations, and more emphasis could have been given to organoleptic assessment and its value. Lastly, a few of the entries (e.g., Adonis vernalis, Ranunculaceae and Fallopia japonica, Polygonaceae) are not widely used in the North American or European herb market. Conversely, some industry staples such as cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum, Lauraceae), fo-ti (Polygonum multiflorum, Polygonaceae), and mullein (Verbascum thapsus, Scrophulariaceae), and new entries of economic importance, such as maca (Lepidium meyenii, Brassicaceae), rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea, Crassulaceae), and cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa, Rubiaceae) are lacking. These should be considered as minor criticisms not detracting from the value or importance of this work whatsoever.

The Identification of Medicinal Plants is a must-have for anyone interested or involved in the quality assessment of medicinal plants, is especially valuable for small companies, and is uniquely suited for individual herbal practitioners who have their own herbal pharmacy and need to confirm the identity of the crude herbal materials they receive. Hopefully, this will be only the first of many such texts to focus on this important and often under-utilized quality assessment technique.

—Roy Upton Executive Director, American Herbal Pharmacopoeia Scotts Valley, CA