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By Mark Blumenthal

Many systems of indigenous and traditional medicine employ plants based on a notion of the “doctrine of signatures,” the idea that a plant’s color or shape suggests a medicinal application or bodily organ for which it might have therapeutic value. In his article on the doctrine of signatures in HerbalGram issue 78, Brad Bennett, PhD, wrote that such correspondences were based on empirical observations over time.1 Such traditional uses are not limited to plants but are also the rationale for how people have employed animal parts medicinally.

As the American Botanical Council’s primary focus is education of responsible medicinal plant use, research, conservation, etc., HerbalGram articles have only rarely broached the topic of medicinally-used animal species. Medicinal use and conservation of endangered animals is a growing concern and has been increasingly covered in the American and international media. National Geographic magazine devoted a pictorial spread earlier this year to the issue of wildlife trafficking.2 Recent news coverage of threatened animals and their medicinal use has also stemmed from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species’ (CITES) 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties, held in March 2010 in Doha, Qatar.

This issue’s cover story focuses on zootherapy (medicinal use of animals and products derived from them) and efforts to replace the medicinal use of some endangered animal species with botanical alternatives. Written by HerbalGram Managing Editor Courtney Cavaliere, the article gives special attention to 4 medicinally-used animals: tigers, rhinoceroses, bears, and turtles and tortoises. As she reports, substitution of endangered animal ingredients with botanical and other alternatives is one method that has been used in the past to help aid in preserving threatened animal species—and such efforts could potentially be further promoted to help maintain biodiversity.

This issue also contains ABC’s annual herb market report, usually one of our most-cited articles. It profiles the 20 top-selling botanical supplements in both the mass market and natural and health foods channels, as well as general herbal supplement sales trends. Data gathered from various market research firms indicate strong growth in herbal supplement sales during 2009. This growth occurred in all market channels and confirms earlier predictions that herb sales might rise during the economic downturn—compelling empirical evidence of consumers’ interest in natural methods of self-care.

One of the herbs singled out in the market report for its remarkable sales growth in 2009 is açaí—the subject of this issue’s herb profile. Açaí products are increasingly lining the shelves of grocery and natural products stores. Although very few clinical trials have been performed to validate the suggested health benefits of açaí consumption, in vitro and animal studies, as well as traditional use, suggest potential beneficial activity. Like many in the natural products sector, we anticipate the publication of well-controlled clinical trials to help document açaí’s potential health benefits.

Finally, we feature an article by Matt Cimino, PhD, examining the emerging technology of verifying herb identity through DNA-testing—a technique arguably offering some benefits over other methods for botanical identification (e.g., microscopy, chemical analysis). Although there is an appropriate place for other methods, as more dietary supplement and herbal companies increase their quality control and quality assurance protocols to conform with good manufacturing practices, DNA-testing could become an increasingly relied-upon resource of the industry.


  1. Bennett B. Doctrine of signatures through two millennia. HerbalGram. 2008;78:34-45.

  2. Christy B. Asia’s wildlife trade. National Geographic. January 2010;78-107.