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Herbal Medicine: Trends & Traditions

Herbal Medicine: Trends & Traditions by Charles W. Kane. Oracle, AZ: Lincoln Town Press; 2009. Hardcover; 325 pages. ISBN: 978-0-9771333-3-8.

A frequently-expressed concern of laypeople regarding herbal medicine is that it takes too much effort to decide which sources to trust. Some scientists criticize popular herb use, believing that Western herb traditions have no discernable system or standards. Herbal Medicine: Trends & Traditions admirably addresses both ends of the spectrum, communicating how to use herbs effectively, safely, and within guidelines understandable at any level of expertise. In his introduction, Charles W. Kane addresses the common fears of the herbal neophyte as well as the researchdriven expert.

This book is mainly a materia medica, but with useful additions. Clinical herbalists will appreciate a vitalist orientation without jargon. In the introduction, terse philosophical paragraphs explain why Kane avoids formulas for symptoms and conditions. This harmonizes well with the emphasis in integrative medicine on “patient-centered medicine,” a term coined by Michael Lerner of Commonweal. Kane concisely summarizes actual rather than theoretical applications of herbs representing a standard Western dispensary. Actions such as “astringent” or “vulnerary” are as significant a shorthand for the Western tradition as descriptive terms are in Eastern systems of medicine. Using these actions in context, Kane gives simple physiological effects to make herbal actions more understandable.

The author has taken pains to answer lay questions alongside those concerns more likely to occur to a professional. The first question his book helps answer may be, “Do I need to go the Emergency Room, make a doctor’s appointment, or treat this with herbs?” Assuming self care is appropriate, Trends & Traditions provides a way for the reader to choose from among over 100 popular herbs.

A few hundred more herbs are listed in appendices that are usefully divided into a therapeutic index, a repository with preparation and dosing details, plus a grouping of herbs by botanical family.

The beauty of connecting to nature is evident in Trends & Traditions’ 58 color plates. Kane provides a short, fine guide on the ethics of gathering to readers who are new to herbal medicine. Proper drying with low technology leads from introductory pages into the section on preparations, ranging from tea to syrups, tinctures, and an explanation of percolation that is inviting to anyone previously intimidated by phytopharmacy. The preparations section is as comprehensive as a modern herb guide needs to be. Appendices that augment the section include “Weights and Measures,” and worksheets to practice making percolations. There is a 30-page bibliography where several scientific papers are cited for each herb, though for Cannabis sativa (Cannabaceae) the omission of Dr. Ethan Russo’s published body of work seems odd.

The materia medica section describing medicinal uses for each herb is the most extensive. Firmly rooted in the Western tradition, Kane writes with confidence about the system that draws from Eclectic, Physiomedical, historical, and contemporary branches of herbal medicine.

The monograph format abides throughout, though it has been extended by Kane to weave in points on wild-crafting, medicine-making, constitutional concepts of human physiology, and more philosophical discussions.

Herbs appear in alphabetical order by common name, from agrimony (Agrimonia spp., Rosaceae) to yucca (Yucca spp., Agavaceae). Each entry begins with the family, binomial, synonyms, a botanical description full of color and detail for newer herbalists yet accurate terms of identification to suit more experienced collectors. Information includes distribution, collection technique, and, as needed, commercial availability. Short paragraphs on chemistry, or constituent lists, are fairly standard but up to date and accurate. For instance, yerba mate’s (Ilex paraguariensis, Aquifoliaceae) alkaloids reflect scientific consensus rather than unsubstantiated marketing claims.

The actions given for each plant cover internal and topical uses in each of the relevant body systems the herb helps. Kane points out useful herb combinations for specific problems, and offers prevention tips in addition to the occasional entertaining aside. How to use the herb is followed by a bulleted list of indications for a quick review of highlights. Kane avoids any controversy regarding the way doses are given, perhaps in light of his explicit aim to communicate in common language.

The materia medica section could be improved with line drawings of each plant not represented in photos. In a comprehensive resource, a picture is worth an awful lot of botanical words, and those new to plants are likely to benefit from even a small image.

First drafted as a counterpoint to Army life while Kane was stationed in east Afghanistan, this herbal guide sustains a vital, positive feel, though sometimes the tone is sober. As if the immediacy of larger issues during the initial period of writing informed Kane’s style, there is a welcome and blunt summary on key points. In contrast to herbalists who have written lengthy introductions defining the place of herbs in modern healthcare, Kane suggests that the usefulness of plants needs no justification, though there is room for clarification.

Herbal Medicine: Trends & Traditions shares with readers the pragmatic experience of a focused man rather than the notions of one who reads and teaches about herbs. The point of the book, then, is to communicate in an accessible way how plants help people. Trends & Traditions achieves its aim with a clarity that makes it an essential resource for everyone who wishes to use both popular and less familiar Western herbs for medicine.

—Amanda McQuade Crawford, Dip. Phyto, RH (AHG), MNIMH, MNZAMH, MCPP Herbalist Los Angeles, CA