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Chinese Medicinal Identification: An Illustrated Approach

Chinese Medicinal Identification: An Illustrated Approach by Zhongzhen Zhao and Hubiao Chen. Taos, New Mexico: Paradigm Publications; 2014. Hardcover; 560 pages. ISBN: 978-0912111995. $129.00.

Chinese Medicinal Identification is the latest of several texts by the lead author Zhongzhen Zhao, PhD, associate dean of Chinese medicine at Baptist University in Hong Kong. Professor Zhao is one of the worlds leading authorities on the authentication of Chinese herbal drugs. His co-authors and editors are equally renowned authorities on traditional Chinese medicine. The focus of this text is on the macroscopic and morphologic characteristics of crude Chinese medicinal plants. Texts such these are extremely valuable for establishing the basis for identifying crude botanical ingredients in a scientifically valid manner, an important aspect of dietary supplement good manufacturing practices (GMPs).

The text begins with a colorful history of the application of macroscopic examination in Chinese literature starting with the concept of Bian Zhuang Lun Zi, defined as differentiating appearance to determine quality. Bian Zhuang Lun Zi is described as an essential foundation for practitioners dedicated to authentication and herbal pharmacy. While primarily applied by traditional Chinese herbalists with dispensing pharmacies in much the same manner as todays herbalists, Chinese medical practitioners, and naturopathic physicians, macroscopic evaluation remains a critical evaluation tool for dietary supplement and botanical medicine manufacturers that is far underutilized and overshadowed by chemical (e.g., high-performance liquid chromatography [HPLC]) or molecular techniques (DNA).

The introductory historical chapter is followed by a review of the basic principles of macroscopic evaluation, which includes the evaluation of physical and organoleptic characteristics (appearance, color, taste, smell) as well as novel testing techniques such as evaluating botanical ingredients using water (e.g., floating cloves [Syzygium aromaticum, Myrtaceae] in water as a test of quality) and fire, techniques not readily found in early Western pharmacognosy texts. A key benefit of macroscopic examination underscored by the authors is its simplicity and the rapidity by which both identity and quality can be assessed inexpensively and in an environmentally sound manner that does not require the chemical solvents typical of chemical analytical methods.

The next 10 chapters provide detailed and clearly articulated, albeit brief, macroscopic descriptions of more than 400 medicinal ingredients used in traditional Chinese medicine, including roots and rhizomes, stems and woods, tree and root barks, leaves, flowers, fruits and seeds, whole herbs, seaweed, fungi and resins, zoological substances, and minerals. Consistent with early works of pharmacognosy, each entry provides the origin of the drug plant, where it is produced, how it is cleaned and processed, its primary properties and functions, and specifics regarding quality assessment. The text is accompanied by more than 1,000 high-quality color photographs of materials which include approximately 350 botanical ingredients showing the intact whole botanical as well as the typical forms (i.e., slices) used for decocting. Each photograph is annotated with some of the key identifying features of the plant material, which can be used either as a model or a reference standard for manufacturers to develop their own identification standards. Of particular importance are the differentiating characteristics of closely related or adulterating species.

It is difficult to find fault with a work of this depth and quality. If there were any, it would be two-fold. First, the text and interested readers may have benefited from a more detailed discussion regarding macroscopic and organoleptic evaluation. The subject is very broad and rich, and it is worthy of further development. Secondly, the photographs reflect a relatively small sampling of the most common forms of the ingredients available on the Asian market; however, many other forms that do not conform to the authors descriptions exist in the broad international market and differ from Chinese herb materials cultivated in North America.

The authors and editors are among the most-noted authorities on the authentication of Chinese medicinal plants, and this work reflects a tremendous amount of historical and modern classical botanical pharmacognostic knowledge in this particular aspect of medicinal plant evaluation. Chinese Medicinal Identification is an incredibly valuable contribution to the herbal literature and is specifically useful for those involved in the use of Chinese medicinal plants in botanical dietary supplements and Chinese medicine. It is also of value to small manufacturers and traditional practitioners with dispensaries that, due to GMP requirements, need authoritative references that provide ways for identifying medicinal plant materials in a scientifically valid manner, and without the need for the often-toxic chemical solvents required in the performance of other forms of analysis. Works such as this text help us preserve the traditional aspect of the larger world of traditional herbal medicine.

Roy Upton, RH, DAyuFounder and Executive Director, American Herbal PharmacopoeiaSoquel, California