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Medicinal Plants in Australia: Vol 3, Plants, Potions and Poisons and Vol 4, An Antipodean Apothecary


Medicinal Plants in Australia: Vol 3, Plants, Potions and Poisons and Vol 4, An Antipodean Apothecary by Cheryll Williams. Sydney, Australia: Rosenberg Publishing; 2012 and 2013. Hardcover, 472 and 552 pages. ISBNs: 978-1921719165 and 978-1922013507. $89.95 each.

These two volumes complete a comprehensive, superbly illustrated, and scholarly contribution to the emerging field of Australian medicinal plants. The author, Cheryll Williams, is an Australia-based acupuncturist and medical herbalist with over 25 years of clinical experience and postgraduate qualifications in nutritional medicine, homeopathy, and naturopathy. The first two volumes cover “Bush Pharmacy” (Volume 1) and “Gums, Resins, Tannin and Essential Oils” (Volume 2).

Volume 3 provides a review of toxic plants, not just in the Australian context, but from wider afield. However, there is usually an Australian theme to begin with that leads the author to describe the native plants in a wider context. For example, the chapter titled “Foaming Fish Poisons” starts by outlining the use of fish poisons by the Australian Aborigines, but then extensively discusses plants used as fish poisons from around the world, drawing parallels with relevant Australian plants. Hence, a mention of soap bark (Quillaja saponaria, Quillajaceae) leads to a discussion of native saponin-containing plants also employed as fish poisons. This is followed by an interesting exploration of native stock poisons, including plants that naturally accumulate fluoroacetic acid or 1080, a well-known poison. 1080 is used to control feral animals in Australia, and it is believed that several native animals, such as brush-tailed possums, bush rats, and western gray kangaroos, have adapted to the poison due to their consumption of local flora that contain the toxin. Other topics covered in Volume 3 include irritant poisons, native plants used as foods after detoxification, and poisonous ferns and cycads.

The theme of Volume 4 is plants (and phytochemicals) as medicines today. This necessitates a broader context, with many of the species discussed being neither native nor naturally introduced to Australia, although several of those mentioned are cultivated (e.g., the opium poppy [Papaver somniferum, Papaveraceae] in Tasmania). Nonetheless, there is still a generous smattering of Australian native plants reviewed, including an excellent chapter on pituri (Duboisia hopwoodii, Solanaceae), a source of nicotine and nornicotine, and a popular stimulant used by the Aborigines. The chapter goes on to describe related species such as corkwood (D. myoporoides), which is still grown commercially as a source of tropane alkaloids (e.g., scopolamine and hyoscyamine). Other topics covered in Volume 4 include minerals as medicines (fascinating, though somewhat off topic), bush medicines with potential to become mainstream herbs, steroids from yams (Dioscorea spp., Dioscoreaceae), and the kangaroo apple (Solanum aviculare and S. laciniatum, Solanaceae), a controversial topical treatment for skin cancers.

Both volumes provide extensive references: in Volume 3 the list of references spans 43 pages (9% of the book), and in Volume 4 it is 50 pages (also 9%). A high degree of academic rigor is clearly evident, although it is occasionally hurt by a significant typographical or factual error. For example, on page 415 of Volume 4, the table heading reads “… Symptoms of Nicotinic Acid Poisoning” when it is clearly referring to symptoms of nicotinic-type alkaloid poisoning. On page 124 of the same volume, aesculin (esculin) is described as a saponin, when it is actually a coumarin. Confusing esculin, found in horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum, Sapindaceae) seed, with escin, found in the bark, is a commonly made error.

These books are most relevant to botanists, ethnopharmacologists, natural product researchers and related scholars, and those with a keen interest in Australian medicinal plants and their future development. The volumes are replete with potential leads deserving more research attention. But these two volumes of the series are not primarily texts for herbal clinicians. The focus is often on toxic or highly active plants that will be of more interest to pharmaceutical researchers. Also, where the author does touch on more well-known herbs, there are some errors of fact. One example in Volume 4 (page 142) is in reference to a clinical trial on gotu kola (Centella asiatica, Apiaceae) used in long-distance air travel, where the dose is described as “fairly low” at 60 mg three times a day. In fact, this was a highly active dose, since the trial in question used isolated triterpenoids from the plant, rather than a whole extract.

These and other minor shortcomings notwithstanding, Volumes 3 and 4 of Medicinal Plants in Australia are a proud addition to my herbal library.

—Kerry Bone, MCPP, FNHAA, FNIMH,
DipPhyto (Hons) Director,
Research and Development,
Warwick, Australia