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The Plant Hunter: A Scientist’s Quest for Nature’s Next Medicines by Cassandra Leah Quave. New York, NY: Viking; 2021. ISBN: 9781984879110. Hardcover, 384 pages. $27.00.


Editor’s note: The Plant Hunter received the 2022 ABC James A. Duke Excellence in Botanical Literature Award in the consumer/popular category.

The Plant Hunter combines important knowledge about plant-based medicines and healing traditions of Indigenous and local peoples with fascinating personal experiences of a born storyteller who has a love of people and nature and a zest for learning and research.

Ethnobotany, or the study of the diverse relationships between people and plants, has led author Cassandra Leah Quave, PhD, to a fascinating and unique career, as recounted in her compelling book. This text is a wonderful introduction to the field of ethnobotany but is equally captivating for people who are well acquainted with the field. Quave is a preeminent medical ethnobotanist and well known in the fields of therapeutic medicine, molecular and systems pharmacology, genetics, and microbiology. A past president of the Society for Economic Botany (soon to be renamed the Society for Ethnobotany), she has made her academic home at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. As well as being an associate professor of dermatology and human health in the university’s School of Medicine and Center for the Study of Human Health, she serves as curator of the Emory University Herbarium and is an associate faculty member in the university’s Biology, Environmental Sciences, and Anthropology departments.

In The Plant Hunter, Quave shares the story of her personal learning journey and how she has been inspired to dedicate her career to the study of the world’s healing plants. She pays tribute to the academic teachers and mentors in her field (including Richard Evans Schultes, PhD, Harvard University’s “Father of Ethnobotany”; and Andrea Pieroni, PhD, an acclaimed ethnobotanist at the University of Gastronomic Sciences at Pollenzo in Italy), but also to the Indigenous and local plant experts in diverse parts of the world who generously have shared their knowledge and demonstrated their healing practices with and for her. As she explains in the book, one of her first Indigenous teachers was Antonio Montero Pisco (often called “Don Antonio”), an ayahuasquero (someone who administers or uses the psychoactive brew ayahuasca [from Banisteriopsis caapi, Malpighiaceae]) and healer, or curandero, who she met when she was a college senior research intern in the Peruvian Amazon. Pisco and his son maintained an ethnobotanical garden (which the late ethnobotanist James A. Duke, PhD, originally conceived), and he introduced Quave to a new world of healing and culturally important plants.

Quave, who has been described as an “eloquent and disarmingly honest” writer by Amy Stewart, the bestselling author of The Drunken Botanist (Workman Publishing, 2013), and “a woman with incredible grit and courage” by Temple Grandin, PhD, the bestselling author of Thinking in Pictures (Doubleday, 1995), also relates the health challenges that she faced from birth. She was born with multiple congenital skeletal abnormalities that required the amputation of her right leg below the knee when she was only three years old, followed by treatment for infection from antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus. The daughter of a Vietnam veteran, she, along with thousands of other children, was affected by the use of poisons such as Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

A grateful recipient of lifesaving Western medical care, Quave also has received treatments from leading Indigenous herbal healers and medicine experts and, through these experiences, came to see the wisdom and effectiveness of holistic traditional medicine. She has devoted her career to researching how plant-based medicines can help combat infectious diseases and restore and maintain human health. In particular, she focuses on plant-based antibiotics that can combat the growing crisis of infections caused by antimicrobial resistance. She is also a champion of the environment and emphasizes that “ecosystem biodiversity is the key to the health of all life-forms” (p. 341). She shares the thrill of discovery that is at the heart of science and brings her readers along with her as if we, too, are part of the adventure and joy of learning that she experiences and shares with her students.

The Plant Hunter is divided into 12 chapters with a prologue and epilogue. Sections titled Part I: Nature (Chapters 1-4), Part II: Infection (Chapters 5-8), and Part III: Medicine (Chapters 9-12) further organize the content into different overarching themes. The prologue sets the stage with an enthralling story of bringing her Emory University students to Florida swampland — alligator territory — on a field expedition to search for a native species of blackberry (Rubus sp., Rosaceae), a source of a potential antibacterial medicine.

As the chapters unfold, the reader is drawn into the amazing properties of healing plants and to Quave’s life and personal journey. She brings her own experiences to life, and, in detail, describes the scenes, bird calls, butterflies, and soils of the diverse places where she has traveled, so that I can almost see them with my own eyes. She provides clear, easily understood descriptions of plants and plant compounds that have found worldwide use as life-saving pharmaceuticals and leaves the reader in awe of Indigenous experts who originally identified and learned how to apply such medicines in complex, holistic ways. From the traditional preparation of cassava (Manihot esculenta, Euphorbiaceae) as a nutritious food, to the descriptions of curare, a mixture of neurotoxins extracted from the curare vine (Chondrodendron tomentosum, Menispermaceae), together with numerous other species, she enriches our knowledge of the plant world and our dependence on it. (Curare, she explains, originally was used as a powerful arrow poison, and then adapted for medical applications due to its ability to block the connection between the central nervous system and muscles.)

The index of botanical and fungal names at the end of the book is a testimony to its breadth and depth. Beyond the botanical richness, Quave’s deep humanity, love of nature, and respect for healers and plant experts of all backgrounds shine through. She is a natural teacher and storyteller, who, through personal narratives, can engage and inform readers. Following her own experiences with mentors and teachers, she has inspired many students, researchers, and community members to learn more about the plants on which we all depend.

Nancy J. Turner, PhD, is an ethnobotanist, member of the ABC Advisory Board, and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria.