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Toxic Plants That Heal: Poisonous and Medicinal Plants.
by Will H. Blackwell. Prentice Hall Advance Reference Series, Physical and Life Sciences, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ 07632. 1990. 329 pp. Hardcover. ISBN 0-13-684127-9.

Few books have attempted to combine the usually separated subjects of poisonous and medicinal plants under one umbrella. Make no mistake -- the emphasis of this book is on poisonous plants, but the author skillfully combines information on toxicity with medicinal data. Most medicinal plants covered, however, are those that are used for the manufacture of Western drugs by virtue of their toxic compounds. Those looking for information on health uses of plants will not find their favorite herbs in these pages.

The primary audience seems to be the undergraduate biology or even liberal arts student who has little access to reliable information on the use and effects of plants in modern industrialized America. For the average student the subject matter of the book, if presented in its usual technical context, is dry at best. But Will Blackwell brings the subject to life in an engaging, highly readable, and reliable text.

After the introductory chapter which entices the reader forward, a chapter on medicinal and poisonous plants in history takes the reader on a time-capsule journey through various cultures and periods of history. Three major sections are included: Antiquity, Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and the Seventeenth Century to the Present. The succinct historical sketches lead to Chapter Three: "Toxic plant substances: the chemistry of poisonous and medicinal plants." "Boring," may yawn the liberal arts major looking for another easy credit. But no, Blackwell leads the reader through the subject with the same ease that Mister Rogers has used to help generations of preschoolers learn to tie their shoes. Without even one chemistry course you leave enriched. (Chemists take note. Reading this chapter may help you learn to communicate with the rest of the population.)

Next comes a "Poison Survey of the Plant Kingdom," followed by an excellent chapter on "Poisonous and Medicinal Fungi" by Martha J. Powell. In Chapters Six and Seven Blackwell introduces the reader to the "Form and Structure of Poisonous and Medicinal Flowering Plants," and the subject of "taxonomy." Here, Blackwell treats the reader with the same kid gloves; with this chapter a chemistry student could gain a basic understanding of plant structures and taxonomy. Good, thorough introductory material.

Now we're halfway through the book. Chapter Nine presents answers to 10 commonly asked questions concerning poisonous plants. Chapter Ten deals with "Potential Toxicants in Common Plant Foods." Next we learn about the specific "Effects of Poisonous or Harmful Plants." A survey of common poisonous plants of the eastern U.S. is the content of Chapter 12. The book ends with discussions on (only) 15 major medicinal plants used for drug production in Western medicine. Blackwell provides a good glossary, but the index, arguably the most important part of any book, is somewhat weak.

This book will certainly be a welcome text by all who teach classes in botany, economic botany, or poisonous and medicinal plants. Professionals will find it a handy reference text. The book provides a wide range of information in a comprehensible, meaningful, expressive style. Will Blackwell, a professor in the Botany Department of Miami University (of Ohio), is to be commended for this useful and lively account of plants as poison and medicine.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.