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Herbal Renaissance: Growing, Using, and Understanding Herbs in the Modern World.
by Steven Foster. 1993. Gibbs-Smith Publisher, Salt Lake City, UT. Softcover, 234 pp. ISBN 0-87905-523-5.

This book, to my mind, is Steven Foster's most impressive herbal creation. It is a direct descendant of his earlier volume, Herbal Bounty (1984), but is currently the mother (in the Saddammesque sense) of all publications in this genre. With the publication of this book, Foster's career as an author has navigated the proverbial full circle.

Foster has been very attentive to scientific developments over the ten years following launching of Bounty, and particularly so to the need for regulatory control of commercial plant products. He notes the growing Western interest and market in these products and their continued importance to the primary health care of about 80% of the world's population -- which is reflected in the persistent commitment of the World Health Organization (WHO) to developing a sound scientific basis for application and regulation of traditional medicines ("Herbs in a Modern World.") Perhaps somewhat chauvinistically, but surely forgivingly, Foster introduces us to a number of the prominent personae on the American herbal scene and to the key U.S. organizations involved in herbal research, cultivation, marketing, education, and the effort to establish a more sensible system for herbal regulation in the U.S. The German BGA and the European Scientific Cooperative for Phytotherapy (ESCOP), however, d o get significant honorable mention.

The author stresses two seminal, but related, issues essential to effective control of herbal products, aspects which have historically doggedly evaded the attention of regulatory and industrial powers alike, namely, assurance of:

1. botanical identity,

2. secondary metabolite profile (chemotype and cultivational variation).

The next four chapters comprise an uncommon distillation of "The Common Language of Botany," a topic which the accomplished self-taught botanist is eminently qualified to treat (check the testimony of the distinguished Harvardians Hu and Schultes in the Preface and Foreword), advice on "Designing Herb Gardens," "Propagating Herbs," and "Harvesting & Drying Herbs." All of the above is accomplished in a scant 35 pages.

The remainder of the text (197 pages) is devoted to an alphabetically ordered treatment of 93 of "Your Friendly Neighborhood Herbs" from Angelica to Yerba Buena [Satureia douglasii (Benth.) Brig.] followed by a fulsome bibliography, listings of plant and seed source, "Information Resources" and a Glossary.

The individual plant entries include, in Foster's words, "descriptions . . . derived from my interpretation of technical botanical descriptions and my own observations," as well as historical information, particular cultivational details and up-to-date summaries of taxonomic, phytochemical and pharmacological information. The treatments of Echinacea (a specialty of the author), Feverfew, Garlic, and Ginseng are high-water marks in every category. On the subject of chemotype and secondary metabolite variation, Foster notes the three rough chemical races of feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), only one of which (parthenolide-containing) has been established as efficacious in the prophylaxis of migraine and -- something the regulators have not yet discovered -- that Tanacetum vulgare (common tansy) has been found to exist (even in close geographic locations) as thujone-containing and nonthujone-containing varieties, the latter containing parthenolide, and the former not.

Safety and toxicology are not accorded categorical statue, as in many other volumes devoted to this subject, seeming rather to dwell in the shade of herbal beneficence. However, the author treats the danger of pyrrolizidine alkaloid (PA) toxicity, for example, quite responsibly under comfrey (Symphytum spp.) whose use is prohibited in many countries, except for external application to unbroken skin.

The publication is tarnished, but not grievously so, by occasional slips and omissions, some oversights and apparent typographical errors. For example, under Valerian, P. D. "Leatherwood" should be "Leathwood" and the reference to "Hendriks and coworkers 1981" regarding "Valerian, Valerenic acid and the esters of eugenyl (?) and isoeugenyl (?)" being spasmolytic, does not appear in the bibliography. Estragole (p. 14) is mentioned as a common constituent of goldenrod and tarragon, but it is not equated with methyl chavicol (an inappropriate designation for the aromatic methyl ether) a prominent constituent of much basil oil, and the basis for European objection to consumption, because of its carcinogenic potential.

All in all, this Foster book sets an estimable standard for future toil in the everblooming garden of herbal literature. A rare and precious flower indeed!

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By Dennis Awang