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Plants, People and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany.
"Plants, People and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany" by Michael J. Balick and Paul Alan Cox. New York Scientific American Library. 1996. Clothbound. Color photos. 288 pp. $32.95. ISBN 0-7167-5061-9. ABC BookStore #B196.

Interest in the science of ethnobotany is growing at a fast pace. This is the third title in this subject area published in the last two years alone. Unlike previous works published in 1995 by Martin and Schultes/Von Reis, this book is designed as an introduction to the fascinating history of the discovery of plant drugs and the development of other human interaction with plants through the continually emerging scienceof ethnobotany.

The authors are well qualified for the present work| Balick being the Director of the Institute for Economic Botany at New York Botanical Garden, and Cox, a prolific author and researcher from Brigham Young University. Both authors have previously collaborated on a seminal article published in Scientific American in June 1994, "The Ethnobotanical Approach to Drug Discovery" (available as ABC Classic No. 250). By their own admission, the book focuses on the two areas of the world in which each author has had the most experience| Central and South America for Balick and Oceania and the South Pacific for Cox. This volume is non-technical, profusely illustrated with beautiful color photography, and designed for the novice with ample introduction and explanations on various terms used within this science.

The authors define ethnobotany as "The field of study that analyzes the results of indigenous manipulations of plant materials together with the cultural context in which the plants are used." The book initially gives a general overview in its chapter, "People and Plants" and then moves directly into a part that would be an obvious favorite of HerbalGram readers, "Plants That Heal."

The first chapter immediately projects the reader into the discovery of one of the most important drugs of the 21st century, reserpine. This alkaloid derived from the traditional Hindu plant, chotachand, a small plant that grows in the foothills of the Himalayas, is wellknown in science as Rauvolfia serpentina. Reserpine was the first major drug of the 21st century designed to treat hypertension. It was introduced into medicine in the early 1950s after researchers stumbled upon the clinical work conducted in the 1930s by researchers in India. However, as the authors note, "Like many scientific reports published in developing countries, this discovery was ignored by Western scientists."

By introducing such an example, the authors help set the stage for a much larger level of understanding that, even today, the traditional and historical documentation of the use of plants as folk medicines in native cultures and much of the research that is ongoing in developing countries merits more serious attention from the scientific and medical communities.

The first chapter also deals with the "discovery" of the extensively used heart drug digitalis from the foxglove plant (Digitalis purpurea). This was introduced by medical doctor William Withering in the late 1700s after he learned of the efficacy of the plant from a traditional healer, an old woman living in the countryside. The authors note that more than 30 cardiac glycosides have been isolated from the leaves of the foxglove plant and the two leading drugs, digoxin and digitoxin, have not been commercially synthesized, thus requiring continual extraction and purification from the plant.

The book continues to pay homage to other drugs plants, including classic from quinine from Peruvian bark (Cinchona spp.), the anti-cancer drugs vinblastine and vincristine from the Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus), and even lists the queen of the meadow (Filipendula ulmaria syn Ulmeria spireae) the original source of salicylic acid, the chemical precursor of aspirin. Other examples are also cited.

Drawing on both authors' extensive experience, there are acknowledgments of traditional healers -- particularly in Belize, where Balick has spent considerable time, and in Samoa where Cox has focused much of his research efforts. Photographs of various native healers with whom the authors have worked provide considerable testimony to their debt of gratitude for invaluable native knowledge received from these people.

However, ethnobotany is not just about discovering new medicines from plants. The authors give adequate space to discussions of the development of native foods including utensils from plant materials. There is also a discussion of the relative health benefits of some native diets. Chapter 4, "Plants as the Basis for Material Culture," shows how plants serve as the basis for the use of building materials, fibers and textiles, dyes and other necessary components of traditional and modem life, including the use of plants in art and aesthetics.

An interesting chapter, "Entering the Other World," documents the use of numerous psychoactive substances and the potential medicinal values that can be derived from cultural uses of plants containing powerful substances -- many of which have been used for trials and ordeals in native societies. For example, the Calabar bean, sometimes called ordeal bean (Physostigma venenosum), was given to natives of the West African area as an "ordeal" to open channels to other worlds and provide a ritual initiation, but the ordeal often resulted in death. Calabar bean later became the source of the powerful opthalmological drug, physostigmine (for article on this subject, see Packer and Brandt, "Opthalmology's Botanical Heritage in HerbalGram # 35, p. 24).

The final chapter, "Biological Conservation and Ethnobotany," reflects both authors' concerns about maintaining future stores of biological and cultural diversity. Both authors have spent considerable amounts of their professional careers in this area. As they have published in previous papers, they present strong arguments about the economic benefits of maintaining biodiversity of plant and animal life in tropical rainforests, the resulting yields of edible and medicinal plants far outweighing any short-term profits that could be gained from destruction of these fragile and valuable ecosystems.

Balick and Cox have written one of the most valuable tools available to present the ethnobotanical imperative to a larger lay audience. This book is suitable not only for professionals as a valuable component of their library, but it is also an excellent opportunity for the general public to view through a vivid window the richness and biological necessity for understanding and maintaining ethnobotanical traditions. An excellent gift for anyone even remotely interested in the plant world, this book should be required reading for botany and biology students on the college and even the secondary school levels.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By Mark Blumenthal