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Healing with Plants in the American and Mexican West.
by Marguerita Artschwager Kay. 1996. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press. Black and white illustrations. 315 pp. $19.95. ISBN # 0-8165-1646-4. ABC Book Store B229.

One of the erroneous myths that has been perpetrated on generations of American history students is that the history of Europeans in North America started with the landing of the English in Jamestown in 1607. However, as most of us are aware, and as revisionist historians have now rectified in high school history books, the true European history in North America started with the Spanish conquistadors and their exploits in the American Southwest in the 1540s. The Spanish established various settlements throughout West Texas and New Mexico during this time as they did coastal ports in Florida.

The Spanish brought with them not only their philosophy of medicine, but also numerous medicinal plants from Europe which they began to cultivate and which later escaped into the wild and were eventually adopted as medicines by local Native American populations. During the last 400 years, the ethnomedicinal and ethnobotanical development of the Southern U.S. and Northern Mexico has reflected the mix of Native American medicinal plants and the European introductions.

It is estimated that by the year 2000, Hispanic Americans will comprise roughly one-third of the U.S. population, with many of these people living in the Western United States. It is timely and appropriate that a new book has been published that weaves together numerous previous works on medicinal plant use by Hispanic Americans and Native Americans of this region. Previously, the works of Michael Moore (Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, 1979, and Medicinal Plants of the Canyon West, 1989) have been two of the leading publications dealing with the traditional uses of the plants of this geographical region. Now the work of Marguerita Kay, Professor Emerita of Anthropology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and herself a native of the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico, provides a comprehensive view of not only the local uses of many of these plants, but also some of the pharmacological phytochemical bases for their activity.

The book is in two parts. Part One includes a section on ethnohistory in which Dr. Kay presents background information on the ethnomedicine of Europe as brought over by the Spanish as well as the ethnomedical knowledge of Native Americans of this geographical region. In this section and all throughout the book, Dr. Kay cites authoritative references. In the second chapter, "Plants, Their Names, and Their Actions," the author shows the distinctions between common names as given in a native language or Spanish and the preferred Latin binomials, plus the problems often associated with reliance upon common nomenclature only -- especially as one plant may contain numerous colloquial names in the languages of various Indian tribes. To help dispel such confusion, the plants contained in the latter part of the book are listed in order of their Latin generic names. A useful feature of this book is a four-page table, "Medicinal Plant Genera in the American and Mexican West by Culture," in which the author lists 100 genera and their medicinal employment by 15 Southwest cultures, including Mexican Americans and Indians of various tribes. The author chooses to approach the utility of plants based on their phytochemical constituents and has drawn heavily from the NAPRAlert database at the University of Illinois in Chicago for information on the chemical constituents and possible actions of these medicinal plants. Chapter Three, "Illnesses Treated with Plants," discusses both external and internal conditions for which medicinal plants are used in this geographical region and how these plants are prepared. Chapter Four, "Healing the Illnesses of Women and Children," deals with plants that are employed by women for abortion and contraception, menstrual regulation, fertility enhancement, and for childbirth and postpartum conditions.

Part Two is a listing of 100 medicinal plants, starting with various species of Acacia and ending with the genus Zornia (referred to colloquially as "Snake Weed"). The family is listed under each plant along with common name and the species employed medicinally, as well as secondary English common names. Each one- to two-page monograph includes sections on historic use, modern use, and phytochemistry with the discussion of phytochemistry helping to document either historical or modern use. A useful feature of this section is the inclusion of a brief note in the wide margin that gives therapeutic information on each plant, containing three numerated sentences: 1) the common uses of the herb, 2) additional information regarding secondary activity or phytochemistry, and 3) information on safety and/or toxicity. This feature is particularly useful for an at-a-glance review of the essential information on each botanical.

Popular plants covered by this book include garlic, aloe, uva ursi, chile peppers, Mormon tea, juniper, chaparral, chamomile, mint, basil, prickly pear, plantain, rosemary, rue, willow, sage, elder, jojoba, damiana, and valerian. The book also contains 28 accurate line drawings of some of the plants described.

As indicated by Andrew Weil, M.D., in the foreword, "When human beings migrate, they take their plants with them -- not only familiar foods and beloved ornamentals but also the healing plants that preindustrial peoples relied on. America has experienced many migrations and is now home to a diversity of ideas and practices about healing. The medicinal plants of many different ethnic groups are available here, in fresh, dried, and extracted forms. Sorting out the cultural origins of these plants is a daunting task for scholars, let alone assessing their uses and possible value in contemporary medicine."

Dr. Kay has done an admirable job in providing researchers and the general public with a book that will not only substantiate the use of many traditional remedies of the Southwest and Northern Mexico, but will also offer a springboard to research on the potential value of incorporating some of these remedies into modern self-care and health care.

The book also contains numerous footnotes, a brief appendix on medicinal plant safety, a listing of pharmacologically active phytochemicals and their primary activity, extensive reference notes, and bibliographic citations. Overall, this book is written in a scholarly manner and is not an attempt to provide the public another popular "how to" book on herbal medicine. Instead, this publication represents many years of scholarly research on the part of the author in an area with which she is intimately acquainted. As such, this book constitutes a significant contribution to the literature on the ethnobotany of the Southwestern United States and Northern New Mexico. It will no doubt become a classic work and an often-cited reference in this increasingly important subject.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By Mark Blumenthal