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A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs


A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs, by Steven Foster and Christopher Hobbs. The Peterson Field Guide Series, sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation and the Roger Tory Peterson Institute. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston and New York. 2002. 442 pp., 530+ color photographs.

ISBN 0-395-83807-X hardcover $21.00

ISBN 0-395-83806-1 vinylbound $15.40

Two of the greatest herbal writers (and lecturers and bibliophilic scholars) in the United States have finally done it: the Peterson Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs. I had occasion to appreciate this resource during my recent trips to the John Christopher School in Utah, where I sometimes teach, as do my good friends Steven Foster and Chris Hobbs, the authors of this guide who are trained botanists and herbalists with more than 60 years of combined experience.

Treating close to 500 species, and with some 530 photographs that illustrate the plants, their flowers, leaves and fruit, the book is a real treasure and a great buy, almost a steal, for the price. There are more than 300 species in the Western guide not covered in the Eastern guide, A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Of Eastern and Central North America, which was authored by Foster and myself. This latest book is historically accurate, based largely based on ethnobotanical and scientific literature. Organized by flower color for fast identification, the guide also includes an index to medical topics to quickly locate information on specific ailments. Symbols next to the plant descriptions provide quick visual warnings for poisonous and allergenic plants.

The descriptions also include botanical descriptions, ethnobotanical and cross-cultural usage information, and distributional and habitat commentary. The publishers claim this guide offers the best and most comprehensive information available in the world about the safe currently popular and traditional uses of medicinal plants of western North America. The authors have done well in selecting the more important uses; however, a pocket field guide should not be expected to include every hint of folk activity and indications for every herb, as we compilers come to learn too soon.

What's new? I have a unique way to check new books as they cross my desk: What did the authors catch that I missed during the preparation of my own herbal desk reference? Let's take a look at chicory, which weighs heavily on my mind this week. I found a pure white-flowered specimen, somewhat larger than the average blue-flowered variety in my abandoned pasture. I have it staked out, to see if its seeds come true. I'll transplant it to my floral clock, digging those massive inuliniferous roots with care. This beautiful plant, one of the alleged bitter herbs of the Bible, is a fairly good clock flower, opening around 7 a.m., closing around 11 or 12, depending on humidity, etc. You can tell when your bus is running late by the percentage of chicory flowers that have already opened. It is said to be the best source of inulin, a major prebiotic, and is the namesake of chicoric acid (also known as cichoric acid), which had its hour in the sun when it was touted as a new approach to anti-AIDS activity.

In my comparison, I find 10 activities and one indication for chicory in this guide that are new additions to my research. Our authors did find room for the interesting quip about a relatively well-known use: "Roasted chicory root is commonly added to coffee substitutes because of its rich, slightly bitter flavor; also used to flavor French roast coffee." It has been my experience that several inulin-rich roots of the aster family, Asteraceae, have folklorically been scorched as coffee substitutes (e.g., chicory, dahlia, dandelion).

We can't expect a great pocket sized field guide like this to go into the details of prebiotics and anti-integrase compounds in the Biblical chicory. To keep it concise, the authors must select the most pertinent and terse entries of interest to field botanists and herbalists. They have done well.

What a great book, if the price is $22.00 and there are 600 species hinted at and 600 photos, that's less than 4 cents per photograph, with all that concise information for free. What a bargain. And what a nice gift for your herbally inclined Western friends. But much of the information is also pertinent back East too. Get both for your travelling herbalists.

James A. Duke, Ph.D.
Fulton, Maryland