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Medicinal Plants of the World by Ben-Erik Van Wyk and Michael Wink.
Medicinal Plants of the World by Ben-Erik Van Wyk and Michael Wink.

Medicinal Plants of the World by Ben-Erik Van Wyk and Michael Wink. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2004. 480 pp., Illustrated. ISBN 0-88192-602-7. $39.95. ABC catalog #B525

The role of medicinal plants in various ethnic cultures of the world is still as prevalent and important today as it was thousands of years ago. In recent years, the use of herbs for their potential healing capabilities has come under scrutiny in the western world. Unfortunately, some of the publications currently available to the western public may be either out-of-date or contain erroneous or poorly substantiated information regarding the curative properties of plants.

On the other hand, Medicinal Plants of the World , written by two respected plant scientists, Ben-Eric Van Wyk of South Africa and Michael Wink of Germany, stands out as perhaps one of the most complete and reliable quick-reference handbooks on medicinal plants available today.

This book is a user-friendly guide to more than 320 of the best-known medicinal plants of the world. Species are arranged alphabetically by their scientific name. The plants covered in this volume are accompanied by beautiful color photographs, which are invaluable in helping to identify each herb. This feature is not always present in other publications of this type. Entries include the main herbal species used, the principal parts of the herbs employed in herbal remedies, and warnings on the potential harmful effects of particular species.

No exaggerated remarks are made on the healing properties of any species, just the purported effects according to traditional usage and modern clinical trials (when available). The data presented for some of the more commonly used plants in European phytotherapy, such as echinacea, ginkgo, and St. John’s wort, for example, are based on recommendations made by well-known organizations, such as the German government’s Commission E,  the European Scientific Cooperative on Phytotherapy (ESCOP), and the World Health Organization. Many of the plants covered in this book have a long history of empirical use in traditional medicine, including chamomile, rooibos tea, and damiana. It is important to note, however, that the evidence backing the use of many of these plants is mostly anecdotal, since clinical trials are either few or entirely lacking for many species of medicinal plants used by traditional healers. In each instance, the authors mention their application in traditional medicine and the herbs’ purported effects, but without endorsing their use. The authors clearly state they have not prepared a “self-treatment” manual, and persuade the reader to promptly seek professional medical guidance instead of self diagnosis.

This excellent work also contains several short chapters that succinctly, yet comprehensively, cover important aspects related to herbal medicine. Chapter titles are as follows: Medicine systems of the world, Plant parts used, Dosage forms, Use of medicinal plant products, Active ingredients, Quality control and safety, Efficacy of medicinal plant products, and Regulation of herbal remedies and phytomedicines.

The chapter about medicine systems of the world refers to the diverse systems of herbal healing present in various cultures throughout the globe today; these systems are covered in a brief and understandable manner. This treatise defines the rational use of plants, or phytotherapy, as a scientific approach to the study of medicinal herbs, which is common in Europe. The differences between homeopathy and phytotherapy are carefully explained. These two distinct approaches to healing are erroneously interpreted by some to be alike.

The sections that make up the back matter are yet another highlight of this book. The section entitled “Health Disorders and Medicinal Plants” mentions some of the common ailments and the principal plants used to treat them. The “Overview of secondary metabolites and their effects” contains diagrams representing the most important chemical structures of various natural compounds. A “Quick guide to commercialized medicinal plants” is provided in table format. The “Glossary of Chemical, Medical, and Pharmaceutical Terms” will undoubtedly be of great use to those not familiar with some of the technical terminology.

Professors Van Wyk and Wink have achieved what many until now thought to be quite improbable: compile basic information about hundreds of useful plants from various areas of the globe, along with their principal chemical constituents, mode of action, effects, and potential hazards, into a single volume. This book will be of great value as a desk reference on medicinal plants for students and professionals from all biomedical professions, as well as for anyone seriously interested in the therapeutic potential possessed by many species of the plant world.

—Armando González-Stuart, Ph.D. Herbal Research Coordinator Cooperative Pharmacy Program University of Texas at El Paso