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Medicinal and Aromatic Plants of Indian Ocean Islands
Medicinal and Aromatic Plants of Indian Ocean Islands

Medicinal and Aromatic Plants of Indian Ocean Islands by Ameenah Gurib-Fakim and Thomas Brendler. Stuttgart, Germany: Medpharm Scientific Publishers, 2004. 567 pp. 192 color photos. $169.00 ISBN: 3-88763-094-7. ABC catalog #B530

It’s somewhat unusual to begin the review of a botanical book with a fish story, but here goes. When I was a young boy, I recall the news that a strange fish had been caught somewhere in the Indian Ocean. The fish, known as a coelacanth, was a “living fossil” and was related to fossil specimens that were found in rocks as old as from the Permian period (225 million years ago) to the Jurassic (136 million years). The coelacanth (Latimeria calumnae) had stubby lower fins and was believed to be the first vertebrate to begin the evolutionary process from the sea to amphibious and reptilian land animals. Since that time, more coelacanths have been discovered in the area, particularly the Island of Comoros, where they are eaten by the local islanders.

The Indian Ocean and its islands have since held a fascination for me as a place of primordial beginnings. Madagascar and the smaller islands to the east contain a huge amount of endemic plants, many of which are at risk for a variety of reasons, some of which are discussed in the article by the book’s primary author on page 34 of this issue.

This book focuses on 350 medicinal and aromatic plants (the acronym MAPs is becoming more widely used and will be adopted here) of Madagascar, the Comoros Islands, the Seychelles, and the Mascarenes (Mauritius, Réunion, and Rodrigues).

The principal author has extensive knowledge of the plants of this area. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, PhD, is a professor at the University of Mauritius with a chair in organic chemistry. She has devoted her research and publishing activity to the fields of pharmacognosy, traditional medicine, and the activity of medicinal plants and essential oils, particularly from her region. Thomas Brendler is a consultant, editor, author and translator in the field of medicinal plants whose most notable work is his co-authorship of the Physician’s Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines in 2000.

The book covers about 350 plants and contains 192 color photos, plus 588 black and white plant illustrations, chemical structures, maps, etc. One of the primary values of this book is that it contains information on MAPs that, for the most part, are not popular in Western herbal medicine. However, it does contain some monographs on a few plants that are well-known in the West, most notably aloe (Aloe spp.) and gotu kola (Centella asiatica). While there are plants in numerous familiar genera, most of the species are understandably different from those used in the West.

Each monograph is about one page in length and has the following outline: General Information, Family, Synonyms, Vernacular names, Etymology, Botanical Description, Distribution and Ecology, Conservation Status, Drug Specification (i.e., plant part used), Chemistry, Pharmacology, and Use in Traditional Medicine. The Pharmacology and Use in Traditional Medicine sections are relatively short, each being about one or two paragraphs. It is not clear whether this represents inadequate research on the part of the authors, or perhaps more likely, the paucity of data that currently exists on many of these plants.

The addition of conservation status (threatened, rare, not threatened, etc.) is a welcome and most timely addition, and should become a precedent for all subsequent monographs on MAPs, both official and nonofficial. As an amateur etymologist, I find the Etymology section particularly appealing, as it provides an insight into the history of the plant in botanical taxonomy (“Linnaeus named the plant [Garcinia mangostana, aka mangosteen] after the English traveler Lawrence Garcin (1683-1752) in honor of his plant-gathering work in India. The species name ‘mangostana’ is derived from the Indomalayan vernacular name of the species ‘mangustan’….” Most of the monographs show a black-and-white line drawing of the plant and the chemical structure of a key constituent.

The book is extensively referenced with 17 pages of references (800+ citations). A nine-page Indications Index contains all references to indications mentioned in each monograph, conveniently classified under 17 general physiological areas (conditions of heart, of locomotor system, of metabolic system, nervous system, respiratory tract, etc.). A Names Index and a Plant Families Index provide the ability to search and navigate through the book by local vernacular name (usually in French), Latin binomial and synonym, or family, which is particularly necessary since the monographs are not listed by name in the Table of Contents (the entire section says “Plant Monographs” with no further breakdown). One section contains 32 pages of 192 color photos (six per page) of many of the plants.

In addition to the many botanical bibliophiles who will snatch up a copy of this book for the sake of adding another fine edition to their library, this book should be considered by those who are in the plant conservation fields, product development business for novel herbal ingredients, as well as the usual libraries, research centers, and other places where high quality botanical literature is appreciated.

—Mark Blumenthal