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Western Herbs According to Traditional Chinese Medicine: A Practitioner’s Guide

Western Herbs According to Traditional Chinese Medicine: A Practitioner’s Guide by Thomas Avery Garran. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press; 2008. Hardcover; 257 pages. ISBN-13: 97859477-191-0. $50.00.

The author of this book, Thomas Garran, comes by his credentials via mentorship with senior herbalists Michael Tierra and Christopher Hobbs. As an acupuncturist with a master’s degree in Oriental Medicine from Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, he has served as chair of the Department of Herbal Medicine at the Institute of Clinical Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine in Honolulu, Hawaii. Garran’s roots are in Western herbal medicine, which values the use of herbs grown locally and regionally. He has endeavored to categorize Western herbs according to traditional Chinese medical criteria, and admirably so.

Upon examining the table of contents of Western Herbs According to Traditional Chinese Medicine: A Practitioner’s Guide, I discover a well-organized setup, allowing immediate use in a clinical setting. There are discussions about various herbal delivery methods, including infusions, extracts, and decoctions, as well as poultices, suffused oils, suppositories, and special preparations.

Looking further, I discover that the materia medica section has 14 Chinese herbal categories based on the professional language of Chinese medicine, including herbs that have the following actions: resolve the exterior, clear heat, precipitate, drain dampness, dispel wind and dampness, transform phlegm and stop cough, aromatically transform damp, rectify qi, regulate blood, warm the interior and expel cold, supplement, stabilize and bind, calm the spirit and extinguish wind.

The herbal categories relate directly to treatment principles that lead to formulas. In the practice of Chinese medicine, the clinical data is aggregated into patterns from which treatment strategies are derived. These treatment strategies are categorically related to the materia medica sections that form the building blocks of an herbal formula.

Garran identifies primary sources for his work in the traditions of great herbalists of the early 20th century, including the Eclectics and Physiomedicalists such as Lloyd, Felter, King, and Cook. He pulls further information from contemporary greats of Western herbalism, such as Simon Mills and the late Michael Moore.

The method Garran uses to develop the body of knowledge is both pragmatic and time honored: he triangulates personal experience, literature, and oral teachings. This method can be considered a form of action research that employs cycles of phenomenological observations and the clinic hermeneutic analysis of the literature. Included in this loop of knowledge building is a participatory world view where the dialogues among teachers, students, and peers are used to further establish the credibility, dependability, and transferability of the knowledge about Western herbs and Chinese medical thinking presented in the book.

Fifty-eight herbal monographs and 40 briefs form the backbone of the book; they are constructed in a fashion similar to traditional Chinese materia medicas. From top down, each monograph contains the common, Latin binomial, plant family, Latin pharmacopeial, and other names that can be commonly found in China or the West. After the naming conventions, the flavor and qi—which are essential to the Chinese methods of organizing therapeutics—as well as the entering channels, are described, which often relate to the organ tropism but can also refer to tissue layers or anatomical zones. The actions are described using Western botanical language. After these brief forms of information about the plant material are addressed, the functions and indications are discussed. Where appropriate, cautions are also discussed. Dosages and preparations are addressed along with major combinations. In the commentary, Garran relates his clinical experience and, where pertinent, he discusses the translation of source material for those plants with analogues in China.

The appendices are useful and include Western analogues of Chinese herbs, an index of herbs by common name, an index of herbs by Latin name, and a glossary of Chinese medicine terms. I would have liked to have seen a glossary of Western herbal terms included, since practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine may not be familiar with technical terms of Western herbal practice such as demulcent, vulnerary, alterative, aperient, etc.

Garran photographed the images in the book with the exception of the damiana (Turnera diffusa, Turneraceae) image. His images have a bright presence that is clear, with excellent color and relief. The images make the book a pleasure to explore, bringing a touch of beauty to the pages. The qualitative methods of building knowledge used by Garran are employed well in terms of constructing a clinically useful collection of monographs.

This book is a result of the best efforts of a mid-career professional herbalist. Garran approaches his craft with mindfulness and heart, and it shows. While the book has usefulness for the Chinese medical practitioner who is interested in Western herbs, the Western herbalist who is interested in Chinese theory as a method of clinical thinking will also find this book useful. As the world becomes more globalized, creolized, and cosmopolitan, so does the cultural application of the herbal agents of healing. This book is a strong step in that direction.

—Will Morris, PhD, DAOM, The Academy of Oriental Medicine, Austin, TX