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Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Plants of the Bible

Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Plants of the Bible by James A. Duke. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2008. Hardcover; 528 pages. ISBN: 0-8493-8202-5. $89.95. Available in ABC's online store.

Herb enthusiasts, ethnobotanists, and others frequently exhort the long history of traditional use for many herbs. One of the most authoritative books (or two, depending on one’s religious persuasion) documenting the historical use of herbs and medicinal plants is The Bible. The so-called Old Testament (Jews seldom refer to it as such) and the New Testament are replete with mentions of many common and uncommon herbs.

The process of compiling lists of biblical herbs and medicinal plants is not new. In fact, Duke has previously published several books on biblical herbs, including his 233-page Medicinal Plants of the Bible (Trado-Medic Books) in 1983, illustrated by his wife Peggy, and Herbs of the Bible: 2000 Years of Plant Medicine (Interweave Press) in 1999. The Herb Society of America lists over 20 books on herbs, fruits, and other plants of The Bible, including several of my favorites: Harold and Alma Moldenke’s now-classic treatment of the 230 herbs mentioned in the Scriptures (The Ronald Press, 1952) and Israeli botanist Michael Zohary’s reliable Plants of the Bible (Cambridge University Press, 1983).

This book is mainly Duke’s “Catalog of Faith-Based Farmaceuticals”—a term that he has coined in the same fashion within many of his previous wordplays (e.g., “Father Nature’s Farmacy,” the name for his USDA website-based database). Herbs and medicinal plants noted in this book include many of the “usual suspects” known to many readers of The Bible. For instance, aloe (Aloe spp., Liliaceae) and myrrh (Commiphora myrrha, Burseraceae) are noted in The Bible as herbs that were wrapped around the body of Jesus in linen clothes after his death. Myrrh is also noted as one of the treasures presented to Jesus at his birth, as is frankincense (Boswellia sacra, Burseraceae). Frankincense also appears in Exodus as one of the herbs the Lord commanded Moses to take.

Several medicinal herbs, meanwhile, are mentioned in the Song of Solomon. According to a translation of the King James version of The Bible: “Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphire, with spikenard, and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes. With the chief spices.”

For each herb profiled in the book, Duke provides information in a standard format: a quote from scripture with the plant’s name, botanical synonyms, introductory notes, common names, pharmacological activities, indications (uses), dosages, natural history, and extracts (i.e., what modern literature shows as constituents in the plant’s extracts).

In his encyclopedic style, Duke also provides common names for the plants from a global perspective. For horseradish (Armoracia rusticana, Brassicaceae), for instance, he provides a list of over 50 from all over the world. Horseradish is mentioned as the most important herb for the Jewish Passover meal. Duke also explains that many people consider it the “bitter herb” mentioned in the King James version of The Bible.

Much of the information in this book has been gleaned from Duke’s Father Nature’s Farmacy database ( duke/), an ongoing project he has worked on for many years. Anyone familiar with this database, located on the US Department of Agriculture website and freely accessible to anyone, knows that Duke has collected an enormous amount of data and has inserted it into a database that has grown in depth and breadth over the years.

The book is generously illustrated with Peggy Duke’s botanically accurate 4-color paintings and black-and-white line drawings. (Peggy has a degree in botany and has studied art for many years.) Duke says half-jokingly of the almost 95 color illustrations, if a picture is worth a thousand words, Mrs. Duke, 2 years his junior, should be senior author of this book.

—Mark Blumenthal