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American Herbal Pharmacopoeia Botanical Pharmacognosy: Microscopic Characterization of Botanical Medicines


American Herbal Pharmacopoeia Botanical Pharmacognosy: Microscopic Characterization of Botanical Medicines by Roy Upton, Alison Graff, Georgina Jolliffe, Reinhard Länger, and Elizabeth Williamson (eds). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2011. Hardcover; 773 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4200-7326-3. $169.95. [Available from AHP,]

There is a growing need for reliable resources to help ensure proper identity and overall quality of botanical raw materials used in the expanding herbal products market. Analytical methods for crude botanical material can be classified into at least 4 methods: (1) organoleptic (based on morphology, color, taste, and/or fragrance) of the whole plant or plant part; (2) microscopy, where powdered plant materials are examined with the aid of a microscope; (3) chemical tests, which include gas chromatography, thinlayer chromatography, high-performance liquid chromatography, mass spectroscopy, and a whole array of other chemical methods; and (4) genetic testing using DNA methods.

Chemical tests are currently the preferred method of analysis, although DNA testing is  used increasingly as it emerges as a technology. Organoleptic methods require the presence of fresh or dried whole plant material or a vouchered herbarium sample. Unfortunately, these days, most companies making herbal products never see the whole fresh plant or whole plant part, relying on dried herbal powders and, increasingly, dried herbal extracts to be used as ingredients in capsules and/or tablets.

There is no question that the dietary supplement industry is huge—and constantly growing—with a vast array of products on the market, both in the United States and worldwide. The regulations that apply to these products require manufacturers to be absolutely sure that the identity of the botanicals they use as starting ingredients is completely accurate—a task that has become more difficult in the last few decades as classical botany has been overshadowed by the chase for active chemicals in medicinal plants. The publication of Microscopic Characterization of Botanical Medicines is very timely, indeed, as a resource for those involved in plant identity and quality control. But the book is not limited to just these uses. With the many foundation-building chapters on successfully performing botanical microscopy, this book lives up to its introductory description: a text “designed to reintroduce botanical microscopy to the industry as a low-cost quality assessment tool for the physical examination of botanicals, [which] highlight[s] the value of botanical microscopy as an important physical assessment tool for botanicals.”

In the Foreword, world-renowned pharmacognosy Professor Norman R. Farnsworth of the University of Illinois at Chicago writes that this book “will soon become the major authority on the microscopic identification of crude botanical ingredients.”

This work took nearly a decade to complete; the care and detail is evident in the words and images. The authors went to great lengths to ensure the accuracy of the information and to use the clearest images representative of both the authenticated plant species and what are currently being used as ingredients in dietary supplement products on the market.

For people with samples in hand and a working knowledge of microscopy who want to get right to the comparison of those samples with the micrographs in the book, one can go directly to Section 2, “Botanical Microscopy Atlas.” There, one will find 512 pages containing exquisite color micrographs and clear drawings of characteristic plant structures for 136 species. The range is from top-selling supplement ingredients such as Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng, Araliaceae) and Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea, Asteraceae), to those botanicals attributed more to Traditional Chinese Medicine such as akebia (Akebia trifoliata, Lardizabalaceae). Each entry lists the Latin binomial name with author, the common name according to the American Herbal Products Association’s Herbs of Commerce 2d. ed. (2000), and the part of the plant that is detailed. When appropriate, Pinyin and Ayurvedic names are included. The plants are ordered by their Latin generic names, from yarrow (Achillea millefolium, Asteraceae) to ginger (Zingiber officinale, Zingiberaceae). The helpful introductory paragraphs for each plant include a brief description of how the plant is used, the main identifying characteristics, and whether there is another plant that is used as an adulterant. The subsequent paragraphs clearly describe the micro-characteristics of various tissues with labeled micrographs and drawings explained in discrete figure legends.

However, one would be remiss to focus solely on Section 2 because Section 1 contains 10 chapters dedicated to what amounts to mini courses in classical botanical pharmacognosy, nomenclature, plant biology, and botanical microscopy. As a text, the entire book provides the reader with a working understanding of the field of pharmacognosy woven together with the critical use of microscopy in the study of plants. Chapter 3, “To Be or Not To Be? A Focus on Botanical Adulteration” is most timely, given increased concern among herb industry leaders, and others, that some herbal raw materials may be intentionally adulterated with lower-cost ingredients. Further, Chapter 5 describes how to set up a microscopy lab while Chapter 10 discusses the preparation of plant samples for microscopic analysis.

Overall, Microscopic Characterization of Botanical Medicines is a complete “self-starter kit.” Obviously, there are many other great resources available for those in need of more in-depth knowledge for the many topics covered in this book.  But, if you want to learn about preparing botanical samples and viewing them under a microscope, gain understanding of the history of pharmacognosy and botanical microscopy, understand how the 2 fields have grown together and why all of this matters today, then this is the book for you.

—Steven J. Casper, PhD
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
US Food and Drug Administration
College Park, MD