University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Perennial Publications : Book of the Month

Medicinal Plants of the World
Ben-Erik van Wyk and Michael Wink.  2004. Timber Press.  480pp, hardcover.

Interest is increasing by researchers and users in using plants medicinally, both for traditional uses and as potential new sources of drugs and treatments.  This textbook for researchers, doctors, students, and serious practitioners of herbal medicines describes more than 320 more commonly used plants in detail, of all climates from tropical to desert, all plant types from trees to cacti, and from the common to the very unusual genera. These descriptions are accompanied by very clear photos of plants and parts used.  A quick guide and table covers many more plants, over 900 total.  Although written more user-friendly than a pharmacology text, the academic writing style includes many chemical and medicinal terms (well-defined in the glossary).  These reflect the backgrounds of the authors respectively in botany (South Africa) and pharmaceutical biology (Germany) at universities. Casual users of such herbal medicines should use caution with this text, as potential toxicities and side effects may not be mentioned.

As an example of the potential problems for unknowing readers, the poisonous properties of mistletoe (berries) and climbing nightshade (particularly unripe berries) are not mentioned.  As examples of the writing style, under mistletoe pharmacological effects, the authors state, "The value of oral use (hypotensive effects) have yet to be convincingly demonstrated."  For the common perennial periwinkle, "Extracts showed hypotensive, spasmolytic, hypoglycaemic, immune-stimulant, cytotoxic, and analgesic properties."  For the common viola, "The triterpenes, flavonoids and methylsalicylates exhibit anti-inflammatory and secretolytic effects."

The most interesting part of this reference for me are the uses for common plants one never hears about or may be aware of.  For instance the viola just mentioned has dried aboveground parts used for skin conditions.  Grape seeds are used as a commercial source of antioxidants to help the body resist diseases.  Raw corn pollen has been used to stimulate appetite, a corn pollen extract used for urological disorders, and the corn silks used as a diuretic.  Even the invasive kudzu weed of the south has been cultivated in China and used since ancient times for many maladies from colds and flu to angina chest pain.  Current interest has been in their traditional use of kudzu root for alcohol abuse however, a clinical trial failed to show any benefits.

Each page covering one of the 320 specific plants has a description, origin, parts used, therapeutic category, uses and properties, preparation and dosage, active ingredients pharmacological effects, notes, and status.  Common names are also given for the plants in other languages such as French, German, Italian, and sometimes others such as Chinese.  As mentioned, there is a very complete glossary for all the scientific terms, even a chapter showing chemical structures of compounds.  The index as well is quite complete.  The extensive table at the end, of the 900 plants, using some abbreviations listed at the beginning, has 6 columns with names (scientific and common), origin, plant parts used, active principles, medicinal system (basically continents practiced), and main uses.  The beginning of the book has short overviews of these topics.

Where am I?  Perry's Perennial Pages | Publications | Book of the Month