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Recent Progress in Medicinal Plants, Vol. I: Ethnomedicine and Pharmacognosy.

Recent progress in medicinal plants, Vol. I: Ethnomedicine and Pharmacognosy

V.K. Singh, J.N. Govil, and G. Singh (Eds.); Sci Tech Publishing LLC, Houston, TX, 2002, 399p, price $80.00, ISBN 0-9656038-6-5

Two ancient herbal healing traditions are deeply rooted in Indian culture: the Ayurvedic holistic system of healing, which evolved among the Brahmin sages of ancient India some 3000-5000 years ago, and Unani Medicine, the foundations of the latter system are in ancient Greece and were preserved and expanded by the Islamic physicians Al-Razi (Rhazes) (850-925 AD) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-1037 AD) and specially developed during the 13th and 17th century.

A number of outstanding Indian scientists' contributions have added to this medical knowledge, bringing copious phytomedicinal research of the more than 500 species described in these Indian systems of medicine. Subtle differences in the application of these medicines and others in India are found in the ethnomedical knowledge of different regions. This knowledge has not been readily available for a broad audience in the West. Therefore, the series titled Recent Progress in Medicinal Plants is a good attempt to fill this gap producing an admirable 8-volume series that focuses on various aspects of medicinal plant knowledge on the Indian subcontinent, although including some notable contributions from guest scientists abroad.

The first volume of the series is dedicated to Ethnomedicine and Pharmacognosy. This volume edited by Dr. V.K. Singh, a survey officer (Botany) working for the Central Council for Research in Unani Medicine in New Delhi; Dr. J.N. Govil, principal scientist in the division of Genetics of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute and Dr. G. Singh, reader in Chemistry at the Gorakhpur University in Gorakhpur, all specialists in these fields, makes a remarkable attempt to organize and unify 33 original scientific contributions. A central focus is certainly on the Indian herbal tradition. The papers provide ethnomedical information including description of ethnic groups, vernacular and scientific names in alphabetic order, family names, plant part, form of preparation and microscopical analysis with an aim and unifying overall goal of "... fixing up their (Indian) pharmacopoeial standards". However, one cannot overlook other contributions coming from Himalayan countries, Pakistan and South Africa and even one from Argentina that have been included in the volume.

The first block of 23 ethnobotanical contributions is outstanding and provides a cultural mosaic of the cultural groups and an aspiration to systematize this herbal body of knowledge in a coherent way. I found, however, remarkable aspects of the mixing of local pharmacopoeias with other world traditional medicines even from remote areas in America, an example is the use of an American medicinal species: Argemone mexicana L. Papaveraceae (chicalote or cardo santo), with some notable exceptions, the local Indian traditional healers reproduce similar uses from communities in Mexico and Ecuador where I have conducted ethnobotanical research.

The articles compiled present nearly 500 species used in the Indian traditional medicine. For example, K.S. Rao, R.K. Maikhuri, S. Nautiyal and K.G. Saxena (Himalaya, India) report only the traditional uses of 173 species of plants that are used by the inhabitants of Tolchha, a sect of Bhotiyas (an Indomongoloid ethnic group) which live in the bufferzone villages of Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve in Garhwal Himalaya, India. Most of these papers are succinct and very well organized; the only disappointing part is the lack of mention where botanical specimens can be found and the unequivocal identification by reputable botanists. Also the authors frequently did not acknowledge informants and local traditional healers in the various areas where research was conducted.

The ethnobotanical block is followed by contributions 24-29 with articles exploring commercial and medicinal applications of specific plant species. For example, Streblus asper Lour. (Moraceae) a shrub used traditionally in the treatment of filariasis, that V.K. Singh and Shamima Hashmi (India) evaluated by means of a chemical analysis, in vitro tests and a documentary revision. The authors conclude this can become an inexpensive filaricide of natural origin more effective than diethylcarbamazine, a reference pharmaceutical.

The "pharmacognostic" block details ethnopharmacological annotations and careful and extensive microscopical observations one would rarely find in any modern pharmaceutical paper, except for the already historical textbooks of Pharmacognosy by Dr. Youngken and the later Dr. Varro Tyler and Dr. Lynn Brady. These remarkable contributions are supporting one of the least supported aspects of medicinal plant research, the unequivocal botanical characterization aimed at quality control of commercial samples. This is very critical issue, whose inattention leads to a lack of reproducibility in modern medicinal plant research, even when applying otherwise sophisticated cellular and molecular methodologies.

Chapters 30 and 31 deal with the cultivation of medicinal plants, which seems out of place in this volume. Chapter 32, dealing with Medical Potential and Research on Leguminosae by Dr. Cristina Perez, interesting on its own, appears totally inappropriate to this volume of the series dealing with Asia and Africa. Chapter 33 about Pollen Production would also find a better fit in volume 5.

Finally, I was particularly disappointed by the lack of chemical information contained in this volume especially with a mention of Pharmacognosy in the subtitle. Not a single molecular structural illustration appears in the text. Perhaps another subtitle would have been more appropriate such as Ethnobotany and Botanical Characterization.

Overall, in spite of the problems I have mentioned with the last eight articles in this book, the effort on this volume is commendable and accomplishes the mission of opening the series with an enjoyable appetizer to appeal to a broad audience of botanists and ethnopharmacologists interested in the Indian subcontinent. While it presents an incredible body of herbal knowledge, the price of $ 80.00 may be a deterrent to a potentially large audience that would be interested in this unique slice of Indian culture.

Ezra Bejar

Pharmessen Scientific 7975 Dunbrook Rd

Suite A, San Diego, CA 92126, USA

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Author:Bejar, Ezra
Publication:Phytomedicine: International Journal of Phytotherapy & Phytopharmacology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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