300 Herbs: Their Indications & Contraindications, 2nd ed., by Matthew Alfs. New Brighton, MN: Old Theology Book House; 2020. ISBN: 978-0-9612964-8-3. Softcover, 216 pages. $25.00.
The number of books on the medicinal use of plants seemingly grows exponentially every year. Unfortunately, many offer little in the way of new, unique, or clinically useful information. In fact, most of the new books rehash the same basic information, the same “herban” myths, and generalized, often clinically irrelevant data. When Matthew Alfs first published his book 300 Herbs in 2003, it was obvious that this was not a run-of-the-mill herb book. It is a work of serious scholarship that is also highly useful for clinical herbalists, NDs, and other medical professionals who want to deeply understand the complexities and unique qualities of the plant medicines they use.
The second edition of this book has been modestly expanded and revised to make it more relevant to today’s world of herbs. At-risk species or herbs no longer in commerce have been deleted, while increasingly popular herbs from Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) systems have been added, making it even more useful than the original work.
The book first provides an overview of differential diagnosis/assessment and energetic concepts of Greek medicine, Unani-Tibb, TCM, Ayurveda, and Eclectic medicine. This is followed by an extensive materia medica of 300 herbs and a repertory section that arranges herbs by indications and health conditions. A materia medica (the materials of medicine) is a detailed exploration of the medicinal substances used in clinical practice. Unlike many current materia medica, Alfs’ book gives clear and precise information on each herb’s energetic qualities, indications for use according to various traditional medical systems, specific indications for each organ system, and a clear description of each herb’s actions.
For example, the entry for nutgrass (Cyperus rotundus, Cyperaceae) lists its indications for edema, premenstrual hyperhydration, and genitourinary conditions such as amenorrhea (absence of menstruation), dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation), and irregular menses caused by blood stasis. These entries also include information on typical dose and dose form. Finding this information in one concise book is rare, and it makes this an essential text for serious clinicians. Most of the rest of the book is a repertory.
The repertory not only lists herbs that affect various aspects of the musculoskeletal system, for example, but also differentiates those that are useful for different types of musculoskeletal pain. For example, black cohosh (Actaea racemosa, Ranunculaceae) is indicated for heavy, tensive, aching muscles, while boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum, Asteraceae) is for deep and aching pain, and wild yam (Dioscorea villosa, Dioscoreaceae) or nutgrass is used for smooth muscle pain. The clear differentiation according to symptom picture, energetics, or location enhances practitioners’ ability to make accurate and patient-specific choices in recommending the most appropriate herbs.
Repertories are common in homeopathic literature, but in the herbal literature they are few and far between. I can think of only a few examples: the rather difficult-to-use Prescriber and Clinical Repertory of Medicinal Herbs by F. Harper-Shove (Health Science Press, 1938), the late Michael Moore’s wonderful but slim booklet Herbal Repertory in Clinical Practice (Southwest School of Botanical Medicine, 1990), Matthew Wood’s excellent book The Earthwise Herbal Repertory (North Atlantic Books, 2016), and, of course, Matthew Alfs’ 300 Herbs. These last three titles by Moore, Wood, and Alfs form a cornerstone of Western herbal knowledge to help practitioners understand the unique qualities of each herb and their specific applications for truly effective treatment. This allows clinicians to think beyond “this herb is good for pain” and start to see how one herb may be a much better choice for the exact type of pain a patient is experiencing.
The only criticism I have for the second edition of this book is that according to the bibliography, only one new reference has been added since the original edition. This is appropriate for long-gone medical traditions such as the Eclectics or Physiomedicalists where no new material has been published in the past 100 years. However, it neglects more recent texts covering TCM, Ayurvedic, African, and European materia medica that have been published in the 17 years since the first edition. Many of these recent texts are more authoritative than those listed in the current bibliography.
David Winston, RH(AHG), is a clinical herbalist, ethnobotanist, and author who has been studying herbal medicine for more than 50 years and been in clinical practice for 45 years. He is a founding member of the American Herbalists Guild (AHG) and was awarded an honorary DSc degree by the National University of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon, in 2019.