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Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Plants of Latin America

Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Plants of Latin America by James A. Duke, with MJ Bogenschutz-Godwin and AR Ottesen. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group; 2009. Hardcover; 901 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4200-4316-7. $119.95.

Are you among the many who dream of taking the trip of a lifetime to explore medicinal plants of the Amazon or Peruvian Andes? Image your time has finally come and you take the plunge, committing time and money. The absolute best reference for your trip on medicinal plants of the region is to have ethnobotanist and herb guru Jim Duke at your side. However, as the venerable Dr. Duke rapidly approaches completing his eighth decade (forgive the reminder, Jim), opportunities to travel to Amazonia with Jim Duke grow fewer and farther between. Without Jim Duke traveling on the same trip, you begin the process of researching the venues and exploring information resources on medicinal plants of the Amazon basin. Much to your surprise, you discover there are very, very few books on the topic.

Among the most useful books you might find include Duke and Vasquez’s Amazonian Ethnobotanical Dictionary (CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, 1994; alas, out-of-print), and Castner, Timme and Duke’s A Field Guide to Medicinal and Useful Plants of the Upper Amazon (Feline Press, Gainesville, FL, 1998). Another obscure and useful work is Bussmann and Sharon’s Plants of the Four Winds: The Magic and Medicinal Flora of Peru (Editorial GRAFICART srl, Trujillo, Peru, 2007). And, of course, nearly any book authored by or about the late, great Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes should be on your reading list. But aside from these and more obscure publications, there has been no comprehensive English-language work on medicinal plants of Latin America—until now. The first 2009 published title in my library arrived in mid-November 2008. Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Plants of Latin America covers nearly 500 species of important medicinal plants found in the region.

Entries are arranged alphabetically by scientific name, though the species entry headings themselves begin with the English common name followed by the scientific name in parenthesis. The species accounts contain the obligatory botanical names, family name, and synonyms, and a comprehensive list of common names in various languages, with the geographical or ethnic group-origin of the name cited, along with references. Many plant entries begin with a “notes” heading following the botanical synonyms, and it is here that you will find the voice of Jim Duke commenting on the plant as if he were at your side on your hypothetical trip to Amazonia. If one simply thumbs through the pages and reads the “notes,” you will come away with a much better understanding of the identity, potential use, conservation status, natural history, and potential of many of the plants in the book.

Next comes “activities” expressed as a list of single word pharmacological activities, with abbreviations of referred plant part and reference(s). This section is simply a list of activity, as is the following section “indications,” which lists disease or health conditions, each followed by referred plant part and reference. A very useful section on dosages follows, which like “notes” provides the real on-the-ground details that explain, often precisely, how the herb is administered for particular uses. If appropriate to the entry, a section on “downsides” is included. Here again, one hears the voice of Duke expressing caveats, or citing the FDA Poisonous Plant Database as of July 2007. Finally, many species accounts include a section called “extracts,” which includes notations on chemistry, or biological activity related to a specific, defined, scientifically researched concentration.

Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Plants of Latin America is certainly a welcome addition to the sparse English-language literature on Latin American herbs. The book features a list of figures, which may lead the casual observer to assume that there are 487 illustrations in the book. Actually, there are about 100 illustrations, usually a black-and-white photographic thumbnail with the background knocked out. The vast majority of plants in the “figures” list are not actually “figured.” Rather, this refers to the heading “illustrations,” in which a page number to a cited reference in which an illustration can be found is listed. Forty-three species are depicted in an eight-plate color photograph section in the middle of the book.

The front matter includes several important items not to be overlooked. A list of bibliographic abbreviations (of books and journals frequently consulted) is included. “Chemical and medical abbreviations” follows, many of which are self explanatory such as “FDA” for Food and Drug Administration and “BO” for body odor. Other abbreviations, however, are rather esoteric, such as “chd” for “child” and “pgn” for page number(?), no, pigeon. You had better book-mark this page until you have an understanding of the shorthand used throughout. A similar list of geographic abbreviations is also included.

If you’re one of those readers tempted to skip a book’s introduction, think again, and make sure you include this chapter as essential reading in not only this book, but any Jim Duke title. The “Senior Author’s Introduction” is Duke at his best: humanizing the subject, peeling away scientific jargon to reveal the philosophical fruits borne of decades of experience. A brief chapter, “Format of this Book” is also essential reading as without it, you simply won’t understand useful information embedded in symbolic expression in each entry.

Finally, the book includes indexes of “scientific names” and “common names.” Attempting to index indications or activities would have created an unwieldy mess. The indexes are preceded by an alphabetical list (by author) of references cited in the book. One of the most useful aspects of the book is that, except for Jim Duke’s own personal comments, each bit of data and each snippet of information is referenced. The cited references, unless specific to a PubMed call number, are mostly expressed as a three-capital-letter code citing a specific work, or in some cases a specific author. For example JFM refers to two works of Julie F Morton—her 1977 work Major Medicinal Plants (Charles C. Thomas, Springield, IL) or her 1981 Atlas of Medicinal Plants of Middle America (Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, IL), but the two are not distinguished in the referencing.

It’s actually good that there’s no index of indications, because if there were, I would be looking up “insanity” to treat my symptoms induced by attempting to decipher this referencing system, which might have worked well when a computer programmer developed a punch card database in the early 1970s, but is not user friendly to the modern eye. Since one might find 200 or more of the three-letter code references on any given page, it makes the running lists of common names, activities, and indications a bit of a challenge for the eyes. One of the publisher’s teasers on the back of the book refers to the presentation as “a proven format evolved from the bestselling Handbook of Medicinal Herbs.” I would argue that the “proven format” from the publisher’s point of view must be simply putting the name “James A. Duke” on the cover of the book. It’s quite obvious that the publisher simply accepts the raw data as supplied by the author and like many CRC titles on medicinal plants, in many respects the present title reads like a printout of a computer database. The “format” seems intended to save the publisher editing and design costs. These savings are passed on to you as higher profits for the publisher, though at a release price of a mere $120.00, this is clearly a CRC bargain basement offering. The design (or lack thereof) leaves the reader to slog through endless lists of single words strung together with semi-colons. In fact, the publisher might consider submitting the book to the Guinness Book of World Records for the greatest number of semi-colons packed into a 900-page book. Tabular data is essentially presented as a running linear list. It’s just hard to read, that’s all. I extend my sympathies to the line editor.

These are not gripes about content; these are gripes about style of presentation. The book is a gold mine of information. The Spanish Conquistadors could only dream of such riches. To get to the gold, however, one must strain the eyes and learn a new language of abbreviations, the ore from which the book’s riches must be extracted. For those looking for detailed information on Latin American medicinal plants, the effort is worth it. Enough said, I’m headed back to the mine.

—Steven Foster President of Steven Foster Group, Inc. Eureka Springs, AR