Cover image for The natural history of medicinal plants
The natural history of medicinal plants
Sumner, Judith.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Portland, Or. : Timber Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
235 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QK99.A1 S86 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Wild and cultivated plants have provided humans with cures for thousands of years. Aspirin, for example, the most widely used drug in the Western pharmacopoeia, was first isolated from willows to treat fever, pain, and inflammation. Writing for the lay reader, the author surveys the history of the use of plants in medicine, the range of chemicals produced by plants, and the prospects for future discoveries.

Author Notes

Dr. Judith Sumner teaches botany, medicinal botany, and ethnobotany at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

The hidden chemistry of flora is revealed in this accessible introduction to the world of medicinal plants. Harvard botanist Sumner begins with an in-depth look at the folklore of herbalists in Europe preserved since the middle ages, and then discusses the discoveries of plant compounds such as alkaloids, which have been used for everything from easing people's pain (morphine) to driving them mad (ergotamine). Why plants produce these myriad compounds is still somewhat of a mystery, but Sumner explores such possibilities as defense strategies and chemical evolution. Some of her most interesting revelations are about the relationships that animals have with plants: their pharmacopoeia is much more advanced than we give them credit for. Sumner also provides a fair amount of information on what are now considered the most effective herbs for self-medication, and reminds readers that preserving biodiversity for the potential discoveries of yet more medicinal plants is a noble cause, even if it has a commercial bent to it, because plants literally contain the germ of continued life on this planet. --David Siegfried

Choice Review

In this well-written book that traces all phases of the utilization of plants for medicinal purposes, Sumner starts with a review of the written information on herbals from the earliest to the modern, and then continues with the unwritten information obtained from medicine men in numerous native cultures around the world. One chapter speculates on how plants that produce poisonous or ill-tasting chemicals are avoided by predators and thereby are able to reproduce and spread. Several individual plants are discussed in detail including the opium poppy, curare poison, willows (the origin of aspirin), and coca (the source of cocaine). Another chapter deals with "zoopharmacognosy," which is the utilization of plants for medicinal purposes by wild animals. A discussion of the multitude of plants that may have medicinal potential but have not been tested brings forth a caution that civilization is causing the extinction of many species before studies can be made. At the same time, attention is directed to the numerous known medicinal plants that are near extinction because of overutilization. A book for general readers. C. T. Mason Jr.; emeritus, University of Arizona

Table of Contents

Mark Plotkin
Forewordp. 9
Prefacep. 11
Acknowledgmentsp. 13
Chapter 1. A Brief History of Medicinal Botanyp. 15
Plant Medicines in Prehistoryp. 16
Early Recordsp. 17
Botanical Medicine in Early Europep. 18
The Medieval Periodp. 21
Herbals and Herbalists of the Renaissancep. 24
What's in a Name?p. 31
The Nineteenth Centuryp. 33
Medicinal Chemistryp. 36
Future Directionsp. 37
Chapter 2. Acquiring Knowledgep. 39
Poison or Medicine, Toxin or Drug?p. 43
Gathering Informationp. 45
Herbarium Collectionsp. 51
Healing Gardensp. 54
Chapter 3. Medicinal Plants in Naturep. 59
Sacred Grovesp. 60
Medicinal Forestsp. 62
The Asian Connectionp. 67
Dispersal and Naturalization of Medicinal Plantsp. 71
New World Introductionsp. 72
Curiosity, Cultivation, and Historyp. 76
Chapter 4. Toxins and Cures: A Cabinet of Plant Chemicalsp. 79
A Natural Explanationp. 81
Family Historiesp. 83
Carbon Chemistryp. 84
Early Strategiesp. 86
Terpenes and Essential Oilsp. 89
Alkaloidsp. 93
Glycosidesp. 99
The Cabinet Revealedp. 105
Chapter 5. Defensive Strategies and Plant Chemistryp. 107
Insect Strategiesp. 109
Plant Strategiesp. 111
Developmental Controlsp. 115
Borrowed Moleculesp. 118
Chemical Evolutionp. 122
Chapter 6. Significant Discoveriesp. 125
Opium Poppyp. 126
Cocap. 129
Curare Plantsp. 131
Willowsp. 133
Snakerootp. 135
Kombep. 138
Madagascar Periwinklep. 139
Pacific Yewp. 141
Medicinal Futuresp. 143
Chapter 7. Zoopharmacognosy and Botanical Toxinsp. 145
Chimpanzees and Self-Medicationp. 147
Gorilla Fruitsp. 150
New World Forestsp. 151
Additional Evidence of Zoopharmacognosyp. 154
Disarming Toxinsp. 156
Domestic Strategiesp. 159
Reality, Interpretation, and the Methods of Sciencep. 160
Chapter 8. Chemical Prospecting and New Plant Medicinesp. 163
Cancer Drugs from Plantsp. 165
Plants and AIDSp. 168
Botanical Antibioticsp. 171
Plants and the Mindp. 175
Future Prospectsp. 178
Chapter 9. Protecting Medicinal Biodiversity and Knowledgep. 181
Tropical Conservationp. 182
Temperate Conservationp. 186
Preserving Knowledgep. 191
Ownership of Medicinal Plants and Traditional Knowledgep. 195
Medicinal Plants, Legislation, and the Lawp. 197
Botanic Gardens, Seed Banks, and Cultivationp. 200
Chapter 10. Herbal Histories, Considerations, and Caveatsp. 203
Essential Herbsp. 206
Doses and Efficacyp. 210
Plant Toxins and Risksp. 212
A Summationp. 215
Glossaryp. 219
Further Readingp. 221
Indexp. 225