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. Today it is synthesized in the laboratory, and its use as an anticoagulant eventually could overshadow its use as an analgesic. Other botanical medicines that became significant to human health and well-being are pain-relievers from opium and coca, muscle relaxants from curare, blood anticoagulants from sweet clover, anticancer alkaloids from Madagascar periwinkle and Pacific yew, tranquilizers from snakeroot, and oral contraceptives from molecular precursors in tropical yams.
Although we may be tempted to think of these and other plant chemicals existing primarily for our medicinal use, in reality they are defense strategies in a natural world colonized by organisms competing for survival. In this fascinating introduction to the botanical compounds used medicinally, Dr. Sumner describes their biological and ecological importance as toxins and deterrents in protecting plants. Some of these chemicals discourage predators by rendering plant leaves unpalatable, while others disrupt the usual developmental and reproductive stages of their attackers. Still others are well known for their potent psychotropic effects that can dangerously alter the awareness and reflexes of plant-eating animals. An exciting chapter on the new field of zoopharmacognosy provides some interesting examples of birds, primates, and elephants that seemingly recognize and use plants as medicines. The author concludes with a thought-provoking analysis of the issues behind using medi! cinal plants to improve human needs without destroying the earths biodiversity.
Written for the lay reader, The Natural History of Medicinal Plants will inspire a greater appreciation of the vast natural pharmacy of plant medicines. Numerous black and white illustrations and 30 color plates accompany the text.