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Plants – Homeopathic and Medicinal Uses from a Botanical Family Perspective
17 December 2017 (online)
Frans Vermeulen, Linda Johnston
Saltire Books, 18 November 2011, 9780955906596,
Price: £315, Vol I–IV
This is a huge work, consisting of 4968 pages arranged in 4 volumes. The Plant Kingdom is by far the largest of the five kingdoms recognised in homeopathy. 2027 plant remedies are listed in the various materia medicas, repertories, and pharmacopoeias, and they are all discussed, or at least touched upon, in ‘Plants’.
The authors envisage their role as correctors, collectors and connectors.
Let's start with the corrections. So many of the plant remedy names we use in daily practice do not conform with the currently accepted, formal system of binomial nomenclature (in which the first name indicates the genus and the second denotes the species). This has resulted in many of the names of our remedies being anachronistic e.g. Belladonna is used instead of Atropa belladonna, Stramonium instead of Datura stramonium, etc.
Then there were corrections which had to be made to family memberships. Homeopathy has mostly followed the taxonomic classification systems of either Cronquist or Dahlgren from the 1960s, which were based on the morphological and anatomical features of plants. Phylogenetics, the study of evolutionary relatedness among groups of plants, blossomed in the late 1990s. This led to the APG classification of flowering plants or angiosperms based on DNA sequencing and genetic data, which confirmed or clarified some relationships in existing classification systems, but radically changed others. There have been updates to APG II in 2003 and to APG III in 2009. ‘Plants’ use APG III.
As result of these taxonomic developments, there have been some radical reassignments and realignments of classification. Those working with botanical families for instance following Sankaran, may be dismayed by these changes. Some examples: Gelsemium has been removed from the Loganiaceae or Nux vomica family and placed in a family of its own. Many genera of the previously large family Scrophulariaceae have been transferred to other families. Digitalis, Gratiola and Veronica are now in Plantaginaceae; Euphrasia and Pedicularis are in Orobanchaceae; while Buddleja, Scrophularia and Verbascum came to or remained in Scrophulariaceae. The genus Pulsatilla has disappeared. The former Pulsatilla species are now Anemone species.
The authors have found that 30–35% of homeopathic botanical names are not in line with those of the source substances. You may be reading this with trepidation and fear that with so many changes, you may not be able to recognise the old friends which you have studied in the materia medicae and prescribe so diligently. But this is not the case, because here comes the punchline: connections.
All the divergent information has been connected to form an integrated and therapeutic character for each grouping. With the right members in the right groups, there is the potential for much more clarity and coherent themes emerging for each group. The party has just got started. Chances are that instead of losing friends, you will be gaining many more. If you are able to recognise the likely family from the patient history, you will then have much more therapeutic freedom and confidence to prescribe remedies you may have never previously considered.
Having said all this, let's look at possible criticisms of the work. The production of the volumes is very good; I have yet to spot a typo. The print is clear, except for the introductory page to every family, where the background graphics are too bold for my liking, making the text more difficult to read. Thumbnail sketches of each family appear highlighted in grey boxes. Each one a gem, or should I say a beautiful flower. Confusingly, the same grey boxes are also used for case histories; a different format would have been better.
One of the main criticisms is the conspicuous lack of an index. I don't understand what was going through the minds of the authors when they decided to omit one. To find any remedy is a laborious process. Mercifully, the publishers have made available a downloadable index at their website. I have printed it and find it invaluable, but it is not the classiest of solutions, given that the volumes are so well bound and presented.
It is worth noting that the idea that each member of a botanical family must share features in common is not universally accepted. Some detractors, for instance, Massimo Mangialavori, argue that families can be composed of very disparate characters, and that conversely, coherent groups can be made from members not only of different botanical families, but even different kingdoms e.g. the drug group of remedies.
Although this work has been lovingly and systematically created, there are some gaps (not the fault of the authors) simply because the information is just not there. Of the 2027 remedies in ‘Plants’, only 35.2% have been the subject of one or more homeopathic pathogenetic trials, provings or self-experimentations. The symptom picture of about 3.3% of the total is solely based on poisonings. 25.7% of the total only have clinically observed symptoms. A substantial 35.7% are as yet without symptoms in the materia medica. It could be argued that we don't need more medicines, we need to better understand those we already have. The groupings in these volumes go a good way to making this possible.
Despite the rearrangement of taxonomic names and families, the material in the book is a nice blend of the old and the new, with references to Sankaran, Scholten, Mangialavori and other contemporary authors. It is also a good blend of food for the left and right sides of the brain, consisting of a balanced mixture of fact and symbolism, as there is a considerable amount of information on folklore and ancient uses of plants, as well as herbal pharmacology. There are exciting new insights offered for every botanical family. It is likely that this will be the definitive material medica on plants for a good time to come. I thoroughly recommend it.