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The Practical Herbalist

Common Names, Caution

It is important when talking about herbs (and drugs for that matter) that we are clear what we are talking about. There are thousands of different items that have been used medicinally. The use of the wrong species of plant can have serious consequences. There have been several instances over the years where people got sick from herbal preparations with the media reporting the problem of a particular herb. Later when the situation is evaluated it has sometimes been the case that manufacturers mistakenly put the wrong herb in the pills.

This type of herbal mix-up is especially possible with the use of "common names" and what are called regional variations. In China it is not uncommon for a common herbal name to be associated with several related species of plants. This was often due to geographic availability of a particular herb. The local herbalist would find that a local plant looks almost like, and functions like a herb that he is importing. Soon the local herb is also known by the common name of another plant. On a local village level this is not a problem, however when herbs move into world trade and intersect with labeling laws, then it becomes more important. Most reputable companies verify the species of plants they are buying and do not rely on the word of dealers and brokers.

A good example of how common names can cause problems is in the case of an herb called foxglove. European Foxglove is the species Digitalis purpura, and is famous as the herbal basis for the heart medication Digitalis. Digitalis purpura was used cautiously because it could cause paralysis and heart failure. The common Chinese herbs Shu di huang and Sheng di huang both come from the plant Rehmannia glutinosa. These are also commonly referred to as foxglove. These herbs are much milder than the digitalis and are not not known to have life threatening side effects. The two plants come from very different families of plants. Chinese Foxglove comes from the scrophulariacea family where as the European digitalis comes from the snapdragon family.

Common names are very useful and often much easier to pronounce, however it is important to make sure what plant is being used. For the consumer, that means getting reliable information from a practitioner who knows the products and the companies that market them.

David Bock

This article was from David's LakeCountryOnline.com column, "The Practical Herbalist"

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David Bock, C. Ac., Dipl. OM, FABORM
Wisconsin Certified Acupuncturist
National Board Certification in Oriental Medicine
Fellow American Board Of Oriental Reproductive Medicine

Bock Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine
888 Thackeray Trail #206
Oconomowoc, Wisconsin 53066