Identifying and Characterizing Botanical Products

When referring to a botanical product in a scientific report, details such as the scientific name of the plant, plant part, preparation, formulation, and dose must be included as the basis of any discussion of therapeutics. Without a full description of the test material, there can be no assurance of a reproducible effect.

Dr. Varro Tyler addresses the lack of proper characterization of botanical materials in clinical study publications. The omissions he describes are still more common than not, even in the most prestigious medical journals.

The need for guidelines in the characterization of botanicals has been acknowledged by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NCCAM). NCCAM recently added a description of characterization parameters expected of botanical products to the grant application guidelines on their Web site.

An unfortunate recent example of an inadequately described product was a report of a trial studying the effectiveness of echinacea for the prevention of experimental rhinovirus colds. The authors acknowledge in their report that three species of echinacea are used medicinally and that different echinacea preparations differ in their chemical composition.

They therefore present chemical analysis of the test sample as 0.16 percent cichoric acid with almost no echinacoside or alkamides (Turner, Riker, and Gangemi, 2000). However, the paper does not state whether the echinacea preparation was powdered plant material or an extract.

Further, we are not told the species or the plant part (the flowering tops and/or roots of echinacea are both commonly used). When I contacted the lead author, Dr. Turner, it was apparent that he was not informed of the taxonomic identity of the material that he tested, although he did tell me it was powdered plant material.

Further inquiries by Dr. Tyler of the supplier led to the information that the material was 85 percent Echinacea purpurea root and herb with 15 percent E. angustifolia root extract powder. However, Dr. Tyler and I were still puzzled, as the results of the chemical analysis did not fit the suggested identification.

The combination of E. purpurea root and herb with E. angustifolia root would be expected to contain both alkamides and echinacoside, as alkamides are present in both species and echinacoside is present in E. angustifolia roots. Lack of adequate identification can lead not only to scientific confusion, but also to substitutions that can have toxic consequences.

In one incident the similar-looking leaves of a species of digitalis (Digitalis lanata Ehrhart) were accidentally substituted for plantain (Plantago lanceolata L.), thereby causing heart arrhythmia (Slifman et al., 1998).

In several other incidents confusion over traditional Chinese names led to the substitution of guang fang-ji root, also known as fang-chi (Aristolochia fangchi Y.C. Wu ex L.D.), for han fang-ji (Stephania tetrandra S. Moore) root. Unfortunately, the use of the Aristolochia species caused liver failure and death in several individuals (Vanhaelen et al., 1994).