Why is Medicinal Plant Names Services needed?
Names are the key to finding information about plants, but medicinal plants in particular are known by a confusing variety of names that can be ambiguous or misleading. Different organisations and individuals often use different names for the same plant.
Medicinal plants, by their nature, often have a long history of use in different countries and in different medicinal traditions. They are known by alternative common, pharmaceutical, herbal and trade names across communities, generations, languages and disciplines. What people mean by these names evolves over time and they are often used inconsistently.
One name can apply to more than one plant (see Cimicifugae Rhizoma example - a scientific pharmaceutical name that is used for five different plant species depending on the pharmacopoeia concerned). In addition, different parts of one plant can also have different names. For these reasons, such names do not unambiguously establish the identities of the plants involved, and do not enable people to communicate about them reliably.
Consequences of name misuse
Inappropriate use of plant names has practical consequences. Here are a few real life examples:
- WHO health workers and those in national poisons networks fail to communicate adverse reactions for a given plant since different clinics use different names for the same plant.
- The wrong plant is prescribed because of confusion between similar names; at best that plant could render the prescription ineffective, and at worst make it toxic.
- R&D teams miss commercial opportunities through failing to find published research when they are not aware of all the names used for a plant.
- A health regulator may assign inconsistent control procedures for a single medicinal plant, listing it more than once under different synonyms.
- Regulators may publish ambiguous regulations by citing incomplete or unpublished scientific plant names.
- Customs and wildlife crime officers fail to implement trade regulations when unscrupulous importers employ obscure synonyms, or even make up meaningless names.
Lack of comprehensive medicinal plant name resources
Latin scientific names are the only means of achieving clarity, however, for various reasons a plant may be assigned more than one Latin scientific name and, for non-botanists, trying to select the right name to use can become a real challenge. Whilst a number of databases of Latin scientific plant names are already available, to which Kew is a key contributor, none of them address the specific requirements of the medicinal plant community.
Scale of the problem
The impact of the lack of a central reference point for medicinal plant names is significant.
- The global trade in herbal medicines is significant. In 2003 it amounted to 467,000 tonnes annually, worth US$1.2 billion and involving more than 3,000 different plant species. The volume and diversity are known to have increased significantly since then.
- The US National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine (PubMed) contains 22 million literature citations relating to plants which grew by 40,000 citations last year. Many names included are old synonyms, spelt incorrectly (and thus never found) or are ambiguous and thus misleading.
- There are an estimated 370,000 species of plants, for which 1.6 million different scientific names have been published. Plant names change over time: new plants are discovered (2,000 per annum), known plants are reclassified into different genera (4,000 per annum) and names are placed into synonymy for the first time (4,000 per annum).
- It is not possible to be precise about the number of plants that are used for medicinal purposes though the consensus is more than 70,000 different species.
- The Uppsala Monitoring Centre (WHO) holds records relating to more than 3,000 herbal plant species (with incomplete nomenclature) and acts as a clearing house for a worldwide network of information on poisons and health clinic reports of adverse reactions (30,000 cases involving plant materials last year).
MPNS is ideally placed to build on existing databases, and Kew’s work in the field of medicinal plants, to provide an authoritative reference tool and suite of information services tailored to the needs of industry, researchers, regulators and practitioners.
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