My sister lives in California and asked if I wanted a seed pod from the devil’s claw plant. As an herbalist I thought this was GREAT because I knew devil’s claw is a well-documented therapy for arthritis pain. When the package arrived, the seed pod was stunning….and not at all what I had expected. So, I did a quick Google search and checked my herb references to clear up my confusion.
It turns out that there are two plants that use this common name:
You see what the problem is. While the common names are easy to pronounce and remember, they aren’t always accurate in referring to a specific plant, which can lead to mistakes. In this case I had the seed pod as a point of reference to help with identification. In the case of tinctures, dried herb or capsules filled with ground herb one must rely on the label for proper identification. In herbal medicine it is important to reinforce the identify the plant you’re talking about with the Latin binomial or the scientific name.
Another example of a plant with the same common name is skullcap. In this case, the plants are in the same genus (Scutelaria) but are different species; both are potent herbs. Check the labels of marketed herbal products for the scientific names when looking for skullcap: American skullcap (Scutelaria lateriflora) or Chinese skullcap (Scutelaria baicalensis).
The use of common plant names has also made it difficult to identify plants referenced in historic texts. Even when there are drawings, the level of detail may not always be sufficient for confident plant I.D.
These are just a few examples of plants with the same common name. Be sure to verify the identity of plants you use for therapeutic benefit.
About the author: Judith Smith, MS is a biologist and herbalist with degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas and a Masters of Science from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, PA. She studied Clinical Herbalism in Quakertown, PA under Richard Mandelbaum (currently at Arborvitae School of Herbal Medicine in Brooklyn, NY). As member of the American Herbalist Guild (10 years) she provides herbal consults to friends and family members.
Her motto is ‘Complement yourself’ and is a strong advocate of responsible use of modern medicine complemented with sound herbal therapies.