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The Plant Hunter

1/15/2023 9:33 am


The Plant Hunter 

by Cassandra Leah Quave

Viking 2021


Atlanta resident Cassandra Quave grew up in rural Florida where much of her childhood was spent either being ill or undergoing surgeries relating to a birth defect caused by her father’s exposure to chemical agents in the Vietnam War. Bacterial infections were a constant threat to her life. So it isn’t surprising that she set her sights on going to medical school. Physician heal thyself? 


The Plant Hunter chronicles Dr. Quave’s journey into medicinal research and her ongoing discoveries. The reader follows Dr. Quave’s journey to date as she lives with a disfiguring disability, discovers a passion for science and then plants, and then faces down the dual challenges of being a woman and disabled whilst succeeding in academic science. The book then pivots to its main focus:  the science of collecting and analyzing potential medicinal plants.


As a child, Dr. Quave had always been interested in the outdoors and plants. When she begin to look at things under a microscope, her path to becoming a medical doctor seemed clear until she took a course in Tropical Biology. A field trip to Peru changed her course. A medicine man introduced her to how plants were and had been used effectively for healing long before there were sterile science labs. 


Dr. Quave became fascinated by both the lore of ancient medicine and its continuing use throughout the world. She also became concerned about the loss of the knowledge of these plants and how to use them. Traditional healers are dying out. We are also rapidly losing the plants used due to climate change and urbanization. 


Dr. Quave had found her passion in ethnobotany, the study of the interrelationship between people and plants. But science rigorously applied to ethnobotany is the real topic of Dr. Quave’s life and The Plant Hunter.  Dr. Quave is using scientific methods to hunt, collect, preserve and test the efficacy of plants growing in the wild all over the world against illness and discomforts. 


Although she is involved in the broad collection of plants for the herbarium at Emory University, Dr. Quave has narrowed her personal research focus to look for plants that will help in the next great crisis:  fighting increasingly prevalent drug resistant bacteria. Traditional pharmacology is not making the inroads in creating new antibiotics at a fast enough pace to address antibiotic resistance. We learn how an “aha” moment pivoted Dr. Quave from looking solely for plant-based antibiotics toward what is proving to be a more effective path: combining traditional antibiotics with plants with bacterial resistant properties.  


Dr. Quave reminds us that not all medicinal plants grow in the high mountains of Albania or the Amazon jungle. Our native Callicarpa americana is a remarkable medicinal plant. There also may be many other natives that pass the rigorous analysis required to be considered “proven” effective scientifically, much like Digitalis was. At the same time, Dr. Quave worries about the thousands of largely unregulated and untested plant-based remedies sold as “supplements” lacking scientific evidence of effectiveness and proper use. Her lab is dedicated to applying the rigors of the scientific method to plant-based medicinal use.


The Plant Hunter contains detailed discussions of plant hunting, preservation, and trialing plant extracts to satisfy any plant nerd. It is also a cautionary tale of what is to come and what we should be doing to prepare for it: antibiotic drug resistance. 


I found The Plant Hunter a fast, worthy read that made me want to learn more about ethnobotany and the science that lies beneath. In my efforts to learn more, I discovered that Dr. Quave also hosts an entertaining podcast focussing on culinary uses of plants:  Foodie Pharmacology with Dr. Cassandra Quave. It’s a delightful way to pass time while driving or walking.  - Liane Schleifer