Plant Resins: Chemistry, Evolution, Ecology and Ethnobotany

Plant Resins: Chemistry, Evolution, Ecology and Ethnobotany
Jean H. Langenheim
Timber Press
Publication Date: 

cloth, 586 p., $49.95

Prior to the publication of this excellent book, the best complete source of information on plant resins was written in 1949 by F.N. Howes. It seems almost incredible then, with all the advances in chemistry, molecular biology and microscopy since, that one person would — on her own — attempt to write an updated book on such a large and diverse topic. Yet Jean H. Langenheim, summoning all of her years of experience as a researcher and author of papers and textbooks on plant resins, has done just that. And she has done it well!

Plant Resins is divided into three main parts, starting with the production of resins in Part I. This section sets the scene for the rest of the book, describing what resins are and what they are not, thus eliminating much of the ambiguity associated with the term. Langenheim further enhances understanding of resins through detailed descriptions of the biosyntheses of terpenoid and phenolic resins in Chapter 1. This is followed by a chapter on resin-producing plants, including both conifers and angiosperms. The methods employed by the plants that produce and secrete resins can be found in Chapter 3.

Part II covers the geologic history of resins. This section includes an excellent review of the solidified resin known as amber (Chapter 4). Not only are the mechanisms involved in the production of amber described, but so too are the sources of this interesting substance. Equally as fascinating are references to prehistoric insects and other organisms that have been preserved within fossilized amber. Researchers hoping to work with ancient DNA once regarded the organisms in fossilized amber as the best source of that DNA; unfortunately, it very rarely completely survives the polymerization process. Part II also includes a chapter on the ecological roles of resins (Chapter 5), such as those involved in defending plants from insects.

Where ethnobotanists and other researchers of the "ethno" sciences are concerned, Part III will certainly be of much interest. Several chapters within this section review the history of resin use, citing examples from all over the world. Readers may be surprised to read about some of the many uses for resin; though lacquers, varnishes, dyes and turpentine are all obvious resin derivatives, less obvious are psychoactive agents, contraceptives, cosmetics and flavoring agents (hops) used in the brewing of beer.

This interesting and informative book is very easy to read and follow despite the fact that Langenheim goes into quite a lot of detail at times. I highly recommend it to anybody with a casual or research interest in plants, plant resins or natural products.

— Dr. Marcello Pennacchio, School of Environmental Biology, Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Western Australia