Botanical Basics: Botanicals—Not Your Simple Chemical Ingredients

By Steven Dentali, PhD | January 1, 2013

Understanding the complexity of botanicals and their identification requires an understanding of a few basic principles.

What do tuna and roses have to do with botanical materials? More than you might think.

For the purposes of this article, “botanical” is a general term that includes “herbal.” I’m using both to mean plants, not animals or minerals, because we have bigger fish to fry. Speaking of fish, consider that the word “tuna” can have more than one meaning. Tuna can be a school of fish (“Look at those tuna!”), an individual (“Look at the tuna I caught!”) or a product (“Pick up some tuna at the store, please.”). And a rose is not a rose when the first is a bush, the second a flower and the third refers to the color of the blossom.

Botanical materials are mixtures and are therefore more complex than pure single chemicals. Coffee and tea, for example, contain caffeine but they are not composed solely of the chemical caffeine. Caffeine, whether isolated or synthesized, has the same identity in all formulations and products because a chemical’s identity is defined by its structure and not its source. Caffeine is characterized by a specific molecular structure composed of atoms connected in just one particular way.

Botanicals are far more complicated and not only because they contain multiple chemicals or chemical constituents. Even the term “botanical” can mean different things, and that is the focus of this article. Working through and having an understanding of botanical issues has proven time and again that botanicals cannot simply be treated as a subset of chemicals; they are more than the sum of their parts. Understanding botanical issues requires comprehension of some basic principles, just as in any other understanding, including that of tuna and roses.

Mastering organic chemistry means having a working knowledge of the classes of organic compounds, their synthesis and their reactions. Biochemistry requires understanding of intermediate metabolism, protein structure and function. Natural products chemistry includes the knowledge of how nature assembles chemical constituents via living organisms. To understand botanical materials in an industrial sense, which I consider to be a subset of the science of pharmacognosy, one needs access to concepts of: 1) what is meant by a botanical; 2) the basic differences in botanical extracts; and 3) how the chemistry of an extract relates to its bioactivity. Extracts and bioactivity will be dealt with later; this article deals only with these three aspects of botanicals.

Botanicals are plants. They are also ingredients and finished products. A botanical name can refer to: a) the plant raw material; b) the ingredient ready for manufacture; or c) a finished product. In order to avoid confusion, each of these different descriptions has to be understood independently of the other.

Specifications for crude herbal material, also known as the raw agricultural commodity, are different than those for the material processed into an ingredient. A farmer delivering whole dried valerian root is providing a different commodity than what a manufacturer sources for powdered valerian root or root extract. Consumers purchase finished valerian root products, whether part of a mixture of herbs or a simple herb, in powdered or liquid form.

I recently gave a talk covering these general concepts using kava and coffee as examples. As living plants, they belong to the domain of botanists, who recognize them as Piper methysticum and Coffea arabica (and C. canephora syn. C. robusta if you insist), respectively. Commercially, farmers deal with the care and feeding of living plants. It is only after harvest and drying (except for plants used fresh) that herbs enter the manufacturing realm ruled by current Good Manufacturing Practices. Cultivated or wild-harvested, the agricultural aspects of living plants precede their preparation into the crude raw botanical materials of commerce.

Once dried, with drying of the raw herb being a critical aspect of good agricultural and collection practice, herbal raw materials are relatively stable and can be stored prior to shipping and further processing. A flowering specimen may be collected and deposited in an herbarium as a way to vouch for the plant’s identity should it need to be verified in the future. Hence the term “voucher” for such specimens that can be reexamined at later dates.

Once an herbal commodity has been dried and is ready for shipping, the botanical identification shifts from the source plant to the article of commerce. In other words, the identification test for kava root is different from the identification test for the kava plant.

For our purposes, living plants are the domain of collectors, farmers and botanists. Their efforts go into the creation of the dried agricultural commodity—the raw material starting point for manufacturing a finished product. I need not invoke the legends of ancient spice trading to make the point that botanical products are often produced in one place and transported to another. I emphasize this cultural aspect of botanical materials because it is fundamental to their trade, and our use of them.

Although this article focuses on differentiating the three forms of botanical materials the supplement industry uses—namely crude, ingredient and finished—those materials are bookended by human cultural practices. Nothing exists in isolation, and recognizing the human cultural practices associated with our industry gives it the human face it should have. This can be seen by recognizing the various entities or items to which the words “coffee” or “kava” or “tea” may refer. They are variously living plants, dried agricultural commodities, dietary supplement ingredients, finished products and sometimes the subject of culture- and community-based ceremonies. For example, “Let’s do coffee” is an event just like the Japanese tea ceremony, or sharing a shell of kava or a gourd of yerba mate. The use of plants in a cultural context both creates the articles of trade and how they may be used. We should remember this.

Manufacturers in the supplement industry deal with botanical ingredient materials, and there is a point to be made with regard to their identification. One should not confuse identifying an ingredient with determining the identity of the source plant.

Specifications are written to stipulate an article of commerce, and the identity test chosen should be applicable for that article of commerce. That is a different task than identifying the source plant. I can identify ground-roasted coffee beans without ever knowing what a coffee tree looks like. My determination of identity is for the material I use to make coffee, the drink.

Analogously, I can identify sugar (sucrose) that I might put in a cup of coffee without knowing if it came from sugar cane or beets. As a chemical entity, its source is irrelevant to its identity (unless of course you specify the source as part of its identity and have an appropriate test to verify that specification).

When identifying a botanical ingredient, you are identifying that commodity, not the botanical source. Granted, you may specify the source plant of your botanical ingredient (and you should), but that’s not necessarily the same as the test for the identity of the botanical ingredient or commodity.   

To finish with the subject of finished products, I need only point out that regulations, packaging and placement make this latter stage of botanical form obvious.

So, when you next hear a botanical name, consider the context. It could be the crude herb, the ingredient, the finished product, or even within the domain of agriculture and ceremony.
The subject of my next column will be botanical ingredients, with a focus on extracts.   

Steven Dentali, PhD, chief science officer of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), Silver Spring, MD, studied herbal medicine in the Pacific Northwest, finding a disconnect between the herbal and academic communities. He subsequently earned his doctorate in Pharmaceutical Sciences with a specialization in Natural Products Chem­istry from the University of Arizona, Tucson. An American Foundation for Pharmaceutical Education Fellow, Dr. Dentali is recognized as a foremost expert in the natural products industry. He is a member of the United States Pharmaco­poeia 2010-2015 Convention, editorial board chair of AOAC International, and is an advisory board member of the American Botanical Council and the Ameri­can Herbal Pharmacopeia. A frequent lecturer, he also serves as a reviewer for the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at NIH. He can be reached at; Website:

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