New Reference Provides Uses, Origins of Economically Important Plants

Published online: Mar 09, 2014 Dennis O'Brien, ARS Information Staff
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At 1,336 pages, World Economic Plants: A Standard Reference is more for professionals and scientists than the casual reader. The book,compiled by an Agricultural Research Service botanist and a University of Texas taxonomist, could also be considered a testament to the diversity of our plant life.

Authors John Wiersema and Blanca León link the list of scientific names with the geographic origins, uses, and relationships of 12,235 plants. They also provide over 50,000 common names for those plants in 27 languages, among them Arabic, Chinese and Russian. Plants often have different names and uses in different countries, says Wiersema, who is with the ARS National Germplasm Resources Laboratory in Beltsville, Md.

The book, published by CRC Press, focuses on plants that are “directly or indirectly important to international [or interstate] commerce ... or have recognized potential for widespread economic usage,” according to the text. Plants used for food, fiber, timber, medicines, ornamental purposes, crop breeding and many other uses are included, along with those having negative impacts, such as invasive weeds and poisonous plants.

The book is an update of an edition the researchers published in 1999 that inventoried 9,500 plants. DNA studies have revolutionized what scientists know about plants and their classifications in recent years. The new edition incorporates that recent molecular data, as well as information gleaned from other types of plant studies.

Along with including 25 percent more plants, the 2013 version indicates more “use classes,” such as whether a plant is, for instance, a food source or has medicinal value. Some of the most common categories are ornamentals (5,361), medicines (2,997), food and food additives (2,212), and weeds (2,136).

Readers can look up a plant under its common name or its scientific name, and using the latter, they can learn about the plant’s geographic distribution, what it is called in other languages, and how it is used. To supplement data on a plant’s native range, the authors have added information on where a plant has been introduced or cultivated.

Information in the book and its sources are fully elaborated on in the ARS Germplasm Resources Information Network, which is part of the ARS National Plant Germplasm System and is publicly available online.

This updated edition, requested by the publisher, offers the advantage of serving as a condensed summary of that information in an easily retrievable format. It will be useful to researchers, plant breeders, librarians, companies involved in regional or global marketing of plants or plant products, regulatory officials or anyone who needs basic, accurate information about economic plants.

The publication took over two years to complete, and the material was reviewed for accuracy by more than 150 experts.

The book costs $149.95 and can be ordered online at

The research is part of Plant Genetic Resources, Genomics, and Genetic Improvement, an ARS national program (#301) described at


Source: Agricultural Research Magazine