Several chemically defined plant extracts were investigated for their antiviral action on herpes simplex virus (HSV-1, HSV-2)-infected African green monkey kidney cells and human adenocarcinoma cells, using a plaque formation assay. Among them, the monomeric hydrolyzable tannins, oligomeric ellagitannins and condensed tannins, having galloyl groups or hexahydroxydiphenoyl groups, had the most potent anti-HSV activity. Their 50% effective doses (0.03-0.1 microgram/ml) were by two-three orders of magnitude lower than their 50% cytotoxic doses (greater than 10 micrograms/ml). On the other hand, gallic acid, neutral polysaccharides, chemically modified (N,N-dimethylaminoethyl-, carboxymethyl-, and sulfated-) glucans, sialic acid-rich glycoproteins, and uronic acid-rich pine cone polysaccharide showed little or no activity. Using radiolabeled virus particles, we demonstrated that the anti-HSV effect of the tannins is due to inhibition of virus adsorption to the cells.