Common Medicine Plants and Herbal Remedies of Yesterday and Today
Plants Are Pretty Darn Important to Mankind
It’s no secret that many valuable medicines are obtained from plants and still more are yet to be discovered. In the past the giant eucalyptus trees of Australia yielded useful oils and gums. Quinine came from the cinchona tree in the Andes Mountains, while powerful heart medicine. digitalis, came from a beautiful flowering plant, often planted in the gardens.
While doctors and other scientists have worked together to find new and more valuable remedies and cures for diseases — botanists, the scientists who study plants, still search today in remote jungles and climb pathless mountains to bring back seeds, roots, and leaves that will serve as sources for new drugs. Plant breeders around the world cross different varieties and even apply irritating chemicals to flowers, in hopes of producing a new and more valuable variety of an already useful medicine plant.
The chemists in their laboratories work over substances produced by plants, hoping by chemical means to produce improvements in drugs. Chemists even make entirely new substances, modeled on the general plan of those produced in nature by plants. Thus, they sometimes get a medicine that has the good qualities of the natural substance without any of the harmful qualities it may have (like the side effects of quinine). Frequently, the artificial substance also is cheaper than the original plant drug.
I Can Still Hear My Brother Hollering About Castor Oil
I only can laugh when I see the words “castor oil” because in my mind, I can still hear my little brother hollering and being chased around the kitchen when Gram was going to give him a good dose of castor oil for his own good when he needed a laxative. In a pure state it is supposed to be odorless and tasteless, but you could never convince my brother. All he knew is that his tummy ache was bound to get worse when it worked its magic on him. Castor Oil has always held a number of medicinal uses beyond being a laxative.
Now, the Castor Oil plant is an interesting one. It’s a beautiful plant whose seeds are pressed by heavy rollers to extract the oil. It’s a native tree in both India and Africa. Because of its large, beautiful leaves, the plant is often grown as an annual in cool climates where it may reach twelve feet in one season if left alone. In different varieties, the leaves may be green, red, or blackish purple. The beautiful seeds are poisonous, if eaten whole. You wouldn’t think it, but Castor Oil has a wide variety of industrial uses, including:
- Brake fluids
- Laundry detergents
- Lubricating greases
Poppy Plants - Flowers of Darkness When Used Improperly
Some of the loveliest garden plants have been the sources of powerful medicines. Yet, many of these drugs are deadly poisons when taken in too large a quantity or too often. For this reason, and because some of them (called narcotics) are habit-forming, they may be taken only on a doctor’s prescription.
Opium, the most famous of the old time pain-killers and also of narcotic illegal use, is obtained from the unripe fruits of the Opium poppy. In various Asiatic countries, the poppy fields are a beautiful sight when the large flowers are in bloom. As the fruits, or poppy heads swell to a large size, collectors slice the sides of the fruit with sharp blades to allow the milky juice to flow out.
The next morning, the workers go through the fields again, collecting the juice by smearing it on a poppy leaf. The masses of the juice are dried in the shade. The dried juice is raw opium. The raw opium contains a number of useful drugs which are separated out by chemical means and used in their pure form. Among them are morphine, codeine, paraverine, and a dozen others. Their greatest value is in relieving pain and in producing sleep. Heroin, however is a drug made from the morphine. Other parts of the plant, the poppy seeds, commonly spread on rolls have none of the effects of poppy drugs.
Nightshade Plant Family - From Deadly to Helpful
Several drugs are obtained from plants of the potato or nightshade plant family. Atropine, used by eye doctors to dilate the pupil of the eye, is obtained from the European belladonna, or deadly nightshade plant. This is a bushy plant whose shiny black berries are poisonous. The whole plant contains hyoscyamine, which is changed to atropine when extracted from the plant.
The name “belladonna” which means beautiful lady, comes from its former use by women to make their eyes look liquid and mysterious. If you have ever had belladonna dropped into your eyes by your eye doctor you will realize that the ladies did not see very well as long as this vanity effect lasted. One of fashion’s statements that thankfully grew out of fashion.
The Bitter Nux Vomica Tree
Other closely related plants containing the same or similar drugs are the Jimson weed, called the Thorn apply on account of its spiny fruit, and henbane. Both of these plants are poisonous. Henbane produces hyoscine (frequently called scopolamine) which has been used as a sedative for centuries. With morphine, it produced the “twilight sleep” that lessens pain. However, the important heart stimulant Strychinine is obtained from seeds of the Nux Vomica tree (also known as the Strychnine tree). These seeds, about the size of a nickel, resemble flat, gray buttons. Large numbers of the seeds are embedded in the juicy pulp of an orange like fruit.
Strychnine is one of the bitterest substances known to mankind. If a grain is dissolved in a million times as much water, the solution will taste bitter. The bitter taste increases the patient’s appetite. Even the wood of the Nux Vomica tree is bitter
Curare - From the Tips of a Poison Arrow
For centuries natives of northern South America dipped their arrows in a poison that paralyzed animals without spoiling their flesh. A sufficient amount of Curare, as the drug is called, causes death. Preparation of Curare was carried on accompanied by ceremonial rites in great secrecy. Another thing that made it difficult for scientists to study this mysterious substance, was that there were several different Curares, prepared from several different plants. Interestingly enough, much Curare comes from plants closely related to the Strychnine tree.
For over three hundred years Curare was a scientific curiosity. Then, in 1943, it was discovered that Curare could be of great value in surgical operations. One difficulty in abdominal operations is that the patient’s muscles may tighten up even after he is made unconscious by the anesthetic. This makes it difficult for the surgeon to operate properly.
When the Curare is used, the patient’s muscles are relaxed and a much smaller amount of anesthetic needs to be used. In many cases the patient can be brought back to consciousness more rapidly, and there has been a great reduction in the amount of pneumonia following operations. Curare is also useful in the treatment of fractures and dislocations, because it relaxes the muscles.
Up until the late 1940s, Curare was an unpredictable drug in surgical use. However, that was all about to change in 1947 when Swiss-Italian Daniele Bovet decided to make a synthetic curare and succeeded. Today, thanks to his efforts artificial Curare gives the complete muscle relaxation during surgery, without the dangerous side-effects of the natural Curare.
The Link Between Garden Rue and Buckwheat
Hundreds of different kinds of plants have been used in medicine. Seeds, fruits, leaves, roots, stems, bark, juice and chemical substances extracted from various parts are used. Just seventy-five years ago, many medicines of today did not exist, or were thought to have no medicinal value. Today, many synthetic drugs all owe their success to the plants who pointed science in the right direction.
Sometimes a drug found first in one plant is later on found to be produced more abundantly or more cheaply by another plant. Rutin, for example, once used for its valuable action in preventing bleeding from the tiniest blood vessels (capillaries), was first extracted from the Garden Rue in 1842. Then, it was discovered that large quantities could be had from common Buckwheat plant.
Other Useful Plants in Medicine
Since there are far too many to ever list when it comes to plants and their medicinal uses, here are a few to be familiar with:
- Cascara Tree — Laxatives
- Senna — Laxatives
- Licorice — Stomach ulcers and respiratory ailments
- Peppermint — IBS (should never be used by pregnant women)
- Ginger — Nausea and stomach aches
- Asafetida— Gas and respiratory ailments
- Aloe plant — Skin infections and burns
- Thymol — Hookworm and Trichina
- Quassia - Worms
- Ephedra - Asthma
- Burmese Kalaw Tree - Leprosy
- Rye — Ergot both a poison and a useful drug
- Ipecacuanha— Syrup of Ipecac and the drug Emetine which cures some forms of dysentery