Plants have been used as medicinal drugs since time immemorial. During the 16th century, new curative substances were discovered as colonists traveled around the world and began to mingle with new cultures. Common remedies discovered in those days were tobacco (which was good for worms and lung congestion and not smoking!), Peruvian bark an anti-malarial drug, Sassafras which was considered a sovereign cure for syphilis and Jalap and Ipeceac which were both used as purgatives.
Organic chemists began to isolate specific active ingredients from medicinal plants in the middle of the 19th century. Thus drug companies begun to concentrate their efforts on replicating cheaper synthetic versions of these active ingredients as opposed to extracting them from plants.
Although chemists have been largely successful in doing this, at least 25 % of prescriptions filled by pharmacists today contain active ingredients from plants.
Today, many plants are still used as medicinal drugs. Some examples of these are;
1) The Cinchona tree (Cinchona succimbra) which is native to Andes in Peru and Bolivia.
2) The Mandrake (Mandrago officinarum) which contains several anesthetic alkaloids used to deaden pain.
3) The Belladonna (Atrope belladonna) which is used by ophthalmologists and derived its name from its origins, as it was previously used by Spanish and Italian women to enlarge their pupils and thus achieve a seductive look. Atropine and Scopolamine (active ingredients) also stimulate circulation.
4) Ipeceac (Cephalis ipecacuana) contains emetine which makes one throw up and is used in cases where a person’s been poisoned.
5) Plantain (Plantago meigor) is used to discourage smoking.
6) Colocynth or Wild Gourd (Citrullus colocynthis) is found in North and tropical Africa and has been used as a drastic purgative since Biblical times.
6) Panix ginseng is native to China and Southeast Russia, Korea and Japan. It contains ginseng which is believed to be useful as a sexual tonic for men.
7) Camptotheca acuminata is an ancient anti-cancer drug which is the source of the drug camptothecin which has recently been approved for use as a cancer drug.
8) Yew (Taxus brevifolia & T. acuminata) is a Pacific Northwestern native tree and is the source of Parclitaxel whose trade name is Taxol and had sales worth $600 million in 1995.
9) Rosy periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) is native to Madagascar and two alkaloids are derived from it: Vinblastine and Vincristine. One combats Hodgkin’s disease and the other treats childhood leukemia.
10) Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) contains codeine and morphine which are used as painkillers and as anesthetics. It is highly addictive and heroin, a well known narcotic is a concentrated form of Opium.
There are other common plants that are used as medicinal drugs that were not mentioned for the sake of brevity. Research is still ongoing into the potential for new drugs to be made from plants. However issues pertaining to patents for drugs derived from plants discourage pharmaceutical companies from channeling funds into that area of research as such drugs cannot be patented.
The fact still remains that somewhere in the tropical rainforests of Africa or Asia lies the cures to many diseases we consider deadly.
Plants could well be largely an untapped resource in the fight of the human race against all sorts of diseases, ailments and deficiencies.