Why do we need Plants

The Benefit that is Called Eden

Each morning the light shone from the little boy as he carried an apple for his teacher. There was laughter and a captivating smile which lingered throughout the day; but now only wonderful memories remain in the hearts of those who knew him.

This happy child would have grown up by now but at that time no one could save him from leukaemia. If the drugs derived from the Madagascan rosy periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) had been available then, he would have had a chance of living. Everything might have been so different. But sadly, it was too late for the child, just as it is for so many of our species of plants today. There must be many new medicines which have gone with them, lost forever, possibly some of which could have treated other forms of cancer or even Aids.

The benefits of plants to people are astonishing. They provide food and help to keep the wheels of industry turning by giving products such as dyes, oils and fibres. Big business has been established due to the medicinal plants on which millions of people depend for good health.

Everyone knows of a friend or perhaps a relative who suffers from a heart condition. One of the drugs, which may be used to treat the problem, is a cardiac stimulant called digitalis. This is prepared from the seeds and dried leaves of the plant genus, Digitalis, which includes the foxglove. Native to Britain, the purple foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) that can bear as many as 80 separate flowers on one single stem is quite conspicuous in woodland clearings. It was from this plant that the drug was originally derived providing a lifeline for many people.

The Mexican yam (Dioscorea composita) sounds a most unlikely pharmaceutical source. However, thanks to the discovery of the chemical diosgenin, the now widely used contraceptive pill was developed. While aspirin, the world’s most well known drug stems from a chemical blueprint supplied by willow bark. It is said that as long ago as the fifth century B.C., the Greek physician Hippocrates (known as the founder of medicine) used ground willow bark to ease aches and pains.

It is important, therefore, that we do not forget how important plants are to our existence. Primarily, they produce the oxygen that we breathe and support our life on planet Earth. Now, as scientists investigate other potential qualities, it is alarming to realise that many species are destroyed before their full value has been estimated.

Extinction of animal and plant species, due to natural processes, has taken place since the beginning of life on earth some four billion years ago. However it is the current trend of extinction due to human pressure and exploitation that gives cause for concern. According to The World Conservation Union (IUCN) recent calculations by leading scientists estimate that current extinction is somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 times greater than would naturally occur.

Habitat destruction is now the most important cause of species loss and is gathering pace at an unprecedented rate. People who care about woodlands and wildlife are not cranks or eccentrics that they were branded a few years ago. They are people who have found a treasure trove of natural wealth that needs to be conserved for the ultimate benefit of all living things, including mankind.

We tend to overlook the value of our wild or semi-wild species. Earthworms, for instance, play a major part in moving soil in our gardens. Without wild bees, honey bees and other insects, seed pollination would be impossible and yields of fruit would be drastically reduced. True maintenance of many of our crop plants is possible only because we have kept available their wild relatives. The genetic material obtained is the key to overcome disease or predators that a crop may face.

But it must be remembered that with any loss we lose a possible vital source of food or a medicine. It was the rosy periwinkle in Madagascar that pointed the way to hidden genetic riches for the treatment of leukaemia. At first 500 tonnes of plant material had to be processed to extract one kilogram of drug. Later, a West Indian variant was found to contain 10% more of the alkaloid chemicals needed, thereby improving the production process.

As research continues, further developments will take place confirming that plants, which can save human life, are a wealth indeed. Given that tremendous numbers are also required for the manufacture of a particular drug, then conservation of as many individual plants as well as the different species is vital.

The pygeum (Prunus africana) tree was nearing the brink of extinction. International demand for pygeum bark, a remedy for prostate disorders and said to help prostate cancer, has caused over-enthusiastic harvesting. This, coupled with indiscriminate poaching, is why the tree is now listed under Category II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). This means a controlled trade in the tree is allowed but exporting countries must demonstrate that the tree has been legally obtained from a sustainable source.

The pygeum tree takes 15 to 20 years to produce seeds. An additional 12 to 15 years are needed to produce bark containing the active ingredients for the treatment of prostate disorder. This is not unusual as many plants are extremely slow to mature including, for example, wild orchids.

Scientific research, however, has provided a technological breakthrough for Prunus africana whereby the time taken to produce seeds will be shortened to three years. The fact that this research can also be applied to other fruit trees proves the value of investigation for new information. However, to compile a powerful knowledge base from a gathering of all the vital components requires many different types of worldwide research.

But time is running out for some species and sadly, maybe a possible cure for some future patients will go with them. We need to know that our loved ones, faced with the challenge of advanced disease, will benefit from as much research and development into medicines that is humanly possible.

To bring together, in one area, over 100,000 plants representing 5,000 species from many of the climatic zones of the world is an inspiration. In the year 2001 an ambassador was born to make strides in ensuring that our life support system does not break down. It is called the Eden Project; an evolving, visual encyclopedic-experience where every man, woman and child can play a part. In England and in the county of Cornwall, the people are proud to be at the leading edge of such innovative thinking.

Visitors to the Eden Project will be able to encounter many aspects of this treasure trove of natural wealth that has been bestowed on our planet. Just one memory taken home and nurtured is the beginning of participation to help in providing a stable life support system for future generations. As evolution takes place and development takes shape, each year will be different at Eden.

A visit to the Project offers many different features to observe and includes the progress of the small breeding programme of endangered species, including the pygeum (Prunus africana) tree. Maybe the whole experience will encourage us all to adopt ideas into our own environment and therefore take a more active part in this living world while we have the chance. An Eden Project in every country to enjoy and educate at the same time should not be a pipe-dream; it has to be reality.

One vivid recollection, as in the case of the laughing little boy and his apple, shows how life can be extinguished so easily and so fast, making onlookers feel humble and helpless. Life is a precious gift but with this realisation there has to be an acceptance, to allow all forms to live together in harmony. For when we have an opportunity to help the treatment of advanced disease and possibly prevent a death, we should take it and become a part of the benefit that is called Eden.