Herbs that have changed the world
Plants and in particular Herbs have played a vital role in the development of mankind on this planet. Plants have not only helped create the atmosphere we breathe but continue to facilitate the continuing balance of our climate. Many herbs have revolutionized medicine, often creating fortunes for those who grow, harvest and trade them. Wars have been fought over the Opium Poppy – Papaver Somniferum – and still are in some parts of the world.
Foxglove – Digitalis purpurea
The foxglove a European wildflower, that is popular as a garden plant due to its elegant spires of flowers. Digitalis from the Latin digitus –for finger, because the flowers fit neatly over the fingers. Their use as a treatment for heart disease was discovered by William Withering an English doctor , who in 1785 after years of conducting clinical trials, published his findings that Foxgloves were a a cure for dropsy. Digitals purpurea and Digitalis lanata are both grown commercially for the pharmaceutical industry
Coca – Erythroxylum coca
The leaves of the Coca shrub found in the Andes of South America have been chewed by early peoples for over 2000 years. Coca leaves have been found in funeral urns from the pre-Inca period. Its use as an anaesthetic was first used in 1884. The alkaloid cocaine was discovered in 1860 and its social use in became popular in the 19 th century. One of the most popular drinks using Coca leaves was created by John Pemberton who in 1886 produced the “Intellectual Beverage and Temperance Drink” commonly known as Coca-Cola ! It wasn’t until 1902 that the coca extracts used in the drink were “decocainized”
Meadowsweet – Filipendula Ulmaria
Meadowsweet grows in profusion in damp meadows, alongside stream and rivers and is a native of Europe and Asia. The sap from Meadowsweet contains salicin an analgesic and was isolated for the first time in 1827 . When Bayer the pharmaceutical company formulated acetylsalicylic acid in 1899 it was named Aspirin after Spiraea ulmaria the old name for Meadowsweet. Aspirin is one of the world’s most widely used drugs and is recommended for over 40 different complaints.
Opium Poppy – Papaver Somniferum
Opium has been used as a medicine since Neolithic times, it is the ultimate painkiller. The Greeks dedicated Opium to the gods of night, dreams and death. It’s impact upon mankind is mixed ,whilst its ability to ease extreme pain is undoubted , its derivative heroin has caused as much pain to many millions in modern society. Before the poppy seed head fully ripens, the black poppy seeds produces a milky white narcotic sap from which, opium, morphine and heroin are derived. The opioid alkaloid cannot be synthesized, hence the continuing need to grow vast quantities of opium poppies to satisfy the legitimate pharmaceutical industry.
Rauvolfia – Rauvolfia serpentine
Mentioned in Hindu texts 2500 years ago, a tea has been made from the whole plant and used in India for treating madness, hysteria and restlessness. Rauvolfia can be found in tropical and sub-tropical regions and under glass in a few European Botanic Gardens. The plant contains a number of alkaloids, the most important being reserpine which has a tranquillizing effect. The alkaloids extracted from Rauvolfia have dramatically changed the treatment of psychotic patients and lead to the development of drugs to treat high blood pressure.
Autumn Crocus – Colchium Autumnale
Its extreme toxicity earned it the name of “vegetable arsenic”. As Paracelsus ( 1493- 1541) wrote “All substances are poisons: there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison and a remedy”. The Egyptians certainly used Autumn Crocus both as a medicine for gout and a poison. In recent years it is its ability to alter the genetic makeup of cells that is interesting scientists. Trials carried out in the UK showed that the alkaloid colchicines was able to slow the growth of a number of cancers.
Tea – Camellia sinensis
Tea made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis is believed to have been drunk in China and India for some 4,500 years. The small evergreen shrub grows across great swathes of India and China and as far north as the Black Sea, more recently a plantation has been producing tea in Cornwall. The ritual Tea ceremony began in China during the Sung Dynasty (AD960- 1279) from where it spread to Japan. Tea was first imported into Europe in the 16 th century by the Portugese. Tea is known to have many health properties from being an anti-oxidant, having antibiotic properties, increasing the metabolic rate to potential cures for cancer.
Quinine – Cinchona spp
The bark of the Cinchona tree was used to treat malaria during the colonial expansion of the 17th Century. The use of quinine in preventing malaria gave Europeans a huge advantage is being able to survive in the tropics whilst trying to establish their colonies. To this day quinine is contained in Tonic Water and is certainly why the daily Gin & Tonic was drunk for medicinal purposes! The huge demand for Cinchona bark severely depleted the wild sources in the 19th Century . The Dutch were successful in establishing plantations in Java, that became the centre for Quinine production, although these have now been replaced by the synthetic production of Quinine.