Pharma-farming: Can Real Medicine Come From Plants?

— by Jessica B. Turner and Daisy Simmons 

Real medicine only works when it’s made with complicated, manmade ingredients, right? Nope! For a closer look at our diverse options for healing, let’s head outside and explore Mama Nature’s surprisingly impressive pharmaceutical supplier: the mighty plant kingdom.

You heard us right—plants and the chemicals within them have the potential to save lives. For example, numerous anti-cancer drugs are derived from plants and trees, such as vinblastine and vincristine which come from the Madagascar periwinkle, and taxol, which comes from the Pacific Yew tree. In fact, right now in North America and Western Europe, plants are a key ingredient in 25 percent of all prescriptions.

With people living in poverty across the globe, increasing access to cheap healthcare is no small feat—and identifying effective plant-based medicine is a real part of the solution. To learn more about the power of “green” meds, we caught up with Aurélie Jacquet, an ethnopharmacologist (science speak for a person who studies how people use plants in traditional medicine—cool, right?) and a PhD candidate at Purdue University.

Putting the Tree in Treatment, or, the Many Wonders of Medicinal Plants

Billions of people (read: 80 percent of the world’s population) use plants as a source of medicine, sometimes in the form of a high-profile cancer drug, or as a simple extract used for a host of other healing properties.

But how do we know whether a plant-based remedy will actually work? A mix of modern scientific studies and anthropological investigations have shed light on the subject.

Jacquet-in-action
Even without her lab coat on, Jacquet’s always on the prowl for research-worthy plant specimens. (A. Jacquet)

Jacquet is doing her part to help add to that body of information. To identify new botanical superstars, she seeks out traditional healers and local people in the indigenous communities she studies across North America and Nepal to find out what plants they use that might have applications in treating Parkinson’s or cancer symptoms. Then she collects the plants in question and takes them to the lab to study how the extracts affect nerve cells (aka neurons) in the brain—where many Parkinson’s symptoms are first triggered.

Taking Stock of the Outdoor Medicine Cabinet

When the topic of medicinal plants comes up, we often hear comments like, “Well those are only in the rainforests, you can’t find amazing plants like that around here.” Turns out, you don’t have to hoof it to the jungle to find these magical plants—some of the “weeds” in your own backyard have been used for generations to treat illness and reduce pain (willow bark, anyone?)

For example, to treat symptoms related to Parkinson’s disease, the Blackfeet people in Montana use red clover, while the Lumbee in North Carolina use garlic. Indeed, back in her lab, Jacquet has found these plants to be effective in protecting neurons when exposed to toxins.

So, let’s take a little mental stroll outside. Do you see a small leafy plant called ginseng? Or, perhaps a shady willow tree? Surely you can find a few dandelions, right? If the answer is yes to any of the above, consider yourself botanically gifted. Here’s why:

American ginseng

pa's hand and ginseng
American ginseng is a small but mighty medicinal plant found in 36 U.S. states. (J. Turner)

It may look humble, but the root of ginseng is harvested from forests in the eastern U.S., sold for hundreds of dollars a pound, and shipped to Hong Kong, where it’s used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

⇒ Health benefits: Ginseng root is used to reduce tumor growth, regulate blood sugar, boost the immune system, and boost fertility.

⇒ Where it grows: Eastern North America.

⇒ How you can use it: Grind the dried root into a powder, then use as a tea or a tincture.

⇒ Fun fact: The reason ginseng is so popular in traditional medicine is because the root can sometimes look like a little human–serving as an example of the doctrine of signatures; that is, if you’re sick, you take/use a plant that looks like whatever is bothering you. Ginseng is called “manroot” because of its shape, and is often considered an adaptogen, a useful herb that helps support your body’s response to a variety of stressors. (However, don’t expect it to alleviate the problem of rush hour or get you a babysitter for Friday night…)

Willow

The lovely willow isn’t just a decoration at your local golf club or picnic spot—its bark is basically the inspiration behind aspirin.

⇒ Health benefits: Chewing on or making a tea from willow bark has been known to reduce fevers and treat pain. That’s ’cause willow bark is rich in the chemical salicin and small doses of salicylic acid. A little work in a chemistry lab can turn salicin to salicylic acid, and salicylic acid into acetylsalicylic acid, aka aspirin.

⇒ Where it grows: Across North America, Europe, and Asia.

⇒ How you can use it: Grind up the bark for tea.

⇒ Fun fact: Willow has been used medicinally since the time of Hippocrates in 400 BC—i.e., for more than 2,400 years!

Dandelion

dandelion
As long as they’re pesticide-free, these “weeds” can have some pretty lovely health benefits. (A. Jacquet)

This little unassuming weed, often the bane of gardeners, is packed with medicinal qualities, and, according to Jacquet, is used for a variety of purposes in traditional Native American medicine.

⇒ Health benefits: It’s the whole package! Dandelion roots can help treat diabetes or digestive disorders, the leaves and flowers are used to treat skin diseases, and the leaves provide a great source of vitamins.

⇒ Where it grows: Temperate regions worldwide (i.e., Places with all of the seasons: summer, spring, fall, and winter).

⇒ How you can use it: Make a dandelion leaf salad (even Emeril loves ’em!), or dry the root and leaves for use as a tea or a tincture.

⇒ Fun fact: This plant is not only medicinally valuable—recently scientists have been working on producing natural rubber from the milky sap of dandelions. (Flower-power tires, anyone?)

⇒ Warning: Only harvest dandelions from “clean” areas. If they are on a lawn, they may be contaminated with herbicides and pesticides.

That’s just the beginning. Check out a field guide to medicinal plants and let the healing adventures begin!

New Prognosis: It’s Time to Save the “Weeds!”

Medicinal plants are good for the environment—but the environment we humans have engineered around them isn’t always good for them.

Ginseng-Turner
Ginseng is pretty awesome — let’s keep it that way with responsible harvesting! (J. Turner)

First, if there’s a huge demand for a plant, such as ginseng, it can become increasingly rare—and possibly extinct—due to overharvesting. (Check out some recent research about all things ginseng conservation here.)

That’s why it’s very important to buy only sustainably harvested plants (this may mean buying commercially farmed or woods cultivated roots, or finding a small-scale dealer you can trust).

If you’re harvesting in the wild, stay away from plants that have legal protection, and harvest only 25 percent of legal ones, such as mature ginseng plants that have berries (and be sure to replant all of the seeds). Know how to harvest ethically. If you’re lucky enough to have ginseng in your backyard, watch this YouTube video to learn how to treat it right.

Second, land-use change is one of the biggest drivers of biodiversity loss. We are on the brink of the world’s sixth mass extinction, which won’t just affect biodiversity-rich places like the Amazon. Around the world, forests are being converted into farms, wetlands into malls, and, adding insult to injury, open space is being converted into cubicles. Seriously though, protecting habitat can be one of the best ways to make sure we keep plants around for future generations.

The morel of the story is that where there are people, there are plants with medicinal properties.

EcoMyth Outcome: Myth Busted

Health-boosting ingredients do grow on trees—and a cornucopia of other plants, from red clover to ginseng, and many wondrous things in between.

OneGreenThing-MedicinalPlants-EcoMyths

In fact, often plants we think of as weeds can have substantial health benefits, from boosting immunity to even fighting cancer.

One Green Thing

Grab a field guide before you go tearing up unwanted plants from your flowerbed, and appreciate the fact that not all weeds are bad—in fact, they could have incredible health benefits just waiting to be discovered.

Psst: Knowing how plants can be used connects you with the human experience (after all, humans have been using medicinal plants since at least 60,000 years ago), and having a good grasp on the medicinal benefits of plants will also prepare you to be the medic of your group if the zombie apocalypse happens. Just sayin’.

Multiplier Effect

If 100,000 people let five square feet of weeds grow in patches around their yards, we’d have along the lines of nine football fields worth of more biodiverse green areas.

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