Wild Medicine
Healing Plants
Whether eaten off the branch, steeped, or applied, plants have long been revered for their curative properties. Learn how cultures past and present used their gardens as medicine chests.
Featured Plants
Foxglove
Digitalis purpurea

Many know foxglove for its enchanting, bell-shaped spring blooms. But don't be fooled--the foxglove plant is poisonous. Yet it contains powerful active chemicals that are used to treat heart disease.

Foxglove was first used as a medicinal plant in Ireland, where traditional healers employed it to treat headaches, paralysis, ulcers, and boils. In 1775 the English physician and botanist William Withering used foxglove infusions as a treatment for dropsy, a swelling of the legs due to fluid retention now known as edema, often associated with congestive heart failure. The medicine had an astonishing 65-80 percent success rate. Withering would never have used foxglove to treat dropsy if it weren't for the knowledge of local healers. By giving foxglove to his patients, Withering eventually deduced how to properly administer a non-toxic dose.

By the late 1800s, the active chemicals in foxglove were isolated in the laboratory. Studies showed that two particular glycosides in the plant's leaves caused the heart-regulating medicinal effects. Chemists named them digoxin and digitoxin.

Today chemicals derived from foxglove make up the active ingredients in drugs approved to treat congestive heart failure and congenital heart defects. These are available only with a prescription under a doctor's supervision, since incorrect doses can lead to severe complications.

Digoxin and digitoxin work to stimulate heart contractions, lowering the pulse rate and fortifying the heart muscle so that it pumps more blood per beat. The increase in blood flow has a diuretic effect.

In Ireland foxglove was known as "dead man's thimbles, as a warning against its toxicity. In England some dubbed it the similar-sounding "folks glove" as a nod to the "fairy folk" who lived in the woods where it grows. In Norway the plant was called "fox bell," since it was believed that evil sprites gave foxglove flowers to foxes to wear on their feet in order to pad silently around chicken coops.

europe
Origin
Europe
Uses
Increases heart strength
Useful part of plant
Leaf
Opium Poppy
Papaver somniferum

While the lovely flowers of the opium poppy may seem delicate, the plant contains many powerful chemicals. Because of this, opium poppy has a long and storied history.

Opium poppies are among the first plants ever cultivated. In China the plant has traditionally been used to treat headaches, asthma, and diarrhea. When the plant's main active chemical, morphine, was isolated in 1803, it was lauded as one of the greatest medicinal discoveries in history. Today doctors use the chemicals from opium poppies to treat severe pain and to suppress serious coughs. When the trademark flower falls off the poppy's stalk, it leaves behind a round casing, which becomes the opium fruit. The white latex in the fruit is the most common source of opium.

Opium poppies contain more than 20 active chemicals, which include morphine, codeine, noscapine, and papaverine.

Opium poppies appear throughout Greek and Roman texts as a medicine for dulling sorrow and pain. Paracelsus, a Renaissance herbalist, wrote that opium poppies could make their user immortal.

In 1803 morphine became the first alkaloid ever isolated when a German scientist extracted it from opium poppies. By processing the chemical in acid and then in ammonia, he produced morphine.

In 1827 the German pharmaceutical company E. Merck & Company first began to manufacture commercial morphine.

During the Civil War, both the Union and Confederate armies grew opium poppies to combat dysentery and to dull pain from injuries.

While opium has many useful medicinal qualities, it is also highly addictive. Its abuse has led to many legal restrictions on the substance around the world. It is the source of heroin, a dangerous drug.

Almost 200 tons of medicinal opioids are consumed each year around the world.

In 2010 Canadian geneticists isolated the specific genes in the opium poppy that produce morphine and codeine. Researchers hope to be able to produce synthetic versions of these chemicals, decreasing dependency on opium poppy plants.

southwestern_asia
Origin
Southwestern Asia
Uses
Relieves pain, Sedation
Useful part of plant
Fruit
Belladonna
Atropa belladonna

German chemist Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge is credited with discovering the chemical atropine in belladonna. As a boy in 1809, Runge accidentally got a drop of belladonna extract in his eye, which caused it to dilate. In 1833 Runge isolated atropine, belladonna's principal active chemical.

Although it is highly poisonous, belladonna has been used for centuries for medicinal and cosmetic purposes. In Renaissance Italy, women dropped juice from the berries into their eyes to make them dilate. This was considered elegant, but could also cause blindness over time. One story claims that this is how the plant received its common name, which translates to "beautiful woman."

German physician Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843) used a dilution of belladonna to treat scarlet fever. Hahnemann was best known as the founder of homeopathy, the practice of treating a condition using a remedy that can cause the same ailment in a healthy person.

The name "belladonna" could also come from the belief that it was dangerous to even look upon the plant, as if it were a witch bestowed with beguiling powers.

The botanical name Atropa comes from the name of the Greek goddess Atropos, the Fate who cuts the thread of life. This symbolized the ability of belladonna to kill very easily.

Traditionally people used belladonna as a sedative and pain reliever. The plant also possesses aphrodisiac and hallucinogenic properties.

europe,%20northamerica,%20western%20asia
Origin
Europe, North Africa, and western Asia
Uses
Dilates pupils, Numbs pain, Relaxes muscles
Useful part of plant
Leaf, Berry, Root
Pacific Yew
Taxus brevifolia

The discovery of the medicinal qualities of Pacific yew took place less than three miles away from The New York Botanical Garden. Taxus brevifolia was one of hundreds of species gathered in a U.S. government research effort to find a botanically based drug that inhibited cancer cell growth. The researchers found the active chemical paclitaxel in yew bark. Molecular pharmacologist Dr. Susan B. Horwitz of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx discovered how these chemicals fight cancer.

Paclitaxel combats cancer by stabilizing the part of the cells that controls their shape in order to stop tumors from forming. Dr. Horwitz's discovery led to animal testing and then human clinical trials, which began in 1984.

Native Americans viewed yew as "the chief of trees. They used its bark to manufacture bows; the tree served as a symbol of battle. Traditional medicinal uses of Pacific yew included causing sweating and improving lung health.

In July 1960, botanists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded by the National Cancer Institute-began to gather samples from thousands of plant species in an effort to find a botanical anticancer drug. By 1964 laboratory tests had confirmed that yew bark contained properties toxic to cell production.

In 1966 the active compound paclitaxel was first isolated from Pacific yew bark.

Both paclitaxel and anticancer drugs derived from rosy periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) affect cell division, but paclitaxel stops the decomposition of cells, while the chemicals in rosy periwinkle inhibit the production of cells.

When the new drug first appeared on the market, there was controversy about its impact on the environment. At the time, 360,000 Pacific yews had to be harvested per year in order to meet the demand. In 1994 the drug was synthesized from a related chemical found in the abundant European yew (Taxus baccata), minimizing conservation concerns.

west%20coast%20of%20america
Origin
West Coast of North America
Uses
Cancer treatment
Useful part of plant
Bark
Willow
Salix alba

Willow bark has been used for thousands of years to treat aches, pains, fevers, and other flu-like symptoms. Today many people take aspirin for relief from pain and fever and as a preventive measure against heart disease and stroke. Salicin, a chemical closely related to aspirin, naturally occurs in willow bark and some other plants. This active ingredient was first discovered in 1828, and soon afterward pure salicylic acid was distilled in the laboratory. Salicylic acid was a very effective pain-relieving drug, but also brought with it the risk of stomach upset and ulcers.

In 1899 the Bayer company in Germany altered salicylic acid to create acetylsalicylic acid, which is safer for the stomach. Although all aspirin available for purchase today is this synthetic form, the man-made drug would never have existed without having its chemical roots in a natural remedy.

Traditionally, willow was administered as an infusion made by boiling the bark in water and drinking a cup three times a day. Making a tincture of willow bark in ethanol was also a common mode of administration.

A 4,000-year-old Sumerian tablet detailing medical prescriptions contains the symbol for willow numerous times.

Aspirin is thought to work by blocking the body's production of prostaglandins, which cause inflammation and blood clotting.

europe_and_asia
Origin
Europe and Asia
Uses
Relieves pain, Reduces fever
Useful part of plant
Bark
Ashwagandha
Withania somnifera

Known for its remarkable stress-fighting ability, ashwagandha is a powerful adaptogen, which means that it helps the body to better handle stresses of all kinds. Called Indian ginseng, ashwagandha is used in the same way as true ginseng: tonics are made of ashwagandha root to combat fatigue, pain, and other conditions that affect the entire body. The plant is principally cultivated for medicinal purposes in India, where it is one of the best-known remedies in the ancient Indian Ayurvedic healing tradition.

The active chemicals in ashwagandha are complex and still being studied. The main group of medicinal chemicals is called withanolides. Laboratory tests have shown that withanolides can reduce inflammation, fight infection, and even combat tumors. Much more research needs to be done to determine if the chemicals in ashwagandha can be used in commercial medicine to treat conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, and cancer.

Ashwagandha has velvety leaves and dark- orange berries that grow in brown, paper- thin sheaths. Wet leaves are applied to the skin to soothe pain and to treat wounds and other topical conditions.

Ashwagandha contains high levels of iron and can increase red blood cell production.

The root has a sedative effect. Some believe that ashwagandha can induce states of hypnosis.

A member of the nightshade or potato family, ashwagandha grows as a weed in many regions. It is also known as winter- cherry.

africa_asia_southeastern%20europe
Origin
Africa, Asia, and southeastern Europe
Uses
Adaptogen
Useful part of plant
Root, Leaf
Jaborandi
Pilocarpus pennatifolius

The Tupi people of the Amazon gave this plant its common name, which means "slobber weed." Jaborandi causes salivation and sweating and has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. In its native Brazil, local people chew the large, dark-green leaves to break fevers, detoxify the body, and help alleviate water retention in diabetics.

The chemical pilocarpine, found in jaborandi leaves, is the active ingredient in drugs that treat severe dry mouth in the elderly, in chemotherapy patients, and in sufferers of Sjögren’s syndrome, a disorder of the immune system that affects the salivary glands and tear ducts. Pilocarpine also helps drain fluid from the eye and is the active ingredient in U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved medicines for glaucoma.

The indigenous peoples of the Amazon used jaborandi as a helpful antidote to many poisons. If a daring experimentalist was poisoned by a fruit he had never eaten before, he could chew jaborandi along with other plant species to help purge the toxins. This use makes jaborandi not only a medicinal plant in itself, but also a plant that has helped in the discovery of botanical remedies.

Jaborandi contains the active chemicals pilocarpine and jaborine. Pilocarpine is what causes salivating and sweating, while jaborine increases heart rate. Pilocarpine can be toxic, but is not present in jaborandi in high concentrations.

In 1873 a Brazilian doctor transported the first samples of jaborandi to Europe. Two years later, scientists in both France and England independently discovered pilocarpine in the plant.

In Latin America, jaborandi is used as a lathering agent in many commercial shampoos. In Brazil it was once believed to help prevent baldness.

When pharmaceutical uses of jaborandi were discovered, the plant was in such high demand that it was in danger of being overharvested. Pharmaceutical companies elected to grow jaborandi on plantations to ensure a ready supply and protect it in the wild.

brazil
Origin
Brazil
Uses
Reduces ocular pressure, Increases salivation
Useful part of plant
Leaf
Ephedra
Ephedra

Ephedra has likely been used as a medicinal plant since prehistory. Archaeologists discovered ephedra pollen in a burial site in Iraq that dates back more than 60,000 years. The plant is best known for the integral role it plays in traditional Chinese medicine. Called ma huang, ephedra has been used for thousands of years to help alleviate the symptoms of asthma, allergies, coughs, and colds. Today the chemical ephedrine is present in various decongestant drugs; these products are highly regulated for sale.

The effect of ephedrine on the human body is comparable to that of adrenaline: it raises heart rate and blood pressure. In some cases ephedrine is a more desirable drug than adrenaline, since it can be taken orally.

Ephedra is most widely known as the active ingredient in many weight loss and athletic performance enhancing drugs. These drugs have been banned in the United States due to the risks of high blood pressure with abuse. Ephedrine is now a banned substance in professional athletics.

Native Americans and early settlers used the wild American varieties of ephedra to create an infusion to treat venereal disease.

Until the 1950s, ephedrine was the treatment of choice for asthma in the United States. After that, its use declined in favor of therapies with fewer stimulant side effects.

Most of the ephedrine that is available commercially today is not derived directly from the ephedra plant. It is produced synthetically in laboratories and given the name "pseudoephedrine.

In Pakistan ephedra is traditionally combined with chewing tobacco to add to its stimulant qualities.

india_and_china
Origin
India and China
Uses
Opens airways, Stimulant
Useful part of plant
Stem
Kava
Piper methysticum

What is truly important about this plant lies beneath the soil. Pacific Islanders use ground kava root to create a potent drink called kava-or sakau, awa, or yaqona, depending on the nation-which symbolizes good will. Held in high regard in many of this region's cultures, the kava drink is offered to foster friendship, to celebrate events such as weddings and births, and to commemorate the dead at funerals. It is served at most functions in coconut shell cups. On some islands, the drink is made by wringing the liquid out of pounded fresh kava root, while in other places people make the drink from dried and powdered roots.

he medicinal effects of kava are apparent within a few minutes of consumption-the beverage releases tension in the body, and people become relaxed and less inhibited. Scientists are testing this plant for clinical applications such as treatment of sleep disturbances, anxiety, and stress.

Kava's botanical name means "intoxicating pepper".

Kava was given its botanical name by the naturalist Georg Forster, who accompanied British explorer Captain James Cook on his second voyage to the Pacific from 1772 to 1775.

The chemicals in kava that relieve pain and relax muscles- dihydrokavain and dihydromethysticin-are at least as strong as aspirin. They are known as kavalactones.

Since kava numbs on contact, it is used as a local anesthetic.

Esteemed visitors to many Pacific Islands are offered the kava drink as a sign of welcome. Many well-known world leaders have participated in this ritual, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, President Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, and Pope John Paul II.

Researchers believe that this plant holds great promise for treatment of anxiety. Integrative practitioners-health care providers who employ both evidence-based traditional and modern methods-report successful treatment of anxiety with kava compounds.

vanuatu_in_melanesia
Origin
Vanuatu in Melanesia
Uses
Sedative
Useful part of plant
Root
Cacao
Theobroma cacao

Cacao is the source of chocolate. The plant's botanical name, Theobroma, means "food of the gods." The tree's seeds, known as beans, are the source of chocolate, which has been prized for its healing qualities-and its great taste-for centuries.

Today chocolate is a sweet treat. In terms of medicinal value, however, not all chocolate is created equal-the higher the cacao content, the better. The Kuna people, descendants of the Maya, live on islands off the eastern coast of Panama. Their population has almost no traces of hypertension, which researchers attribute to the lightly processed form of cocoa that the local people drink up to five times a day. Those who have moved to Panama City, where only heavily processed cocoa is available, do not seem to have the same level of protection from heart problems.

The chemical theobromine was first discovered in cacao beans by a Russian chemist in 1841. It dilates blood vessels, which can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart attack.

The Maya were the first to make chocolate as a beverage, which they called xocoatl. They used cacao beans as a form of currency and reserved the beverage for royalty.

Beginning with the Maya and the Aztec, Central Americans have used cacao for centuries to treat the pains of pregnancy and childbirth, fevers, and coughs.

Christopher Columbus brought cacao to Spain in the early 1500s. The popularity of this exotic beverage led the conquistadors to monopolize its trade after their arrival in Mexico in 1519.

The first record of chocolate sales in Britain is in 1657, when a Frenchman opened a shop in London that sold solid chocolate to be made into the beverage.

By 1765 chocolate manufacture began in the American colonies in Dorchester, Massachusetts, using cacao beans imported from the West Indies.

People have been eating the sweetened chocolate we know today only since the 19th century. In 1847 the British company Fry and Sons combined cocoa butter, sugar, and chocolate liquor to create dark chocolate. In 1876 milk chocolate was born when a Swiss confectioner added dried milk to the concoction.

mexico_and_south_america
Origin
Mexico and South America
Uses
Dilates blood vessels
Useful part of plant
Seed
Curare
Chondrodendron tomentosum

Curare is the most important source of dart poison. Hunters in the Amazonian rain forest extract and purify the chemical by boiling the woody vine to create a thick, tar-like substance, which is the basis of the concoction they dab on the tips of their hunting arrows and spears.

Doctors found a use for curare, too: the chemical in curare- tubocurarine-paralyzes patients' muscles without stopping their hearts. Procedures such as surgery, electroconvulsive therapy, and the setting of bone fractures were all historically helped with curare treatment accompanied by pain-relieving anesthetics. More reliable paralytics, however, are generally used today.

The first American to collect curare for medicinal use was Richard C. Gill. After being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1932, Gill heard that the muscle-relaxing qualities of curare could help his worsening paralysis. He led an expedition to the Ecuadorian rain forest and collected a large amount of the vine, some of which was sent to botanist Boris Krukoff at The New York Botanical Garden for identification. Their combined efforts eventually led to its establishment as a medicine, not for multiple sclerosis, but for other muscle conditions. A specimen of curare that Gill collected is still held in the Garden's William and Lynda Steere Herbarium.

15th- and 16th-century European explorers Christopher Columbus and Sir Walter Raleigh told stories of men on their voyages in the Americas being killed by the "evyll frutes" of curare. Its potency gave the natives' weaponry a seemingly supernatural power over the Europeans' guns.

In 1912 a German physician and physiologist made the first documented attempt to use curare during a patient's operation.

In 1939 an American psychiatrist was the first to use curare during electroconvulsive therapy to prevent involuntary injuries during the procedure.

In 1941 Harvard botanist Richard Evans Schultes found that some indigenous recipes for arrow poison used up to 15 ingredients, including other species of plants that produce chemicals similar to those in curare.

In 1942 the first synthetically made curare was administered during an appendectomy.

Arrow poison is not the only traditional use of curare. In Brazil and Peru, curare root is used as a diuretic and a fever reducer. Topically, curare can soothe bruises and contusions. Crushed curare leaves are applied to poisonous snake bites.

amazon_region
Origin
Amazon Region
Uses
Relaxes muscles
Useful part of plant
Stem
Ginkgo
Ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo is sometimes called a "living fossil"-it is the oldest extant tree species on earth. Trees in the ginkgo family have existed for almost 200 million years, and Ginkgo biloba is the last living species. One tree can live for a thousand years. Ginkgo leaves and their extracts have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for almost three millennia to improve blood flow to the heart and lungs.

Scientists have tested the effect of ginkgo extract on conditions such as memory loss, Alzheimer's disease, problems with concentration, dizziness, insomnia, mood swings, and weakness. Clinical trials have also examined ginkgo's ability to treat tinnitus (ringing in the ears), asthma, and leg pain in patients who tire quickly from walking. Some studies have shown favorable results, while others have not. There are currently no approved ginkgo-based drugs to treat these conditions.

Ginkgo is known for its fan-shaped leaves that turn bright- yellow in fall. The female trees produce foul-smelling, fleshy seeds that are prized in Chinese cuisine.

Ginkgo seeds are also used in Chinese and Japanese traditional medicine to calm coughs.

The word "ginkgo" is derived from the Japanese and Chinese words meaning "silver apricot."

The distinctive ginkgo leaf resembles the leaflets of the maidenhair fern, which is unusual because these two species are seemingly unrelated. Ginkgos produce seeds, while ferns do not. Some botanists think that ginkgo could be the missing link between seed-bearing plants and ferns.

japan_china_korea
Origin
Japan, China and Korea
Uses
Improves blood flow
Useful part of plant
Leaf
Tea
Camellia sinensis

Green, black, or white, all tea comes from the same plant. Today most tea drinkers enjoy it as a refreshing beverage, but many are choosing tea because of its medicinal properties. Tea leaves contain a high level of catechins, which are a strong type of antioxidant. Antioxidants help prevent oxidation, which changes the charge of molecules in the body and leave cells more susceptible to disease. Catechins also prevent cells from mutating.

Tea has other medicinal uses beyond those that come from drinking the beverage. Tea leaf products are often used topically to relieve certain skin disorders, since tea has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory qualities. Warm teabags can help soothe tired eyes, skin irritations, and pain. The first whole botanical drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration-meaning that it consists of a pure plant extract-is made from tea.

After water, tea is the most popular drink on Earth.

Chinese legend claims that the tea beverage was discovered almost 5,000 years ago when a Camellia leaf fell from heaven and landed in Emperor Shen Nung's cup of hot water.

Tea also contains caffeine, which makes the beverage stimulating, energizing, and a diuretic. The levels of caffeine in tea are quite low, however, when compared to plants such as coffee. Tea leaves contain about 4% caffeine by weight.

Each "color" of tea-black, green, and white-indicates that the leaves have been harvested and processed in a different way. Black tea is the most fermented of all teas, white and oolong teas are semifermented, and green tea is not fermented at all. Green tea therefore retains the most active ingredients and provides more health benefits such as lowering cholesterol.

Traditionally tea has been used to treat mild diarrhea and fatigue. The concoction is known to calm the stomach due to the astringent tannins that it contains. Herbal tea is not actually tea-it is an infusion of any kind made without leaves from the tea plant.

china
Origin
China
Uses
Antioxidant
Useful part of plant
Leaf
Rosy Periwinkle
Catharanthus roseus

Rosy periwinkle is not only a pretty garden plant. It is also the source of the powerful anticancer chemicals vincristine and vinblastine.

Rosy periwinkle has played a role in traditional medicine for centuries. In Indian and Chinese medicines, the plant has been used as a drink to treat diabetes, toothache, indigestion, and constipation. In the 1980s, anticancer properties were discovered during clinical research on rosy periwinkle's effect in the treatment of diabetes. In an experiment to see if rosy periwinkle could serve as a substitute for oral insulin, researchers found that the plant showed unexpected chemotherapeutic abilities.

Vincristine and vinblastine are highly toxic. While these chemicals inhibit the growth of cancer cells, they do not discriminate-they also stop production of normal cells. Yet many people in the Caribbean drink rosy periwinkle infusions freely without ill effects. This is because the concentration of these chemicals in a single rosy periwinkle plant is very low. Rosy periwinkle has the lowest percentage of an alkaloid per dry weight of any known plant. Over 15 tons of leaves make one ounce of the therapeutic medicine. In order to meet today's demand, the majority of plants used in medical production come from cultivated fields.

In 1958 scientists at the University of Ontario isolated vinblastine from rosy periwinkle. Soon after, a team of researchers isolated vincristine from the plant. In 1963 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the drug for widespread use to treat leukemia and other cancers.

Vincristine has increased the survival rate of childhood leukemia sufferers over the past 50 years from less than 10% to over 90%.

madagascar
Origin
Madagascar
Uses
Chemotherapy
Useful part of plant
Leaf
Ginseng
Panax ginseng

Ginseng-a popular ingredient in energy supplements-is an adaptogen. Adaptogens help the body holistically by reducing susceptibility to stress. Ginseng is perhaps the best known of these immune system boosters, and its efficacy has been shown in numerous clinical studies. The main chemicals in ginseng lower blood sugar, fortify the immune system, and stimulate the cardiovascular and nervous systems to improve physical and mental well-being.

Ginseng is most commonly administered as an infusion, which is made from the dried root. Ginseng's characteristic forked roots resemble a person's body, thus earning the plant the Chinese name jen shen, meaning "man plant." The Chinese traditionally use the plant to treat general weakness and to improve attention and endurance.

Wild ginseng root is so desirable that its overharvesting has led to a shortage, and that is why this specimen is protected by glass. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), which is very similar to Chinese ginseng, but less highly prized, has begun to take the place of Panax ginseng on the supplement market; its numbers are also dwindling. Manufacturers are developing sustainable harvesting methods to mitigate this ecological concern.

Legend suggests that in the 18th century Jesuits brought ginseng to the West. They claimed that all remedies in China included ginseng and that the plant was so sacred that the emperor controlled its distribution.

Ginseng's botanical name, Panax, comes from the same Greek root as "panacea." The name is a nod to ginseng's ability to improve the full scope of one's overall well-being.

Although ginseng is available in many popular energy and tea drinks, the amount of ginseng in these beverages is usually too low to have a significant effect.

A culture of hunting and poaching American ginseng has developed in its native Appalachia, where holes in the ground often signal that a ginseng thief has stolen the plant.

cina_and_korea
Origin
China and Korea
Uses
Adaptogen
Useful part of plant
Root
Cinchona
Cinchona

Gin and tonic got its start as a medical treatment. Tonic water contains quinine, one of the active chemicals found in cinchona bark. As early as 1825, British sailors in the tropics made their bitter medicine more palatable by combining quinine-infused tonic with cold water, sugar, lime, and gin.

The bark of cinchona has been in high demand since at least the 17th century, when the first Europeans in the Americas learned of its healing powers. It has traditionally been used to treat fevers, including those caused by malaria. Cinchona bark contains many chemicals, including quinine, which is the source of antimalarial medications. Quinine and its derivatives target the DNA of Plasmodium parasites, disrupting their ability to survive in the blood.

The New York Botanical Garden has a historical connection to cinchona. Dr. William C. Steere, director of the Garden from 1958 to 1972, hunted for cinchona in Latin America during World War II, when troops in the Pacific required protection from malaria. The plants found by Dr. Steere's team were used to produce essential wartime medications and to establish cinchona plantations.

In the 1600s, Jesuit missionaries observed Peruvians chewing cinchona bark to stave off the shivers they often got when working in Spanish mines. The missionaries then used the bark against the comparable shivers of malarial fevers.

The tree is said to be named after the Spanish Countess of Chinchón, who wrote of her recovery from a fever after having been treated with the bark.

In 1817 French chemists were the first scientists to isolate quinine in the laboratory.

In the 1930s, researchers manipulated quinine to create chloroquine and primaquine, the first effective synthetic antimalarial drugs.

Recently certain strains of malaria have become resistant to treatment. This has led to debate over whether drugs originating from the plant are more effective than a synthetic chemical.

In Venezuela today people use cinchona bark to help fight cancer, and Brazilians take it to reduce fatigue and stimulate the appetite.

central_and_south_america
Origin
Central and South America
Uses
Malaria treatment
Useful part of plant
Bark
Aloe
Aloe vera

Many people grow aloe at home and use it to treat burns. The substance inside the leaves has a sticky texture. When applied to cuts, burns, and other minor skin irritations, this gel can help reduce pain and speed healing. The three chemicals that give aloe its soothing properties are aloin, barbaloin, and aloe-emodin. Aloe can also help fight mild skin infections.

Aloe gel dominates the shelves in the beauty aisle. Over 250,000 gallons of gel are used each year in cosmetics and health products. While many processed aloe creams and gels are commercially available, the liquid extracted directly from the plant is an effective topical soothing agent.

Different cultures can use the same plant for very different medicinal purposes. Aloe, which is easily recognized by its spiny leaves, is important to many Latin American communities in New York City. While some Dominicans use aloe to treat asthma, Mexicans use it to soothe burns, and some Puerto Ricans use it to ease flu symptoms.

Aloe survives in arid desert environments by storing water inside its fleshy, gray-green leaves. The leaves have spines and grow directly out of the root.

The word "aloe" comes from the Arabic for "bitter and shiny substance."

When ingested orally, aloe has a laxative effect. Greeks and Chinese used aloe for this purpose thousands of years ago.

Recent clinical studies have tested aloe's ability to combat conditions like diabetes and leukemia. Some studies showed that aloe juice helped reduce blood sugar in women with Type 2 diabetes, while others did not show any link. Scientists have successfully limited the growth of leukemia cells in the laboratory and in mice using aloe juice, but no such effects have been seen in humans.

Depictions of aloe exist from as early as the time of Ancient Egypt. Carvings of the plant adorn the walls of temples.

africa
Origin
Africa
Uses
Soothes skin
Useful part of plant
Gel inside of Leaf
Citrus
Citrus

The effects of many medicines can change dramatically when combined with another drug or supplement. For patients who take statins to lower their cholesterol, grapefruits are literally forbidden fruit. Some citrus fruits, notably grapefruit, can alter the metabolism of such drugs. But when ingested alone, citrus has its own medicinal effects.

Many different species of citrus have healing qualities. Some of the best known are lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruits. These fruits are notably rich in vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant. Antioxidants help prevent oxidation, which changes the charge of molecules in the body and leaves cells more susceptible to disease.

The usefulness of citrus in combating vitamin C deficiency was established in 1747 by the British surgeon James Lind. He conducted the very first clinical trial on the sailors on his ship who were suffering from scurvy, a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency. He divided the men into different treatment groups, and those given oranges and lemons showed significant improvement.

Traditionally, citrus juices-primarily lemon juice-have been used to help treat mild colds and sore throat. The juice can also be applied to dry out the skin in order to treat topical conditions such as acne and sunburn.

After Lind's discovery, 18th-century British sailors drank citrus juice to maintain their health. Known as "limeys,"" these sailors actually drank lemon juice.

Today citrus peel and citrus oils are used to help with stomach complaints and sinus problems. The aromatic oils are used in aromatherapy to help clear congestion.

Citrus fruits contain the naturally occurring sugar fructose. Fructose is the most water-soluble of all sugars, making it easier to digest than sucrose, or table sugar. Fructose is also much sweeter than sucrose, so less of it can be used when sweetening a beverage.

southern_asia
Origin
Southern Asia
Uses
Antioxidant
Useful part of plant
Fruit
Tamarind
Tamarindus indica

The foods people eat have a significant effect on their health, although they are not strictly considered medicines. Tamarind, which adds its characteristic tangy flavor to a variety of Indian dishes, has been used for many different medicinal purposes over the course of history. People eat the fleshy pulp of the long, brown, crescent- shaped fruit to aid digestion. The pulp has antiseptic and astringent properties, and helps to smooth out the digestive tract.

The most common medicinal tamarind products contain either purified or dried fruit pulp. Purified tamarind pulp for medicinal use is made by dissolving the fruit in hot water, filtering the liquid, adding flavoring such as sugar, honey, lime juice, milk, dates, or spices, and then drying the thickened extract. This can be taken as a digestive or as a laxative.

Tamarind is an integral flavor in many different types of cuisines. The popularity of the fruit as a medicine is in part due to its delicious flavor.

200,000 pounds of shelled tamarind fruits are imported into the United States per year for medicinal use.

Tamarind pulp is used to treat liver problems and can help alleviate the symptoms of alcohol overdose.

In India a tamarind drink is prescribed to treat fevers. It can also be gargled to treat sore throat.

Tamarind fruit is used to treat stomach problems in elephants. It is also used as an ointment with butter to help rid dogs and cats of fleas.

A paste of tamarind and salt is rubbed into the skin to treat rheumatism.

Infusions made from tamarind root have been prescribed for leprosy.

Dried, boiled, and ground-up tamarind leaves, bark, and flowers can be applied as a poultice to reduce swelling.

tropical_africa
Origin
Tropical Africa
Uses
Antiseptic, Digestive
Useful part of plant
Fruit
Coconut Palm
Cocos nucifera

In addition to its high nutritional value and delicious flavor, coconut has many applications in healing. Nearly every part of coconut fruit is used medicinally: the juice, the meat, the seeds, the husk, and the oil.

Coconut water is perhaps the most widely used part of the fruit. It calms the stomach and is a diuretic. Coconut water, which is the juice inside the ripe fruit, contains many vitamins and minerals, including potassium and antioxidants like vitamin E.

Coconut oil is also a popular derivative of coconut fruit. It contains fatty acids, which have antibacterial qualities, and sucrose cocoate, which has moisturizing properties. Due to its antimicrobial and soothing qualities, coconut oil has many uses in cosmetics. It also serves as a carrier oil, meaning that it is a base for other oils, such as lemon or lavender, to be applied to the skin. Coconut oil can be found in makeup, soap, and creams for skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema.

Coconut water, the clear liquid found naturally inside the hollow fruit, is sterile. In the tropics during World War II, soldiers used coconut water as hydration in transfusions when medical supplies were scarce.

Coconut meat has a myriad of medicinal uses. Traditionally it has been used to treat fever, pain, digestive issues, bladder problems, and even as an aphrodisiac. When boiled, coconut oil can be applied to the skin to calm itching and burns.

Coconut seeds are used in China in skin treatments.

In southern Asia, fermented coconut water is used as a laxative. The people there also combine coconut water with rice flour and heat it, which creates a paste that helps heal skin ailments. Molasses mixed with ground coconut palm hearts is taken by women to regulate their menstrual cycles.

Coconut husks can be boiled to make a drink that reduces inflammation.

tropics
Origin
Tropics
Uses
Anti-inflammatory, Diuretic
Useful part of plant
Fruit, Palm heart
Saw Palmetto
Serenoa repens

Historically known as "old man's friend, saw palmetto has been among the top 10 bestselling herbal remedies in the United States since the mid-1990s. In 2011, $44 million worth of saw palmetto supplements were sold in this country alone. The fruit of the saw palmetto contains the active chemicals used in herbal therapies for symptoms of enlarged prostate, known medically as benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). Although the popularity of the treatment may seem recent, saw palmetto berries were used to treat urinary tract problems as early as the turn of the 20th century. The berries were also thought to be an aphrodisiac and were used to increase sperm count and libido.

The chemicals found in saw palmetto fruit inhibit the body's conversion of the hormone testosterone into dihydrotestosterone. Saw palmetto does not shrink the prostate as well as approved medications do, but it alleviates symptoms of enlarged prostate by working as a diuretic and reducing inflammation.

Saw palmetto is a palm. It has the characteristic fan-shaped leaves of palms, but no trunk. It produces clusters of wrinkled black berries, which contain the active chemicals used in herbal therapies for BPH.

Recent studies of the effectiveness of saw palmetto in treating symptoms of BPH have produced mixed results, but many reliable studies show that saw palmetto is significantly more effective than placebo. Another study showed that saw palmetto works just as well as a leading BPH drug, but with fewer side effects. The Maya used saw palmetto in herbal tonics. The Seminole people used the berries as an antiseptic and to make coughs more productive. Saw palmetto seed oil is rich in fatty acids.

The Maya used saw palmetto in herbal tonics. The Seminole people used the berries as an antiseptic and to make coughs more productive.

Saw palmetto seed oil is rich in fatty acids.

southeastern_US
Origin
Southeastern U.S.
Uses
Treats enlarged prostate
Useful part of plant
Fruit
Foxglove
Digitalis purpurea
Increases heart strength
Opium Poppy
Papaver somniferum
Relieves pain, Sedation
Belladonna
Atropa belladonna
Dilates pupils, Numbs pain, Relaxes muscles
Pacific Yew
Taxus brevifolia
Cancer treatment
Willow
Salix alba
Relieves pain, Reduces fever
Ashwagandha
Withania somnifera
Adaptogen
Jaborandi
Pilocarpus pennatifolius
Reduces ocular pressure, Increases salivation
Ephedra
Ephedra
Opens airways, Stimulant
Kava
Piper methysticum
Sedative
Cacao
Theobroma cacao
Dilates blood vessels
Curare
Chondrodendron tomentosum
Relaxes muscles
Ginkgo
Ginkgo biloba
Improves blood flow
Tea
Camellia sinensis
Antioxidant
Rosy Periwinkle
Catharanthus roseus
Chemotherapy
Ginseng
Panax ginseng
Adaptogen
Cinchona
Cinchona
Malaria treatment
Aloe
Aloe vera
Soothes skin
Citrus
Citrus
Antioxidant
Tamarind
Tamarindus indica
Antiseptic, Digestive
Coconut Palm
Cocos nucifera
Anti-inflammatory, Diuretic
Saw Palmetto
Serenoa repens
Treats enlarged prostate
Plant List

More than 500 species or cultivars of medicinal plants are showcased, most of them grown in the Garden's glasshouses, making this one of the largest exhibitions of medicinal plants ever mounted. See the full list.

sponsor-creds

Public programming during Wild Medicine is made possible with support from the Leon Lowenstein Foundation, Inc., and the New York Council for the Humanities.