Medicinal Plants: An Introduction

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a Cherokee hunter living on the wide open plains of the American west.  You and your brothers have embarked on a long hunting trek in search of big game.   You must move efficiently, and light, and you must subsist on the land along the way, carrying as few provisions as possible.

You arrive at a river, and collect an assortment of edible plant parts for food: cattails, wild berries, dandelion roots and leaves, wild seeds.  This, plus your satchel filled with pecans, sunflower seeds, and dried corn flour, will provide a nutritious and energy-packed meal throughout the day.  You then pick up your track, and continue the hunt, equipped to restore to the body the energy you are expending on your trek.  However, your trek continues long into the night, and the herd is moving faster than you expected.  Time and distance are beginning to work against you, and you are starting to feel exhausted.

A brother finds a stand of Yaupon Hollies among a cluster of oak trees near a small creek.  He breaks off several stems while you quickly prepare a small fire.  Another brother prepares a ceramic bowl with water and places it over the fire with rocks.  You roast the Yaupon leaves over the fire, and add the leaves to the steaming water.   When this roasted-yaupon leaf tea is finished, and cooled, your brothers drink this tea, extinguish the fire, and move on into the night.  And you did this because you knew that yaupon leaves contain a special kind of “energy.”

This “energy” is know to modern science as caffeine.  So, in effect, this “hunter’s tea time” is kinda like the equivalent  of a stop at Starbucks on the way to work.  The Yaupon tea doesn’t really provide any nutritional energy.  The leaves contain a secondary metabolite that is a chemical analog of a special kind of neurotransmitter in the human nervous system.   Modern science has defined this secondary metabolite as “caffeine”, and of course we know of many other plants that produce caffeine.  In Asia, the Camellia genus of plants is known to produce caffeine, among other beneficially healthful chemicals.   Green Tea, and Camellia-based teas are known and consumed the world over.  In a similar vein, the plant Theobroma cacao native to the Central American tropics, contains caffeine, among over 60 other secondary metabolites.  The seeds of this plant were fundamental to Mayan mathematic and economic systems.  The fresh seeds were added to chilies and a host of other aromatic spices to produce a frothy beverage that was consumed by the greatest Mesoamerican kings of Pre-Columbian history.   Today, we call this chocolate.

And of course, no mention of caffeine would be complete without a quick nod to that morning cup o’ joe.  The seeds of the plant, Coffea arabica, are roasted, ground, and pressed into a rich, watery “tea”, and consumed the world over by people needing a stimulating neurological boost before work.

Thus, it is clear how the secondary metabolites of plants can be used to enhance the function of individuals within culture and improve the survivability of both.  This is not just an occasional trend; this is a trend that has occurred throughout our existence on this planet.   Plants are not just integral to our dietary subsistence needs, but to the cultural/medical/spiritual needs of our mind and body as well.  Chocolate was, in a way, a “divine” substance to the Maya and Aztec people.  Erythroxylum coca was likewise a divine leaf to the Andean and Incan people of north western South America where it provided a pharmaceutical adaptation to life in high-altitude environments.  Archaeologists have found Ephedra and Hemp seed residues in ancient burial sites across Asia and western Europe.   Opium was a major commodity traded along the Silk Road.  These are all plants that do not in all cases provide dietary subsistence resources, but perhaps something even more valuable than that, the resources of a spiritual/ medical/ economic nature that effectively enhances social organization.

In the early twentieth century, scientists began studying opiate drugs to determine more precisely how the drugs acted in the central nervous system.  This research led to the discovery of internally-produced (“endogenous”) opiates that scientists named “endorphins”, a shortened form of “endogenous morphine”.   Scientists were able to isolate the specific chemical molecules that acted on targeted neuro-receptor sites, and thus, drugs like morphine were developed that enhanced the survivability of patients and war-time soldiers alike.  Likewise, scientists isolated the specific chemical compound in Coca leaves, and developed amphetamines and analgesics used both in surgery and to keep war-time aircraft pilots alert during combat.

Aspirin was originally discovered in Willow trees (Salix genus).   The chemo-therapy drugs vinblastine and vinchristine were discovered in the plant Catharanthus roseus.  Anti nausea and anaesthetic drugs were originally discovered in a range of plants in the Nightshade family, include Belladonna and Brugmansia.   Today, scientists are developing drug compounds to treat pain and muscle spasms targeting endogenous CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors,  this discovery spurred by the investigation of the active chemical components of “marijuana” flowers.

Plants have been used by humans throughout history for diverse applications of medical treatment.  Yarrow was applied to battlefield wounds in the Roman era.  Dianthus was used in Europe as a blood thinner.  Wormwood was used in Europe, Asia, and Africa to expel intestinal parasites.  The addition of Turmeric in Asian-Indian food preparation is associated with lower incidents of heart disease and strengthened immune systems.   These plant compounds are effective because of the unique chemistry each contains, a chemistry that humans have learned to use beneficially over time.  This is as true today as it was 10,000 years ago.

All plants produce secondary metabolites to some degree, although the chemistry varies from species to species.  The diversity inherent to “medical botany” is often cause for immense confusion and skepticism.  To compound the matters, the chemistry of each plant changes over the course of the plant’s life cycle.  Plant chemistry can vary according to seasonal changes, lunar cycles,  day length cycles, and even during the course of a single day.  After a compound is harvested, the potency of a chemical might degrade quickly over time.  There are numerous obstacles like these that keep science from fully embracing botanical pharmacology.  The perceived natural “randomness” of botanical medicine is difficult for the objective lens of science to measure.  Thus, we in the modern world tend to be skeptical of plant medicines, a skepticism deeply rooted in our ignorance.   But, this skepticism is without warrant.  On the contrary, it is holding modern medicine back.

It use to be that embedded within a cultural population were specialists whose central role was to study and understand botanical chemistry and pharmachology.  The specialists relied on knowledge passed down through the generations, this representing  a database of knowledge encompassing a deep span of time.  Every region had its own native plant population, and each plant had its own special chemistry.  Indigenous specialists understood the chemistry inherent to these plants, and often (but not always) shared this knowledge and material in trade with other cultural bodies.  By enhancing group cohesion and survivability, this helped reinforce spiritual/ religious and economic systems that provided the foundation for the agricultural revolution and the rapid expansion of human civilization.

Today, we live at the growing pinnacle of this social/ botanical co-evolution.  We are just as dependent on plants for food and medicine as we were thousands of years ago.  The difference, however, is in the quality, distribution, and reduced diversity of material that we use.  We no longer recognize a professional class of people that specialize in botanical pharmacology.   These have been replaced by modern doctors that might not know anything about raw botanical medicines, how they can be used, or possible negative drug interactions with contemporary pharmaceuticals.

When it comes to plant medicines, we have lost or forgotten much of what humanity once knew about them.  Retrieving this data will truly be a monumental effort.  It will take hard work and dedication; this will not be an easy task.  It is, however, a task worth doing, and I might argue, a task essential for the future of humanity on Earth.  I do believe that the solution to our modern health care problems will take the form of a hybrid system that utilizes natural medicines and contemporary pharmaceutical knowledge.    But, this system has to be built from the ground up.  And really, this system begins and ends with personal responsibility.

Botanical Solutions

Imagine that you are a Roman foot soldier battling barbarians on the northern frontier. Your army just won the day’s battle, but your arm has been pierced by an enemy’s blade, and the wound continues to bleed. As you regroup with your legion, you stumble across a patch of blooming , fern-like wildflowers. You recognize them from the wisedom of your mother who told you the name of these wildflowers: “Achillea” – the flower of Achilles.

You grab a bundle of the flowers, and pick a bundle of leaves. You chew the flowers into a poultice, while you stuff the leafy stems into the bleeding wound in your arms. You spit the poultice out of your mouth, and apply it to the top of the wound. Then, you wrap your wounded arm in leather, and know that you will live to fight another day.


So, let’s fast forward our imaginations to the modern day.

You are a lawyer. On your way to the office, you wade through commuter traffic and fight to find a parking spot within walking distance of your office. On the way to the office, you must walk under construction scaffolding, and unbeknownst to you, six stories up, a construction worker spills hot coffee on himself, and knocks a piece of rebar down. You are admiring the landscaping across the street when the rebar hits your arm, causing a bleeding wound. Of course, being that you are a lawyer, this starts to get way more complicated. Suffice to say, the ambulance crew cleans your wound with all manner of chemical compounds, and before you know it, you are stitched up and back on your feet, ready to go to war with the construction contractor.

And since we’re using our imaginations, wouldn’t it be ironic if the flowering plants that the lawyer was looking at in the landscaping were Achillea (Yarrow) in full bloom?


Why “Botanical Solutions?”

Yarrow (Achillea) is a good example. The first story illustrates how a Roman soldier might have used yarrow for medical purposes in the battlefield. Today, science has provided the tools to better understand the meaning behind the historical references and mythological symbols of plants like Achillea/ Yarrow. (link)

Modern science has been able to show that the chemical metabolites of Yarrow contain specific astringent, anti-inflammatory, and pain-reducing qualities (for more on this, review the link above). An important difference between the two introductory stories is the expression of knowledge related to the chemical properties of Yarrow. In the first story, the Roman soldier possessed knowledge of the “medical” properties of yarrow. In the second story, we had to extend our imagination further to suggest that yarrow was even present in the scenario, but not recognized, and not utilized for its “medical” properties.

This is all conjecture. The point is, often, a solution to a problem is right at our feet. The question becomes, do we possess the knowledge required to see it?

Why do so many people go hungry when the earth sustains so much food?

Why do medicines get more expensive while the medicinal plants go unrecognized? Why are family farms struggling?

How does one grow their own food? How can you tell if a wild plant is edible? How can you tell if a plant is poisonous? How do you kill weeds? What weeds are edible? What are metabolites? How can I screen the view from my neighbor’s window, attract butterflies and humming birds, have flowers all year long, and still have a garden with foraging deer? How about in the shade?

A Marine that I worked with once told me that there are a thousand ways to solve any problem. Good advice from a good man. I live under the presumption (admittedly, one of many) that plants are the biological foundation of all higher life forms . So I follow this to arguably the best pragmatic conclusion that any given problem has a botanical solution.

And there you have it. Plant Fix- Botanical Solutions.

Ethnobotany and the Secret Life of Plants: Episode 1

Many times over the course of my work, I have been asked about my interest in gardening and botany in general. Depending on the situation, I generally provide one of two answers.

The common answer is casual. “I liked gardening and wanted to learn more.”

But the second answer, the real answer, is the one that I save for clients that I have worked with often. I became interested in plants because, as an anthropology major, I was interested in the way people of various cultures around the world use plants. Through the course of my studies I came to find that plants are a fundamental element of human society, and each culture has its own manner by which it interacts with the botanical world. And so, my academic focus shifted from anthropology to ethnobotany (via Mesoamerica, more on this later).

Ethnobotany is basically the scientific study of how people around the world use plants: plants as tools, as construction materials, and fibers, plants as color dyes for works of art and textiles, plants as food, and plants as medicine. The Harvard botanist Dr. Richard Evans Schultes is considered by many to be the founder of modern ethnobotany. Now, every science has it’s intellectual hero. Physics has Newton, Einstein, Planck. Chemistry has Robert Boyle. Music has Mozart. Ethnobotany has Dr. Richard Evans Schultes, and it was he that lifted the curtain on the secret life of plants. Unfortunately, only a few were paying attention.

Richard Evans Schultes is among the greatest academic geniuses of the natural world that only a few know about. Too bad too. His work is fantastic. He was the most perfect blend of a gardener and Indiana Jones there ever could be. He was charting ethnographic work before ethnographers knew what they were doing. He roamed the jungles of South America looking for isolated tribal people so that he might understand the plants they use. He took really good notes, and helped shaped the scientific classification of many previously unknown but important plants. Greater than all of that, he helped influence the way chemistry and pharmacology utilize plant metabolites for medical production. And did I mention that he was the most perfect blend of a gardener and Indiana Jones there ever could be?

After studying the work of R.E. Schultes, I became a fan. The anthropologist in me had dreams of traveling to remote parts of the Amazon to enter an indigenous culture and study their gardening methods. But, the blessed life that I live has not yet allowed this flight of intellectual fancy. So, the pragmatist in me has settled for gardening at home, and learning from the garden in the manner of a native living in the Amazon. The problem is, I live in Texas, and the soil and climate are much different. (In fact, they are almost opposites).

I have tried to grow many different plants. Many have died, but many more seem to live. I have learned that each plant has a specific window of requirements that it needs to live well. For some it’s more water, for others, it’s a lower soil pH. Every plant wants to grow in its own ideal climate, so the trick in gardening is changing the gardening environment to match the plants ideal growing conditions. And if one pays attention, the plant will show signs that tell the gardener what it needs. (more on this later).

One of the rewards of the garden is that it is a learning environment that can open up new possibilities for enhancing life. Gardens can provide food, and they can add spice to food. They can provide medicines, and can inspire new medical treatments. They can provide new color dyes to add to a painting, and create new forms of fuel. They can provide a habitat for wildlife, and they can create a peaceful place to relax and enjoy life.

This is why I garden. This is why I work, and why I learn, and desire to help others do the same. This is the long answer to the question of, “how did you get into gardening?” Sometimes, it’s just easier to say, “because I like gardening.” This is most certainly true, but please understand that plants have more to offer us than we can completely understand. For everything we currently know about plants as a collective culture, there remains much more that we do not know, simply because we haven’t acquired the proper knowledge. In other words, gardening and learning about plants offer a broad potential for expanding the way we use them, and enjoy our environment.

And, as the work of Dr. Richard Evans Schultes illustrates, plants have secrets. Guarded secrets, but important ones none-the-less (more on this later).