Plants give us the very air we breathe. They supply most of our food from the most exotic fruits and exquisite spices to the blandest staples. Until relatively recently, plants provided people with shelter, most of their clothing, and most of the dyes that colored their clothes. They have always been cultural, social, and religious symbols—from the lucky four-leaf clover to the gap-toothed grin of a jack-o’-lantern. They’re sources of beauty, recreation, and—let’s not forget—medicine.
More than 90 percent of the medicines we get from plants are less costly to extract than to synthesize. The medicinal fraction nearly always represents less than 10 percent of the plant. Perhaps that 90 percent residue could be converted into power to supplement our dwindling supply of fossil fuels.
Numerous claims have been made over the ages for herbs. Many have been verified scientifically. The older I get, the more I find scientific rationales behind the folklore.
How does the plant perform its therapeutic magic? What does it do inside your body? In attempting to answer these questions, scientists like to look for easy answers—one key to the closet, one piece to the puzzle, one phytochemical compound. Perhaps as many as 95 percent of those phytochemicals have at least one distinct purpose that benefits the plant—and sometimes the plant’s predators (including you and me).
Conventional medicine uses at least 120 plant-derived drugs. In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved numerous herbs and botanical materials as over-the-counter (OTC) drug ingredients.
Psyllium seed husk (Plantago spp.) is what makes Metamucil work. Other common herbal ingredients in OTC products include the topical analgesic capsaicin (Capsicum spp.), the laxative senna (S. spp.), and the astringent witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).
The Power of Plants
While modern medicine uses a “silver bullet” approach (usually emphasizing one single phytochemical in plants), I prefer the multifaceted “shotgun blast.” Plants contain many bioactive compounds, long known to your genes. Such a mix of phytochemicals works at many levels and is much less likely to lead to drug resistance. The more you distill an herb down to one phytochemical essence, the more it resembles an unnatural, unbalanced drug capable of inflicting injury. Recent research shows that the mix of four pomegranate compounds is better than three, better than two, and even better than the strongest anticancer chemical, ellagic acid.
To learn more about the power of plants, visit my database (www.ars-grin.gov/duke) or www.herbday.org, sponsors of herb education programs around the country.
Foxglove (Digitalis spp.)
Ephedra (E. sinica)
Bronchial decongestants and dilators
Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)
Rauwolfia (R. serpentina)
Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia)