Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Modern Uses of Drug Plants
Nature Bulletin No. 599   April 9, 1960
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Daniel Ryan, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Department
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist

Some of us older people who were children on farms or in small towns remember when, each spring, we had to drink gallons of fragrant sassafras tea. Made by simmering bark from roots of that tree, it was considered a tonic "to thin and purify the blood". There were other teas and tonics -- some pleasant, some bitter as gall -- brewed from parts of various plants.

Our grandmothers had a long list of home remedies obtained from plants and used as cough medicines, as laxatives, or for stomach aches, fevers, rheumatism, asthma, boils, and other ailments. In pioneer days, doctors and apothecaries were as scarce as money. The early settlers, learning by experiment or from the Indians, gathered and prepared their own medicines -- mostly from native plants. From each plant they used a certain part for a desired cure: the leaves or the leaves and stems, the flowers, the fruits or seeds, the roots or the bark from roots. and the inner bark from trees and shrubs.

Some of those old remedies were beneficial and a few are still used. Many were worthless and some were even harmful. Some of those plants contain chemicals with medicinal values but not for the purpose intended Hundreds of them came to be classified as drug plants and were sold in drug stores.

A drug is any helpful substance used in medicines or in making medicines. During the 19th century and this one, the science of drugs and the science of chemistry developed together. Scientists separated vegetable, animal and mineral materials into their component parts and identified, in each, the part that acts on the human body -- the "active principle". Then they studied the chemical structure or "formula" of the active principle. As a result, in many cases, they became able to "synthesize" a drug: make an exact copy by putting together the chemical elements or compounds needed.

In general, synthetic drugs are cheaper to make. manufactured on a mass production basis, with less labor, they do not require plants from foreign lands or rare minerals. Atabrine, derived from coal tar as a substitute for quinine -- obtained from the bark of the cinchona tree and used to cure malaria -- is an example.

The United States Pharmacopoeia, first published in 1820, was designated by the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906 as the official list of drugs legally recognized in this country. An early issue of the U. S. P. listed over 600 items of plant and animal origin. The most recent issue only lists about 60. Drug Plants of Illinois, published by the Illinois Natural History Survey, describes almost 300 plants, growing wild or cultivated in this state, that were listed as official drugs or sources of drugs in early editions of the U.S.P. Only 24 of them are listed in the 1936 edition.

Today, the sale of antibiotic drugs--such as penicillin and streptomycin obtained from fungi -- tranquilizing drugs, and drugs for relieving high blood pressure, far exceeds in quantity and value the sale of strictly botanical drug items.

Nevertheless, certain plant drugs are still extremely important. Digitalis, from the foxglove, is best for controlling the muscle action of the heart. Curare, from certain tropical plants, is used by surgeons to relax muscle during operations. Strychnine, a nerve stimulant, is obtained from an Asiatic tree. Morphine, from the opium poppy, is used to relieve intense and prolonged pain. Rauwolfia, from the root of a plant in India, has been found recently to have great value as a tranquilizing drug and for treatment of high blood pressure.

But grandam's "roots and yarbs" are out of date.

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