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
MODERN USES OF DRUG PLANTS
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
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.
grandam's "roots and yarbs" are out of date.
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Update: June 2012