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Europe's Ancient "Magic" Plants: New Drug Sources?

James Owen
for National Geographic News
January 21, 2004
 
Two Belgian botanists have completed a piece of detective work to rival that of super-sleuth Hercule Poirot, their fictional fellow countryman.

Marcel De Cleene, associate professor at Ghent University in Belgium, and fellow ethnobotanist, Marie Claire Lejeune, combed thousands of sources, including old travelers' tales, fairytales, Greek classical writings, and medieval herbals, to produce the Compendium of Symbolic and Ritual Plants in Europe.

The result of a 20-year investigation, the English-language edition has now been published. It represents the first complete survey of the part played by European plants in agriculture, folklore, magic, religion, and herbal medicine.


Experts in how different peoples and cultures use indigenous plants, the field known as ethnobotany, believe the work could prove a catalyst for medical breakthroughs, putting scientists on the trail of new, life-saving drugs.

Michael Heinrich, head of the Centre for Pharmacognosy and Phytotherapy in London, England, said that while European ethnobotanists have focused on the rain forests of South America, Africa, and Asia in their search for new medicinal plants, those on their own doorstep have been largely ignored.

"The most exciting aspect of the compendium is the region it covers. It's amazing how little we know about the use of such resources within Europe," he said

Much else has been forgotten about Europe's ritual plants—even those we still use today. The Christmas tree, for example, harks back to a northern Germanic fertility festival and feast of the dead (Yuletide) when greenery was hung up in the home to warn off evil spirits.

Celtic Roots

Halloween and those ghoulish, carved pumpkins have their roots in an ancient Celtic festival. While the burning of incense, widespread in Roman Catholic churches today, was frowned upon by early Christians because heathen Greeks and Romans used incense (from frankincense trees) to communicate with their own gods.

Compendium author De Cleene said: "Western man is probably baffled by this use of plants in religion, as he is no longer aware of the crucial part nature played in pre-Christian religions."

He provides the following grisly example of just how seriously ancient Europeans took their plant-life. Germanic tribes punished those caught stripping bark from a sacred tree by cutting out their navel and nailing it to the damaged trunk. The accused were then made to walk around in ever-decreasing circles until their intestines wrapped the trunk.

De Cleene added: "The ancient magical reputation of plants still lingers on in present-day popular beliefs and medicine, in traditions, and even in common expressions"—like touch wood. "However, we hardly ever give this a moment's thought today, as we are no longer aware of its origin."

This is true of many old medicinal plants like the mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), an herb which grows around the Mediterranean.

In antiquity, the mandrake's root and berry were used widely as an anesthetic. Over time its painkilling properties gave the plant a magical aura. By the Middle Ages, it was used purely for magical purposes. Worn as an amulet, it was supposed to bring wealth, or make soldiers invisible to the enemy. This belief persisted into the 20th century; German troops still wore mandrake during the Second World War.

By the 1960s, technological advances saw mass produced, chemically-synthesized drugs become the chief source of medicines in the industrialized West. And while there's been renewed interest in alternative, herbal remedies over the past decade—reflected in a market growing by 10 percent each year in Europe and the U.S.—Heinrich says this trend isn't reflected in research by major drug companies.

Pharmaceutical Companies

Heinrich believes the reason why is that pharmaceutical companies tend to screen the most easily collected and produced source material (i.e., synthetic compounds) for potential new drugs. The typical process involves analysis of chemical compounds for pharmacological properties, which allows up to a million compounds to be screened in just a few months.

This poses a big problem for ethnobotanists, according to Heinrich. While an ethnobotanist might spend a year working in Mexico to identify 50 promising plant extracts, pharmaceutical industry researchers tend to be interested in collections that have at least 10,000 or 100,000 compounds or extracts, Heinrich said.

Despite this, some ritual European plants have already found their way into mainstream medicine. Ancient Egyptians chewed willow bark to relieve fever and headaches, while the Greek physician Hippocrates (460-375 B.C.) prescribed willow bark for rheumatic pains. Modern scientists discovered the bark contains salicylic acid, which in turn led to the invention of aspirin. Today, some 100 billion aspirin tablets are produced worldwide each year.

For Heinrich, this is a classic example of how science can bridge the gap between ancient plant lore and modern pharmacology.

He cites other examples. Galanthamine, first isolated from the Caucasian snowdrop (Galanthus woronowii), is at the forefront in the fight against Alzheimer's disease. An extract from the European yew tree (Taxus baccata) is being used to treat cancerous tumors.

In Heinrich's view, reconnecting with Europe's ritual plants could be extremely good for our health.
 

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