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

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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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