Medicinal plants, have been discovered and used in traditional medicine practices since prehistoric times.

by John Bagnasco

Plants synthesize hundreds of chemical compounds for functions including defense against insects, fungi, diseases and herbivorous mammals. Numerous phytochemicals with potential or established biological activity have been identified. However, since a single plant contains widely diverse phytochemicals, the effects of using a whole plant as medicine are uncertain. Further, the phytochemical content and pharmacological actions, if any, of many plants having medicinal potential remain unassessed by rigorous scientific research to define efficacy and safety.

In 1852, scientists were able to synthesize salicin, an active ingredient in willow bark, for the first time. By 1899, Bayer modified salicin into a milder form of acetylsalicylic acid and launched aspirin into our modern world. Although many medicines have been produced from plant extracts, chemists sometimes find that the synthetic versions do not carry the same therapeutic effects or may have negative side effects not found when using the whole plant source. 40 percent of the drugs in the pharmacy are derived from plants that people have used for centuries, including the top 20 best selling prescription drugs in the United States today. For example, licorice root, Glycyrrhiza glabra, has been an ingredient in cough drops for more than 3,500 years. The species native to the United States, Glycyrrhiza lepidota, has a broad range from western Ontario to Washington, south to Texas, Mexico and Missouri. The leaves and roots have been used for treating sores on the backs of horses, toothaches, and fever in children, sore throats and cough.